How can we move forward after the US withdrawal from the Iran deal?

The Joint Comprehensive Action Plan (JCPoA) is an international agreement restricting Iran’s nuclear programme, chiefly its uranium production and stockpile capacity and its heavy water reactor and production facilities. In response to Iranian compliance, it relaxes sanctions upon the Iranian economy, particularly those against Iran’s banking and oil sectors and the sale of commercial passenger aircraft to Iran. It was implemented by UN Security Council Resolution 2231 and came into effect July 20th 2015.The agreement was between the E3+3 and Iran, before the US withdrew from the deal in November 2018.

The adoption of the JCPoA signalled Iranian willingness to cooperate with western nations. However, in May 2018, President Donald Trump fulfilled a campaign promise and pulled the US out of the deal, reinstating sanctions on Iran and threatening foreign entities with secondary sanctions. This has triggered stronger opposition to and public protests against the JCPoA within Iran.

President Trump’s criticism highlights the JCPoA’s neglect of Iran’s Missile programme and its regional military action. In December 2018, the UK and France made remarks indicating that Iran’s testing of medium range ballistic missiles could be in violation of UN obligations, apparently supporting accusations from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that the tests violated UN resolution 2231 because they can carry multiple warheads and have a range that can target parts of Europe and anywhere in the Middle East. Yet the UK and France were clear that these alleged infringements had nothing to do with JCPoA. Netanyahu expressed strong opposition to the JCPoA, and also argued in a presentation in Tel Aviv that his government had found evidence that Iran violated the JCPoA, though his evidence was largely concerning activities prior to 2003, and none was actually given of Iran violating the JCPoA. Those defending the JCPoA said that Netanyahu’s claims only strengthened the case for the deal in checking any Iranian ambitions.

Opposition to the deal in Iran has come from across the political spectrum but particularly political hardliners, some associated with the Revolutionary Guards Corps. They see the deal as being too restrictive, and infringing upon Iran’s sovereignty. Many claimed that there was never any intention of the West, particularly Washington, to fulfil their side of their bargain, and that Iran had been tricked, and given up too much. In response to the US leaving the deal, some lawmakers burnt an American flag and a copy of the JCPoA deal.

The E3 and EU recognise their strategic interest in continuing to support the JCPoA, and have risked their close relationship with Washington to defy its hard line on the issue. When US Ambassador to London, Woody Johnson, urged “global Britain” to join the US in condemnation of the “flawed Iran deal”, he argued that the deal did not curb the danger that Iran causes, because the flow of money coming into the country following the easing of sanctions was used to beef up the military and fund proxy forces and terrorists in the region. Despite the European Union’s concern with the issue of Iranian missiles, it adopted a resolution on 4th February 2019, to reiterate its support for the JCPoA and express disappointment at Trump’s withdrawal from the deal.

US sanctions have forced a large number of European companies to stop their business with Iran. Iran has threatened to leave the deal if the the EU, UK, France and Germany, cannot ensure the protection of Iran’s economic benefits and trade. The Europeans, in turn, promised to ensure that companies can do business with Iran, provided that it abides by the deal, but their ability to insulate European companies from US sanctions is severely limited.

The decision of the Trump Administration to undermine the JCPoA was, among other things, an effort to isolate Iran, and supposedly to pressure its leadership to question its relationship with terrorist groups in the region. Instead, it has created a greater sense of distrust and anger towards the US and European states and put the US in breach of international law. The reimposition of trading sanctions on Iran in the midst of an economic crisis has destroyed trust amongst many Iranians. For Ayatollah Khamenei, the US has simply confirmed his suspicions that its leadership did not enter the deal in good faith, and called on the Iranian people not to trust the United States, and the European states. President Rouhani, who has staked his entire personal political capital on the JCPoA, has kept to a moderate approach.

The IAEA has more than ten times, since the inception of the deal, verified that Iran has been abiding by the deal. Iran has unplugged two thirds of its centrifuges, filled its heavy water reactor at Arak with concrete and has exported 98 percent of its enriched uranium.

The JCPoA was created because Iran’s nuclear program is considered by many a potential threat to security and stability in the Middle East. However, it is far from clear that the Iranian leadership has decided to acquire nuclear weapons, or that it wants to enter into an arms race with Israel. On 29th January 2019, during a hearing on global threats, US intelligence leaders told the Senate Intelligence Committee (as they have done repeatedly before) that Iran was not actively working towards acquisition of a nuclear bomb. This included the directors of National Intelligence, the CIA, FBI and National Security Agency. Trump responded by accusing them of being overly “passive and naive” with regards to Iran. He also expressed his alternative assessment that when he became president, Iran was causing much trouble in the Middle East, and that after he ended the “terrible” Iran deal, things became “much better”.

Moving forward, and aside from political declarations devoid of evidence, a constructive approach would seek to engage all states in the region. A region-centred principled approach to WMD non-proliferation and disarmament has a greater potential of success in containing the destabilizing arms race dynamics in the region than focusing on one side only. Building upon the principles of the JCPoA in the context of a broader regional security dialogue there remain tremendous opportunities to break the cycle of threat and counter-threat, and to eradicate the threat that WMD pose to the region, once and for all. The ultimate aim needs to be an approach centred on the interests of the region and its people, with the greatest power and sovereignty given to them.

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