Withdrawing from the Iran Deal is a Catastrophic Error

The Iran Deal is not perfect. Major international treaties seldom are. However, monitoring experts, defence policy-advisors – including Donald Trump’s own Secretary of Defence, Ret. Gen. Jim Mattis – agree that this treaty was, in fact, living up to expectations.

Just ask former President Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy Advisor Ben Rhodes about what shortcomings he can identify from the JCPOA’s framework, and he will likely mention a few, but since coming into effect in early 2016, no credible expert can definitively demonstrate that Iran has not been compliant with the terms of the deal.

The JCPOA has worked in rolling back Iran’s nuclear programme. For decades, Iran had steadily advanced its nuclear programme, approaching the point where they could rapidly produce enough fissile material to build a bomb. The JCPOA put a lid on that breakout capacity. Since the JCPOA was implemented, Iran has destroyed the core of a reactor that could have produced weapons-grade plutonium; removed two-thirds of its centrifuges (over 13,000) and placed them under international monitoring; and eliminated 97 percent of its stockpile of enriched uranium – the raw materials necessary for a bomb. So by any measure, the JCPOA has imposed strict limitations on Iran’s nuclear programme and achieved real results.

Additionally, the JCPOA does not expire. The prohibition on Iran ever obtaining a nuclear weapon is permanent. Some of the most important and intrusive inspections codified by the JCPOA are permanent. Even as some of the provisions in the JCPOA do become less strict with time – such as production for domestic energy use – this will not happen until ten, fifteen, twenty, or twenty-five years into the deal. Putting the enormous benefits of a nuclear weapon-free Iran at risk now is misguided.

When U.S. officials met with Iranian officials in Qatar in 2015 before agreeing to meet officially in Geneva, there was serious debate as to whether any deal regarding the Iranian nuclear programme should include a conversation about Iran’s activities elsewhere in the Middle East, especially Iraq, Syria and their support for Hezbollah. The decision was made not to include these activities in the discussion because U.S. negotiators did not want to risk Iran walking away from the table if they felt the dialogue was a broad condemnation of Iranian policy. In focusing the talks on the nuclear programme, Iran was more willing to compromise and the talks resulted in a permanent end to Iran’s ability to enrich weapons-grade uranium.

All this is to say that the JCPOA was never intended to solve all of the world’s problems with Iran. U.S.-led negotiators were always clear that Iran engages in destabilising behaviour – including support for terrorism, and threats toward Israel and its neighbours. But that is precisely why it was so important that Iran be prevented from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Every aspect of Iranian behaviour that is troubling is far more dangerous if their nuclear programme is unconstrained. Our ability to confront Iran’s destabilising behaviour is strengthened with the JCPOA, and weakened without it. Stopping Iran’s nuclear programme was one pillar of a strategy which further sought to come to an agreement with Tehran regarding their activities in the wider region.

Furthermore, Europe, Russia and China – all signatories to the Deal – are put at risk by the U.S. walking away. Europe in particular will be hard-hit by the imposition of sanctions on businesses operating in Iran. Since sanctions on Iran were lifted in 2016, E.U. companies have exported about €9.15 billion in goods to Iran, according to the European Commission. AirBus, for example, may see a multi-billion euro deal with IranAir scuttled because of the Trump Administration’s decision. French, Italian, German and Belgian companies have benefitted tremendously from having the Iranian market open to their products and services, and Germany in particular saw a 16 percent increase last year in goods exported to Iran, according to the Association of German Chambers of Industry and Commerce (DiHK). Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Emmanuel Macron have voiced concern about potential U.S. sanctions on European firms doing business in Iran in their respective speeches pledging to stand-by the agreement. First the U.S. threatens to levy tariffs on European steal and aluminium and now is threatening sanctions against European firms who conduct business in Iran. Such actions prompted E.U. Council President Donald Tusk to rhetorically ask, “With friends like these, who needs enemies?”

What does Trump’s tough talk with countries like Iran and withdrawal from the JCPOA mean for U.S. denuclearisation negotiations with North Korea? It shows that the U.S. cannot be trusted as an honest broker in such high-level talks. Even as North Korean officials threatened to cancel the upcoming talks between President Trump and Leader Kim over planned joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises, one cannot help but imagine the North Korean leadership having doubts about the sincerity of any agreement with the U.S., whose leader has withdrawn from two of the most consequential treaties of the past several decades, in a matter of one year. To say that the U.S. has damaged its credibility by pulling out of the Paris Agreement and the Iran Deal is an understatement – the U.S. can no longer be trusted to stand by its word.

In sum, it is hard to see any positive results from the U.S. pulling out of the Iran Deal. Doing so jeopardises regional security, threatens the trade relations of European, Russian and Chinese companies in Iran, and damages the United States’ reputation as a serious partner in future, all while failing to bring peace and stability to the Middle East and emboldening extremists in Iran. Images of Iranian MP’s burning an American flag and a copy of the Deal demonstrate how fragile the Deal was domestically in Iran prior to the U.S. withdrawal, and will only exacerbate this fragility for an already embattled Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani. What’s been clear all along is that President Trump is seeking to dismantle the Obama legacy one step at a time, regardless of any positive impact. Tearing apart his predecessor’s legacy merely to fulfil campaign promises is no way to run a country. Here’s hoping the E.U., Russia, China and Iran – plus the U.N. – can save the deal, for the benefit of all of us – including America.

 

 

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