The US and Iran: back to square one

President Donald Trump announced this morning (Australian Eastern Standard Time) that the United States is withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—and re-imposing the highest level of sanctions on Iran. He referred to the JCPOA as ‘a horribly one-sided deal’ and a ‘decaying and rotten structure, defective at its core’. He declared that the key reasons for his decision were Iran lying about its nuclear weapons program, developing ballistic missiles and supporting terrorism.

Tehran now has two options. One, it can continue with the implementation of the JCPOA, ignoring America’s withdrawal since, as Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has argued, Washington under Trump was never a serious party to the deal. This would isolate the United States and divide the Western alliance if Europeans continue to honour their commitments to the JCPOA, as the German and French foreign ministers vowed to do at a joint press conference on Monday.

However, the American withdrawal will most probably hobble the deal beyond repair. The American and European economies are so closely intertwined that American threats to sanction European firms dealing with Iran are likely to scare off most European entities. That will vastly reduce the benefits of the deal for Iran. As it is, Iran hasn’t begun to receive the substantial economic benefits it had expected from putting its nuclear program in cold storage owing to American foot-dragging. The financial returns are minimal, certainly not enough to balance the political negatives for the Iranian government to stick to a hobbled deal.

The second option is that Iran could decide to withdraw from the JCPOA following the American withdrawal and end the intrusive inspections tied to the agreement. It would be extremely difficult for the other parties to the JCPOA to hold Iran responsible for scuttling the deal and to re-impose sanctions if Tehran takes this step in response to the American withdrawal.

Here is where the million-dollar question arises: will Iran stop at withdrawing from the JCPOA or, using the American withdrawal as a justification, disavow the non-proliferation treaty (NPT) as well? This has now become an open question in light of demands from hardliners that Tehran leave the NPT that has unnecessarily shackled its nuclear program without providing adequate compensation.

Withdrawal from the NPT and racing for the bomb will probably be increasingly attractive to the Iranian elite in light of the United States’ refusal to stand by its commitment to the JCPOA. Iran’s mastery of the nuclear cycle, and the knowledge its scientists have gained from operating its various nuclear facilities, are unlikely to have been lost despite the temporary freezing of its uranium-enrichment program under the terms of the JCPOA. As the Iranians have said over and over again, their nuclear enrichment program can be restarted with redoubled vigor within ‘hours’.

Equally important, the principal lesson that Iran is likely to have drawn from America’s decision to negotiate with North Korea at the highest level, while withdrawing from the JCPOA and reimposing sanctions on Iran, is that it’s North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and delivery capabilities that have brought the American president to the negotiating table.

It’s now coming to be generally accepted in Iran that had Tehran developed nuclear weapons instead of signing away its right to do so, the American president would have gone running to it to negotiate a nuclear deal more favourable to Iran than the JCPOA. It’s difficult to refute this impression in light of President Trump’s actions in relation to North Korea. As one analyst put it succinctly, ‘North Korea has shown how to play nuclear poker with Trump—Iran may follow suit.’

The withdrawal from both the nuclear agreement and the NPT has become intrinsically intertwined in the Iranian psyche because there’s growing realisation that merely withdrawing from the JCPOA won’t serve Iran’s purpose of acquiring a nuclear-weapons capability. It’s essential that all inspections be terminated for that to happen. The North Korean example has driven home the point to Tehran that withdrawal from the NPT is essential in order to build Iranian nuclear capabilities and bring the Americans back to the negotiating table.

If Tehran decides to renounce both the JCPOA and the NPT, it will introduce an unprecedented degree of uncertainty into the already volatile situation in the Middle East. The United States will have to engage in a major war—not just from the air, but on the ground as well—in an attempt to destroy Iran’s actual and potential nuclear capabilities and force Tehran to reverse its course.

This could turn into an unprecedented American military involvement that would make the Iraqi invasion of 2003 look like child’s play. Alternatively, it would mean the United States accepting the unpalatable reality of a nuclear Iran after having expended a lot of bombast to the contrary. Such an outcome is also likely to have very negative consequences for its credibility among allies and adversaries alike.

President Trump has forced the United States into an unwinnable situation by withdrawing from the JCPOA. Dragging in extraneous issues, such as Iran’s missile capability, its increasing regional influence or its human rights record, to justify reneging on the nuclear deal doesn’t serve America’s strategic goals in the Middle East. It merely undermines them.