With the new US president assuming his post in the White House, the controversy over the US-Iran nuke deal has taken a dramatic turn. The first episode that clearly showed this turn came in the month of November, soon after Trump’s victory, when the State Department put, responding to a clarification request from Congressman Mike Pompeo, a sworn enemy of the agreement and Trump’s pick to head the Central Intelligence Agency, that the JCPOA “is not a treaty or an executive agreement, and is not a signed document … reflects political commitments between Iran, the P5+1 (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, China), and the European Union. As you know the United States has a long-standing practice of addressing sensitive problems that culminate in political commitments.”
Of course Iran has a different interpretation with regard to the matter at hand. Iranian mainstream media has been arguing, ever since it became clear that the deal is not a signed agreement, that although the JCPOA is not a treaty and has been termed as a “political agreement” among the parties, this does not mean that that the JCPOA is “legally non-binding.” According to this mode of interpretation, the JCPOA cannot be interpreted in isolation from its UN dimension that, in effect, deepens its significance and content as a binding international agreement. It happens to be a viewpoint that the US, as the above cited clarification shows, doesn’t seem to be in agreement with. Hence, the controversy and conflicting statements from both the US and Iranian officials.
What has added fuel to the fire of controversy is the fact that were the US president to shred the deal, the US Congress would have nothing at its disposal to reverse the action. As a matter of fact, the US Congress has, from the beginning, opposing the “commitments” made in the deal.
What the US Congress has at its disposal is Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA). This act, which was passed even before the negotiators had signed the JCPOA, has potentially barred the Obama administration from lifting or easing the nuclear-related sanctions on Iran. To this has been added more controversy since the extension of the sanctions act for 10 more years.
The Trump administration, therefore, has a ready-made scenario, courtesy of the Obama administration, to take the US-Iran relations back to the 1990s and early 2000s. Not only Trump, but the team he has chosen for running presidency has also been unequivocal in its opposition to the deal.
Retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, the incoming national security advisor, warned that, by enabling the lifting of nuclear sanctions, the JCPOA has given Iran extra money for strengthening its military and promoting terrorism, while offering the US “nothing but grief” in return. The verification measures, he added, were mere “promises,” and the agreement’s text “read like a high school paper.” Speaking to supporters in Raleigh, North Carolina, in October, Vice President-elect Mike Pence pledged that Trump would “rip up” the agreement once in office. As for Mike Pompeo, the congressman said, “I look forward to rolling back this disastrous deal with the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism.”
“We are going to take a fresh look at it, put fresh eyes on that deal, and I can assure you if anyone can renegotiate that deal or do something about it to make it better for the American people and not start a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, it is going to be President-elect Trump,” said the incoming Chief of Staff Reince Priebus.
While most of the election-rhetoric has changed ever since Trump’s victory, as Priebus’ view shows, seeing a slight shift from “ripping up” the deal to “re-negotiating” it, Iran’s top officials have ruled out the possibility of taking even the second option. Speaking recently on the topic, Iran’s Rouhani stressed that “any renegotiation” was “out of the question”.
While the US president and his team might be busy fantasising itself with shredding or re-negotiating the deal, it will be, if done ultimately, much harder than it appears. As such, while the shredding might appease the US’ Gulf allies, the question is what other way the US would have at its disposal to deal with Iran if not the deal?
Whereas simply walking away would leave the US with few options outside a military strike to curtail Iran’s nuclear ambitions, European powers probably would neither agree to this option nor even be ready to return to the crippling sanctions regime that Tehran previously faced. They also would be unlikely to tolerate the secondary sanctions that the US imposed on banks and energy companies for doing business there.
What will the new President do then if he doesn’t get enough support from allies in Europe for shredding or even re-negotiating the deal? Most probably, he will continue to reflex the sanctions muscle and keep the heat alive against Iran, which remains subject to various American non-nuclear sanctions aimed at its ballistic missile program, human rights record, and support for Hezbollah and Hamas.
Many in the US, undoubtedly those who belong to the camp of hawks, continue to advocate a tough approach, as recently suggested by Council of Foreign Relations expert Ray Takeyh, towards Iran.
According to him, “the most sensible contribution the Trump administration can make to regional stability is to conceive a strategy that stands up to Iran in the region and puts its domestic regime under stress. The “supreme leader,” Ali Khamenei, is presiding over a state with immense vulnerabilities, and the task of U.S. policy is to exploit all of them.”
The dual-edged policy of re-negotiation and undermining the regime is likely to translate into a lot of heat. Takeyh’s ultimate aim is regime change, and he believes that “the United States has a real capacity to shrink Iran’s economy and bring it to the brink of collapse.”
What this whole likely scenario suggests is that the US-Iran relations will touch a new low under the Trump administration regardless of what happens to the treaty itself. Donald Trump, while he may not trigger a direct military confrontation with Iran, will be looking at many other “combustible spots” to keep the heat alive, and thereby, re-insert the US in the Middle-Eastern geo-politics.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.