President Donald Trump on Tuesday declined to extend sanctions waivers on Iran, a move that signals the end of U.S. participation in the 2015 nuclear deal that saw Iran limiting it’s nuclear enrichment in exchange for sanctions relief and access to global markets.
In announcing his administration’s largest foreign policy decision to date, the president announced that the U.S. and its allies are “unified in our understanding of the threat and in our conviction that Iran must never acquire a nuclear weapon. After these consultations, it is clear to me that we cannot prevent an Iranian nuclear bomb under the decaying and rotten structure of the current agreement.”
While he accused Iran of being a “regime of great terror” having ties to a number of terrorist groups and being on “the verge of a nuclear breakout,” President Trump did not articulate an alternative plan for watching Iran’s nuclear program.
The Joint Cooperation Plan of Action (JCPOA) was signed between Iran, the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, and Germany and subjected Iran to regular, rigorous inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency.
James McKeon, policy analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, told ThinkProgress that the path forward in the next few months is far from clear.
“The next step after that is that we don’t know, as analysts, what’s going to happen, and neither does the White House,” said McKeon.
The United States is violating the deal by refusing to extend sanctions waivers in the absence of any transgression on Iran’s part (the IAEA has repeatedly affirmed Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA). Iran, which maintains its nuclear program is a peaceful one, will thus have grounds to complain to the Joint Commission set up to adjudicate issues with the deal.
What happens next, said Mckeon, could take days or weeks to figure out, but it’s unlikely that the deal would survive without the U.S. being a party to it. He added that the administration’s understanding of the agreement is “flawed” and that the idea that it’s actually giving Iran a pathway to a nuclear weapon is “just fundamentally false.”
Possibly laying the groundwork for this, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif posted a video on Twitter on Thursday — subtitled in several languages — noting that “On 11 occasions since [the JCPOA was adopted by the U.N. Security Council] the U.N. nuclear watchdog has confirmed that Iran has implemented all its obligations. In contrast, the U.S. has consistently violated the agreement, especially by bullying other from doing business with Iran.”
Blowing up the deal like a “supernova” is a huge mistake, said McKeon, because “The truth is that JCPOA is, by any objective standard, the most robust, verifiable agreement in the history of nuclear arms control.”
Nuclear talks with North Korea are expected in June, and it’s hard to imagine how North Korea could in good faith negotiate with the Trump administration on shutting down its nuclear weapons program.
“That’s the biggest strategic blunder that’s happening right now, ” said McKeon.
“There’s a huge trust issue here that the North Koreans could simply exploit. They could say, ‘Oh yeah, why would we do an agreement with you when you can’t even hold on to the one you just negotiated three years ago?
A win for Iran’s hardliners
In tearing up the deal, President Trump will not only give his base what he promised them — to undo one of former president Barack Obama’s key accomplishments — but also play directly into the hands of Iranian hardliners who were skeptical of the deal to start with.
But the multilateral JCPOA isn’t just Obama’s achievement: Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, now in his second term, had a lot of support among Iranians for getting the deal done. Fed up with decades of sanctions, Iranians were optimistic that they might finally be able to enter the world’s economy and attract vital foreign investment.
However, hardliners, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, were never fully convinced that dealing with the U.S. would survive America’s next president, and has been predicting its demise for quite some time.
In a speech in November 2016, Khamenei said, “The U.S. presidential elections will take place in a few months – in seven, eight months – and in nine months, the current American administration will completely change and there will be no guarantee that the future administration will honor the few promises that the current administration has made.”
The current Iranian administration has made it clear that it will neither renegotiate the deal nor will it remain in the JCPOA with other partners if the U.S. leaves and snaps back sanctions.
Israel is the Trump administration’s greatest ally in its campaign against Iran, so much so that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s presentation last week on Iran’s nuclear program (wherein he alleged that old information on the country’s program was new) was delivered in Israel before a domestic audience but was done in English, speaking directly to President Trump and his base in the U.S
Although former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert slipped up and admitted that his country has nuclear weapons, the country has maintained a policy of opacity on its program, refusing to speak about it, and signing the NPT would mean that it would have to allow for inspections of its nuclear facilities.
But Israel might not be the only nuclear power in the region for long.
“Ironically, as this whole process is playing out with the Iran deal, the Saudi Arabians are attempting to increase, massively, their energy program and they’re trying to get an agreement with the United States to get help on that with a civilian nuclear cooperation agreement called a 123 Agreement,” said McKeon.
A “gold standard 123 agreement,” said McKeon, such as the one signed with the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.), prevents it from ever taking what they’re doing with their nuclear energy programs and using it to create a nuclear weapon.
“But the talks right now between the Trump administration and Saudi Arabia are not going down the road we took with the U.A.E. — it’s going down a much different path, and that path is essentially allowing them to do certain things like potentially enriching nuclear materials in the future,” said McKeon.
He notes that the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has already said that Saudi Arabia would seek nuclear weapons if Iran ever did, adding, “at the same time, we’re having talks — and again, they’re just talks — about a potential agreement where we might not invoke the gold standard as we did with the United Arab Emirates.”
The Trump administration, said McKeon, should condemn any talk of Saudi Arabia acquiring nuclear weapons while negotiating the toughest agreement possible — one that doesn’t allow Saudi to enrich any nuclear materials or reprocess any nuclear materials.