How Washington’s ill-considered ditching of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal can severely undermine mutual trust and dangerously cripple the future of the nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regimes.

Backstabbing politics

The Trump administration (mostly himself) seems to have a tendency for bold and unilateral actions: in early 2017, by the stroke of a pen, the US was pulled out of the Transpacific Partnership (TPP), leaving in Asia a void that was swiftly filled by a power-thirsty China. In June of that same year, on the manicured White House rose garden, Mr. Trump proudly announced that his country was to withdraw itself from the 2015 Paris Agreement on the grounds that the issue of climate change itself was a cooked-up hoax. This week (May 8th), much to the horror of long-standing European allies such as Great Britain and France, and to the delight of Benjamin Netanyahu’s nuclear-armed Israel, Mr. Trump lived up to his campaign promises and ditched the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Weeks away from a much-awaited and trumpeted US-North Korea summit (scheduled for early June), time is ripe for the ensuing inquiry: to what extent may the US’ withdrawal impact on the possible denuclearisation of North Korea and, broadly, on the nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regimes?

The United States, Britain, Germany, France, Russia and China brokered the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, as it is technically known, in 2015. The agreement is the outcome of a number of rough years of negotiations. When it was finally passed, in July that year, it was hailed as a diplomatic breakthrough. Iran had accepted tight restrictions on its nuclear-related activities, especially its uranium-enrichment operations. In addition, the country also had agreed to comply with the United Nations’ close and intrusive inspections carried out by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The other countries, in their turn, agreed to lift all nuclear-related economic sanctions on Iran (other types of sanctions were kept, like those levied on it because of human rights-related issues). In a nutshell, the deal was a great bargain for Iran, since those sanctions had been crippling the country’s economy.

Nonetheless, what was diplomatically arrived at by the end of a long-drawn-out series of negotiations in Geneva in mid-2015 was/is still a matter of heated-up debate and diverging stances: on the one end of the spectrum sit those for whom the agreement is a milestone in nuclear non-proliferation. On the other are those who wish that Iran had been dragooned into complete and verifiable denuclearisation (and not just a 15-year-halt) as well as that all paths to its terrorism financing be cut. Evidently, the latter are Mr. Trump and his ultra-hawkish aides, John Bolton (National Security Adviser) and Mike Pompeo (Secretary of State), and Middle-East-based protégé, Israel. The former are Obama’s administration and the European allies. Both groups insistently uphold their arguments.

For the more peace seeking and diplomacy-inclined countries that originally brokered the deal back in 2015 the agreement is the best that could possibly have come out of a tense negotiation amongst countries with historically diverging opinions and menacing grudges[1]. In that sense, at the time, the 6-party group thought it wise to boil the accord down to what was most pressing: curtail the possible detour of the Iranian nuclear programme from a peaceful to a military orientation by substantially cutting back on its uranium-enrichment activities. On the Iranian side, a pragmatic negotiation meant the lifting of the burdensome nuclear-related sanctions that had been drains on the country’s economy. Therefore, both for Iran and the Western democracies (plus Russia and China) the mutual compromises within the 2015 deal were and still remain the best outcomes that could diplomatically be achieved.

However, Mr. Trump’s unilateral and ill-considered diplomacy threatens to wreck it all. By “all” I mean not only the Iranian question, but also one that has been making the headlines more often than not: the North Korean question. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Trump’s diplomacy-averse aides, Bolton and Pompeo, argue otherwise. Both high-ranking officials seem to wholeheartedly believe that America’s unilateral withdrawal of the Iran nuclear deal sends out a crystal-clear message to Kim Jung-Un, namely: the US will not settle for “inadequate deals”[2]. Unsurprisingly yet, what the White House envisages as a favourable American First type of deal for the Iranian question also happens to be what Mr. Trumps expects to broker with Kim Jung-Un in the forthcoming US-North Korea Summit: complete and verifiable denuclearisation plus whatever the US may deem menacing for it and/or its allies. For the Iranian dossier, precisely, that means that America also intends to curb Iran’s meddling in regional affairs and the financial backing of terrorist groups, such as Hezbollah and Hamas[3].

The United Nations and the international community as a whole heavily censor Iran’s uranium-enrichment facilities because no commercial purpose (that is, peaceful use of nuclear power) is evident[4]. What countries fear is that Iran may in fact be treading in the footsteps of the world’s internationally recognised nuclear countries[5]. Iran is a member-party to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NTP), a quasi-universal treaty which, amongst other things, seeks to bar the spread of nuclear weapons and military-oriented nuclear programmes. As such, Iran’s increasing uranium-enrichment capabilities cast doubts on the country’s real intentions: has its nuclear programme a peaceful end or a military one? The US and most nuclearized countries insist on the former. If that is the case, from in international law standpoint, Iran is in flagrant breach of the NTP.

Washington’s worries that something ought to be done about Iran’s meddling in regional proxy wars and financial aid to terrorism-oriented groups are comprehensible. The JCPOA does not cover that matter. It would be ideal if it did. Nonetheless, the US’ unilateral intention of a thorough overhaul of the treaty undermines the nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regimes as it betrays the nuclear wannabes’ trust. Mutual trust is the overarching pillar of international politics. Mr. Trump’s diching of the 2015 deal wrecks that very pillar and risks bringing down not only the Iranian deal, but also the one that might be stricken with North Korean in a couple weeks’ time.

Self-defence is a paramount reason why countries bend over backwards to develop nuclear weapons. Given the fact that nuclear or hydrogen (much more powerful) weapons are prohibitively destructive, it is expected that no rational nuclear-armed country will ever deploy a nuclear warhead on another nuclear-armed country. That notion buttresses the very idea of Hans Morgenthau’s Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), for it would be mad the use of such weapons. Nuclear weapons, therefore, can ensure a country’s survival in a world notoriously violent where the weak often succumbs to the strongest. All of the nine (the US, Russia, China, Great Britain, France, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korean) nuclear-armed countries’ motives to seek out such weapons can be well understood from that approach. Iran has not yet tested a nuclear device, which makes it no nuclear country — and as far as one can tell (that is, the International Atomic Energy Agency), Iran has been willing to remain non-nuclear.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN-linked body that oversees countries’ nuclear activities to make sure no diversion towards military ends is underway, Iran has lived up to its words. There are no signs of non-compliance. To counter the US’ unwillingness to trust the IAEA’s words, Macron (France), Markel (Germany) and May (Britain) have all weighed in favour of the deal, but only for their own disappointment[6]. Last Tuesday (May 8th) proved that the only one not living up to its words is the US.

When a world military and economic power such as America — a country that also happens to be armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons, boasting the world’s second largest nuclear arsenal (6000+ weapons) — rashly walks back on its word mutual trust is severely damaged. If one takes into consideration the sensitive and intricate nuances of international politics, America’s have-it-my-way approach may dangerously tip Iranian hardliners (those that opposed the 2015 deal) to resume their country’s nuclear-enrichment activities. Worst still, it may do just the contrary of what Mr. Trump’s bellicose aides expect: send North Korean a repelling crystal-clear message — Beware of the untrustworthy.

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[1] The US recent past of regime-toppling foreign policy has kept attentive authoritarian regimes like Iran’s or North Korea’s. That one factor rendered the talks leading up to the 2015 deal particularly tense. The fact that Germany, Great Britain and France have themselves their share of imperialism could only made matters worse.

[2] https://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2018/05/out-deal

[3] https://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2018/05/out-deal

[4] http://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/country-profiles/countries-g-n/iran.aspx

[5] As of April 2018 there are 9 nuclear-armed countries: the US, Russia, China, Great Britain and France (these five also happen to be full-fledged Veto Power holders at the United Nations Security Council, the organisation’s most powerful body) plus Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korean. Under the provisions of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1970 (NTP) only those first five countries have the right to have nuclear weapons even though they are member parties to the nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regimes. The remaining four countries are not member parties to the NPT and thus are not subject to any sanctions from non-compliance. Iran is a member party to the NTP.

[6] https://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2018/05/out-deal

An International Relations degree holder; a language, history and economics aficionado; and a soon-to-be Economist who sees writing a thought-untangling act.

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