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Trump and the Iran deal

Opinion

May 18, 2018

‘Pacta sunt servanda’, which ensures the sanctity of treaties, lies at the heart of international law and inter-state relations. By walking out on the July 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal, the US has set aside this fundamental norm of global governance.

Why has the agreement nearly come a cropper in less than three years of its conclusion? For sure, Washington’s fateful decision cannot be simply set down to the idiosyncrasies of President Donald Trump. Let’s not forget that it was his predecessor Barack Obama who in 2010 had slapped vitriolic sanctions on Tehran and also put up the European Union (EU) to doing so.

In the face of the thrills and spills of the Middle East’s politics, the road to Iran’s reintegration into the world was always slippery, and the JCPOA was destined to go through contortions. Tehran’s nuclear programme was only the tip of the iceberg in its strained relations with the US and the latter’s strategic allies in the region. In the course of the multiparty negotiations leading to the JCPOA, a lot more was on the table than the question of whether Iran’s nuclear programme was peaceful or clandestine. The nuclear deal was an attempt by both Iran and the US to cotton up to each other, despite the fact that their priorities in most other areas had not been coterminous.

As a rule, all revolutionary regimes have a bee in their bonnet about exporting the revolution beyond their borders. In this context, the post-revolution Iran-backed resistance movements in Lebanon (Hezbollah in particular) and Palestine (Hamas) had also sought to shore up Iran’s influence on substantial Shia populations residing in its neighbouring countries. Iran also never minced words in condemning the US as well as Israel.

Tehran’s policies raised the hackles of the Gulf States, and Israel, and brought them into a conflict with Washington, which has high stakes in preserving the status quo in the region because of its tremendous geostrategic and economic importance. In most other hotspots as well, such as Syria and Yemen, Iran and the US have worked at cross purposes. It was this tug of war between Iran (at times supported by Russia and China) on the one hand, and the US and its Middle Eastern allies on the other that imparted so much controversy to Tehran’s nuclear programme. The unilateral – by the US and the EU – and multilateral – by the UN – sanctions were aimed at making the cost of manufacturing nuclear weapons prohibitive for Iran.

The JCPOA was a trade-off: Iran would put curbs on its nuclear programme in exchange for lifting or softening of international sanctions that had crippled its economy and caused widespread discontent among the people. More important than the letter of the deal was the underlying spirit – that the US was willing to welcome Iran back to the comity of nations and that Tehran was prepared for a fundamental shift in its foreign policy. That was the reason that Iran’s powerful conservative establishment had opposed the deal but acquiesced to it as fait accompli.

Most of the sanctions were lifted following Iran’s compliance with the provisions of the agreement. Some US sanctions – called the primary sanctions – remained in force, whereby people of the US, natural as well as legal, are forbidden to do business with Iranian companies and banks. A special waiver was granted to the aviation sector so that the Boeing may sell aircraft to Iran. The sanctions are also applicable to foreign enterprises incorporated in the US. The US pullout from the nuclear deal has revived the secondary sanction as well, whereby people or entities which have trade or investment relations with Iran can be blacklisted by Washington.

The American denunciation of the JCPOA may have shocked many but it is not all that surprising. Trump had already delivered on some of his other pre-poll promises, such as withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and smiting US trade partners (read China). The US president has been at one with countries – notably Saudi Arabia and Israel – and hardliners in America who believed that the JCPOA provisions were not strong enough to draw Iran’s teeth. At the May 21, 2017 Arab-Islamic-American summit hosted by Riyadh, the US and Saudi Arabia together condemned Iran for ‘spearheading global terrorism’ and vowed to make a common cause in confronting the common adversary. The summit also provided an occasion for Saudi Arabia and the US to ink a multi-billion arms deal, which is exceedingly important for Trump, who won the election on the promise of kick-starting the economy and creating jobs.

The JCPOA has, in addition to the US and Iran, China, Russia, the UK, France, Germany and the European Union as its signatories. Although the other signatories have vowed to abide by the treaty, the US departure may reduce it to rump, eventually leading to its unravelling. While the other world powers have considerable economic interests in Iran, they have even higher commercial stakes in the American economy, the globe’s largest economy and trading nation. Not only this, EU members also have a long tradition of toeing the US line.

This is why Trump is confident of bringing a new agreement, stringent enough to keep Iran’s strategic, including nuclear, ambitions in check. His administration has possibly three scenarios in mind. One: Iran is made to agree to a revised deal, which will satisfy the US and its allies. Two: the US withdrawal from the nuclear agreement will strengthen the clergy establishment and put the moderate government of President Rouhani in a spot. Thus, Tehran will denounce the JCPOA and resume its nuclear programme, which will allow the US to carry out surgical strikes against Iran with or without a UN mandate. Three: the renewed sanctions will squeeze Iran so enormously that a regime change, which so far has been an elusive dream for Washington, becomes probable.

Because of a possible opposition by China and Russia, the US may not be able to bring new UN sanctions to bear upon Iran. But the multilateral sanctions which mainly targeted Iran’s nuclear-related industry and institutions were never menacing. It was the unilateral sanctions imposed by the US and the EU which put Iran in hot waters.

Trump’s decision on the nuclear deal brings out a perennial problem with regard to the enforcement of international law and underwriting the sanctity of treaties. If a powerful state wishes to opt out of its binding commitments, does a credible mechanism exist to make it stay put? This case suggests a negative answer to the question and brings to light the fact that the text of a treaty is primarily important in the legal sense only. Mighty and ambitious states can conveniently tear it apart. High politics, whether domestic or international, is seldom trammelled by legal obligations. Hitler attacked Russia despite a German-USSR defence pact. The only antidote to power is power.

In the wake of the denunciation of the JCPOA by the US, Pakistan will be walking a tight rope in its attempts to pull off a policy that rattles the cage of neither Tehran nor Riyadh. However, the re-imposition of secondary sanctions by the US will not significantly cast a pall on the bilateral trade with Iran, as Pakistani banks were already hesitant to do business with their Iranian counterparts because of the primary US sanctions. However, a probable surge in world oil prices consequent upon a fall in Iran’s oil exports would sting the economy.

The writer is a freelance contributor.

Email: [email protected]

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