Before the May 12 deadline, President Donald Trump has withdrawn the US from the multilateral Iran nuclear deal, with the objective to find a different method of dealing with the purported Iranian threat to the Middle East.
The Trump administration has announced that “the highest level of economic sanctions” will be imposed on Iran, warning that “any nation that helps Iran in its quest for nuclear weapons could be strongly sanctioned”.
President Trump had repeatedly threatened to undo the “insane” nuclear deal, which was concluded after nearly 20 months of hectic negotiations. The Trump administration unilaterally withdrawal from the nuclear deal will likely trigger an ominous nuclear arms race and exacerbate the Iran-Saudi rivalry in the already turbulent Middle East.
Apart from the US, there are five more signatories to the deal – the UK, Russia, China, France and Germany as well as the European Union. As a rule of business, the Trump administration should have taken the perspectives of these parties into consideration before leaving the historic deal. It seems that the recent visits of French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel to Washington (to implore Trump to adhere to the deal) dismally failed to persuade Trump.
Under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA,) the IAEA is entrusted with the responsibility to inspect whether the Islamic Republic is seriously following the nuclear-related provisions of the deal. The UN nuclear watchdog has continually judged Iran to be in full compliance with its commitments. More importantly, some top US security officials have also confirmed that Iran has been complying with all aspects of the JCPOA.
Under the accord, Iran has stopped enrichment at Fordow for 15 years; reduced 20,000 centrifuges to 5,000 at the Natanz facility; decreased its stockpile of uranium by 98 percent to 300 kilograms for 15 years and redesigned the Arak heavy water nuclear reactor. According to some estimates, Iran possessed an adequate amount of uranium to make ten nuclear devices before July 2015. On account of the restrictions imposed by the JCPOA, now Iran cannot produce even a single bomb with the existing 300 kilograms of uranium.
The Rouhani government has conscientiously abided by the deal so that the crushing sanctions on the Iranian economy are removed and it is resuscitated. The Iranian leadership is fully acquainted with the fact that the severe sanctions imposed by the US, UN and EU to pressurise Iran into halting uranium enrichment crippled its economy, costing the country over $160bn in oil revenue from 2012 to 2016 alone. The nuclear deal had provided Iran an access to over $100bn in assets frozen overseas.
What is worrying is that, despite the IAEA’s confirmations of Iran’s full compliance with the deal, President Trump still walked away from the accord. The Trump Administration had stated time and again that the deal must be renegotiated so as to limit Iran’s advancing ballistic missile programme and its role in the simmering civil wars of Yemen and Syria. Though Iran repetitively warned that any US move to renegotiate the deal would compel the Islamic republic to abandon the deal, yet Tehran has decided to remain in the deal now.
The Trump administration seems to have forgotten that the JCPOA is strictly about Iran’s nuclear programme. It does not address other issues. Moreover, the accord also allows Iran to pursue a peaceful nuclear programme for commercial, medical and industrial purposes in line with international non-proliferation standards.
It goes without saying that President Trump was under mounting pressure from Saudi Arabia and Israel – Iran’s arch rivals in the Middle East – to repeal the deal. Both Riyadh and Tel Aviv have been apprehensive that the nuclear deal has allowed Tehran to capitalise on the unfreezing of billions of dollars to expand its sway in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon. Since Saudi Arabia is a key US arms importer, Washington could not annoy Riyadh by keeping the nuclear deal without renegotiation; the US also badly needs Saudi Arabia’s support to counterbalance the rapidly rising ascendancy of Iran in the region and keep a check on Russia’s increasing influence and engagement with the Middle-Eastern countries.
The unilateral withdrawal of the US from the nuclear deal is likely to create economic complications for the other five signatories to the deal. They will not be able to continue their trade relations with Iran as that could be considered by the US as a violation of its economic sanctions. Some European countries such as France and Germany have lately cultivated strong economic ties with Iran in order to reap rich economic dividends from the sanctions-hit economy of the Islamic republic.
The Iran nuclear deal cannot be expected to last long after the US withdrawal. Trump’s decision could compel Iran to resume and expedite its nuclear activities, albeit secretively. What is more alarming is that hardcore conservatives in Tehran will probably rely on the unfolding situation to pressurise the moderate Rouhani-led government into withdrawing from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), as North Korea did in 2003.
Undoubtedly, Iran will ratchet up its military support to Houthi rebels in Yemen, Hezbollah and the tottering Assad regime in war-torn Syria. This could, therefore, make Israel and Saudi Arabia further forge their secret military cooperation with the intent to counteract Iranian sway in the region. Thus, such a heightened ideological and security competition in the volatile Middle East could push things to the brink of a dangerous war.
The total unravelling of the JCPOA in the future could result in a threatening nuclear arms race in the region. Both Saudi Arabia and Egypt have recently increased their efforts to purchase nuclear reactors from China and Russia. This will presumably embolden Israel to expand its clandestine nuclear programme and increase the number of its nuclear arsenals beyond 200 warheads. The possibility of a catastrophic nuclear war will be higher in the Middle East as non-democratic and monarchical governments have little or no constraints in terms of employing deadly nuclear devices against their adversaries.
Was Trump unmindful of the fact that his final decision on the Iran nuclear deal would actually determine the unpredictable behaviour of the North Korean leader toward any serious agreement on complete de-nuclearisation of the Korean peninsula? President Trump’s de-certification of the JCPOA will make North Korean President Kim Jong-un lose trust in Trump’s sincerity in terms of bringing lasting peace on the Korean peninsula.
Lastly, the resumption of sanctions on Iran will have adverse impacts on South Asian security and economy. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia will increase supports to their proxies, which could result in more sectarian conflicts and bloodletting; the Iran-Pakistan (IP) gas pipeline could be further delayed due to more sanctions on Iran.
If President Trump had really wished peace and stability to prevail in the region, he would have certified the Iran nuclear deal. Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the Iran deal will now push the Middle East towards more civil wars and instability.
The writer is an independent researcher.