By Hussain H Zaidi
While running for the office of the US president, Donald Trump had put down the July 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPA), commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal, as “the worst deal in history”. Trump’s presence in the White House casts a pall over the fate of the agreement. He has already branded Iran as “the world’s number one terrorist state” and his administration has put the country ‘on notice’ over its missile programme.
Let’s also not forget that on some other issues, such as opting out of the Trans Pacific Partnership Trade Treaty and going tough on immigration, the maverick US leader has turned out to be as good as his word.
Not so fast, some analysts would hasten to caution. It is one thing, they point out, to decry an international agreement and another to walk out of it unilaterally, especially when it has some other signatories as well (in this case China, Russia, France, the UK and Germany). By all accounts, the Trump administration would keep a strict watch on Iran’s nuclear activities and slap new sanctions on the country – as it did on January 29 – if the latter is suspected of derogating from its commitments. But it would not denounce the agreement altogether.
The JCPA represents a trade-off: Iran will curb its nuclear programme in exchange for the lifting or softening of international sanctions that had crippled its economy. The agreement embodies a comprehensive set of measures designed to ensure transparency and verification in its execution. Most of the sanctions have already gone as Iran has complied with the provisions of the agreement to the satisfaction of the multilateral nuclear watchdog.
Some sanctions, though, are still in force. The US citizens, natural as well as legal, are still forbidden to do business with Iranian companies; thus effectively preventing Iranian banks and other financial institutions from doing business with their counterparts in other countries. These restrictions constitute the foremost obstacle to Iran’s foreign trade. The notable exclusion from the US sanctions is the aviation sector, which paved the way for the recent $17 billion deal between the US giant, Boeing, and Iran Air for the sale of civil aircraft.
If the JCPA falls apart, Iran will feel free to resume its nuclear ambitions. It can also quit the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which recognises only five de jure nuclear powers. The only other way for Washington to ensure that Tehran does not go nuclear is to attack and occupy Iran. Despite all his rant and rave, Trump is wise enough not to risk plunging his country into another war in the restive Middle East. So the JCPA represents the only credible way of ensuring a check on Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Notwithstanding the importance of the JCPA, Iran’s capability as well as its willingness to go nuclear has never been the key issue in Tehran-Washington relations. While the JCPA was being negotiated, a lot more was on the table besides the question whether Iran’s nuclear programme was peaceful or clandestine. Iran is not the only country suspected of making nuclear weapons and even if its nuclear programme is peaceful, the danger the weapons of mass destruction pose to the world will not ratchet down significantly. Both India and Pakistan declared themselves nuclear powers in 1998. But in both cases, the nuclear programme never gave rise to that much opposition.
Therefore, in order to foretell the future of the JCPA, one needs to go beyond the nuclear question to look at the whole gamut of Tehran-Washington relations.
The 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran dealt a double blow to American interests in the region. One, it marked the end of a strategic ally; and two, it signalled the collapse of the US-sponsored regional security system that had Iran as one of its linchpins. On its part, the new Iranian regime saw in the US a powerful threat to its existence – the ousted Shah being a strong American ally – and declared the US, ‘the Great Satan’. Those fears were confirmed when Washington fully supported Iraq’s invasion of Iran in 1980.
Meanwhile, Washington became increasingly wary of Tehran, accusing it of seeking to export the Islamic revolution to the pro-American Middle Eastern monarchies, supporting Muslim resistance movements in the region, seeking to eliminate Israel and developing nuclear weapons. If for Iran, the US was the ‘Great Satan’, for Washington, Tehran was a ‘rogue state’ and part of the ‘axis of evil’.
The question before the Americans was how to deal with Iran: through direct military action or through sanctions. As a matter of principle, the US usually resorts to military action against a ‘rogue’ state when the purpose is regime change – as done in Iraq or contemplated in Syria – but Iran was not yet ripe for such change as revolutionary ideals, despite all the criticism, remained a potent force for an ethnically homogeneous nation.
Not only did the US place Iran under severe economic and military sanctions, it also prevailed upon its allies, particularly those in Western Europe, to get tough on Tehran. Washington was also instrumental in getting the UN Security Council to impose the curbs on Tehran designed to stop it from enriching uranium. The economic sanctions, which mainly targeted the oil industry, the mainstay of the Iranian economy, and the banks, finally worked and forced Tehran to come to the negotiating table over its nuclear programme.
Ironically, at the same time, by pulling down Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, the US helped to rack up Iran’s influence in the region. With Hussein at the helm, Iraq, a Shia majority state, was Iran’s arch enemy and arguably the strongest check on its regional ambitions. Now Iraq is an Iranian ally and probably the only country where Tehran and Washington have made a common cause against an enemy (Daesh).
The election of a moderate Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s president in 2013 raised the hope that Tehran and the West could do business. The landslide victory of Rouhani also signalled that a clergy-dominated, aggressive Iranian establishment was prepared, albeit reluctantly, for a significant shift in the country’s foreign policy.
This paved the way for the July 2015 pact between Iran and the P-6.
The agreement reflected the West’s belief that increased engagement with Iran, in addition to taming its nuclear ambitions, would also contribute to the opening up of the country’s economy and social milieu ushering in greater respect for human rights and freedom of expression. Iran is also potentially a big market for Western capital, goods and services: both Boeing and Air Bus have subsequently closed massive deals to export aircraft to Iran.
As the West saw it, in the long-run Iran’s reintegration into the international economy and comity of nations would create stakes strong enough to hold its regional ambitions in check.
As long as Washington adheres to this premise, the nuclear deal will not unravel; notwithstanding Iran’s support to the Assad regime in Syria, and the apprehension of Tehran’s Gulf neighbours and Israel that a rejuvenated Iran may be a more serious ‘threat’ to their stability and interests.