By Gregory Brew
Bottom Line Up Front:
o Political rhetoric and Cabinet selections indicate that the Trump Administration will take a hard-line approach towards policy with Iran, up to and including the abrogation of the JCPOA. This is unlikely to secure American interests vis-à-vis Iran.
o A year after the articles of the JCPOA activated, the net effect has been largely to Iran’s benefit, as previously-restricted financial resources have been made available to the state and the economic opportunities they have allowed for, Iran has pursued them vigorously. Abrogating the deal and attempting to re-impose harsh sanctions, likely without the cooperation of the other signatory partners, whose assistance is not likely to be forthcoming in the current political climate, would not benefit the US or stop the current trajectory in Iranian policy.
o Rather than scrap the deal entirely, the United States should enforce it vigorously and maintain a commitment to ensuring Iran does not obtain nuclear weapons. Furthermore, efforts should be made to continue enhancing Iran’s integration into the global economic community, as well as greater levels of economic, cultural, and academic openness between the United States and Iranian society.
Scrapping the Iran nuclear deal would be an error in the short term: many economic benefits have already accrued to Iran since the deal was put in place, and such benefits would not be immediately reversed if the US backed out of the deal. The deal itself was also a major multilateral effort, and if the US were to withdraw, this alone would not compel Britain, France, Germany, China or Russia from doing the same. Preventing American companies from concluding deals with Iran would leave such economic opportunities open to foreign firms, while only worsening relations between Iran and the United States. American withdrawal would also encourage Iran to restart its nuclear weapons program.
The United States should stick with the deal, enforcing its statutes vigorously and ensuring that Iran comply with its articles. In the longer term, the United States could benefit more powerfully from greater openness between American and Iranian societies. This can be done through cultural exchange, academic cooperation, and economic integration. Returning to the previous sanctions without provocation, threatening to bomb Iranian military facilities, or attacking the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic in rhetorical terms, will only serve to strengthen anti-American elements in Iran while encouraging the Iranian drive towards obtaining a nuclear weapon.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was reached on 15 July 2015. The signatories were the United States and the permanent members of the UN Security Council, as well as the European Union and Germany. The deal was a limited agreement whereby Iran agreed to halt its nuclear weapons program and submit to regular inspections of its facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In return, onerous economic sanctions placed on Iran by the United States and other governments were lifted.
The US was clear that, sanctions would be “snapped back” with immediate effect in the event of a violation. In the more than a year since, Iran has mostly complied with the terms of the agreement by the estimates of the IAEA
Trump has changed the calculus. He has expressed his distaste for the deal on numerous occasions. The selection of James “Mad Dog” Mattis for Defense has raised further speculation from pundits regarding the new administration’s long-term intentions regarding Iran policy. Mattis has long been a prominent “Iran hawk,” arguing that the regime in Tehran is a major threat to the United States, and not a potential partner with whom to negotiate. Yet Mattis has expressed his belief that scrapping the nuclear deal would be a mistake, advocating instead that the US should take a harder line towards the Islamic Republic.
Despite the rhetoric, scrapping the nuclear deal would be a major mistake for the US. The terms of the deal were front-loaded in Iran’s favor. This was done in order to compel Iran’s early compliance to the deal. Foreign accounts, worth around $100 billion, were unfrozen. In January 2016 sanctions were lifted, and since then Iran has massively increased its oil production and entered into agreements with foreign companies, including oil contracts with Britain’s Shell and France’s Total. Deals are also underway with Boeing and Airbus for a fleet of new aircraft. These gains can’t be immediately reversed.
The Rouhani government agreed to the JCPOA and pinned an enormous amount of political capital on the deal improving economic conditions in the country. If Trump were to back out of the deal or abandon the approach of the Obama Administration, moderates like Rouhani would lose out to hard-line conservative Iranians who have hated the deal from the beginning and would be encouraged to re-start Iran’s nuclear program.
The primary goal for the United States should be the prevention of a nuclear Iran. The regime in Tehran is relatively stable and unlikely to be weakened through outside pressure. Long-cherished neoconservative ambitions to topple the Islamic Republic should be laid to rest. Nevertheless, the political climate inside Iran, much like that of the US, is starkly divided, including how open Iran should be towards the West and how much its economy, the second-largest in the Middle East, should be integrated with the rest of the world.
Though the JCPOA provides an easy target for US politicians looking to score political points, the deal represents a real barrier to the development of Iranian nuclear weapons. The Islamic Republic of Iran, regardless of US policy, remains a reactionary, ideological regime that will continue to be hostile to the US and deeply suspicious of American motives. However, to serve American interests best, the US should instead endeavor to nudge Iran away from the bomb and closer toward the global community, in the process encouraging the legitimately moderate elements within Iranian society and politics, and preventing the US-Iranian relationship from slipping toward open confrontation.