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Trump's Iran ultimatum

Posted By on January 25, 2018 @ 12:30

In a public statement on 12 January, President Donald Trump again waived US sanctions against Iran, keeping alive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), at least for now.

Trump gave ‘Europeans allies’ 120 days (until 12 May) to come up with a ‘supplemental agreement’ that ‘impose[s] new multilateral sanctions if Iran develops or tests long-range missiles, thwarts inspections, or makes progress toward a nuclear weapon’. He also said he intends to ask the US Congress to amend the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA) to add similar controls to the conditions for granting future waivers.

If the Europeans or Congress fail to meet his expectations, Trump insisted that he won’t approve any more waivers.

This is Trump’s second attempt to revise the deal’s terms. His demand in late 2017 that the JCPOA itself be changed to deliver his preferred outcomes was firmly rejected by all of the other signatories—the UK, France, Germany, Russia, China and Iran. They insisted that the JCPOA wasn’t negotiable, and that if the US withdrew and the agreement collapsed, security in the Middle East would deteriorate significantly.

Trump didn’t welcome that rejoinder and remains determined to get his way. His new approach leaves the JCPOA intact, but the arrangements would be substantially changed if his demands are met.

Trump has identified ‘four critical components’ that must be included in the amended INARA:

  • International nuclear inspectors must be given immediate access to all sites requested, including military sites that haven’t been accessible to date.

  • Iran must ‘never even come close to possessing a nuclear weapon’.

  • The two conditions above mustn’t have an expiry date—‘My policy is to deny Iran all paths to a nuclear weapon … forever.’

  • There must be a provision stating ‘that long-range missile and nuclear weapons programs are inseparable, and that Iran’s development and testing of missiles should be subject to severe sanctions’—Iran has argued that its ballistic missiles are conventional defensive weapons only, unrelated to nuclear weapons.

Trump also referred to 14 new sanctions to be imposed by the US. They primarily target individuals and organisations that were involved in supressing the recent demonstrations in Iran.

Who might sign the supplemental agreement isn’t clear. Trump expects the UK, France and Germany to sign. Iran won’t be invited to sign; nor, apparently, will Russia and China. All three would most probably refuse to do so anyway, especially Iran. Whether other European countries deemed ‘allies’ will be invited to sign remains to be seen.

Trump made it very clear that he expects ‘all our allies’ to join with the US in taking much stronger action ‘to confront Iran’s other malign activities’. That would include cutting off funding to all organisations that contribute ‘to Iran’s support for terrorism’, designating Hezbollah—‘in its entirety’—a terrorist organisation, and deterring ‘Iran’s aggression against international shipping’.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is visiting Europe this week, and Iran is reportedly high on his agenda. Tillerson will be doing the hard sell, and the Europeans will be doing a lot of listening.

But according to European sources, there’s concern that Trump is on a ‘deal or no deal’ crusade, regardless of the cost to others. The US doesn’t have large-scale, long-term investments in Iran—but the Europeans do. And they don’t trust Trump. They’ll be looking for ways to respond to his latest demands that don’t compromise their interests or harm their relationship with the US. And they’ll be asking their own tough questions. For example, who’s going to umpire disputes over the definition of breaches of any revised agreement? Who will decide appropriate punitive action in the case of breaches?

What about Iran? President Hassan Rouhani said in October last year that all deals are off if the JCPOA is torn up or neutered. Trump’s demands appear to do the latter. But Rouhani didn’t rule out a separate agreement to the JCPOA. How will Iran assess the consequences of rejecting the new conditions? And if it’s willing to negotiate with the Europeans (and Russia and China), on what terms?

What effect the recent demonstrations in Iran will have on the government’s thinking isn’t known. Trump has sought to put the demonstrations’ causes and the Iranian government’s responses into the equation. His statement refers to the ‘Supreme Leader and his Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps [using] mass arrests and torture to oppress and silence Iran’s people’, ‘the ruling elite [letting] their citizens go hungry while enriching themselves by stealing Iran’s national wealth’ and ‘a regime that is stifling basic freedom and denying its citizens the opportunity to build better lives for their families’. That Rouhani wasn’t included in these derogatory comments suggests that Trump acknowledges that he’s the key to managing a moderate outcome.

Trump is well aware that his commitment to getting a new Iran deal will be observed closely, particularly on the Korean peninsula. His personal credibility is at stake. His new approach leaves him, and others, with less room to manoeuvre.

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[1] waived US sanctions: https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/statement-president-iran-nuclear-deal/

[2] Rex Tillerson is visiting Europe: https://www.rferl.org/a/tillerson-to-embark-european-tour/28987816.html

[3] all deals are off if the JCPOA is torn up or neutered: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/iran-us-relations-tough-negotiations-lie-ahead/