By Talmiz Ahmad
Aug 18, 2017
On July 17, US President Donald Trump had certified for the second time that Iran was “compliant” with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the official title of the agreement with Iran, concluded last year under President Barack Obama to curb the development of nuclear weapons by Iran. But Mr Trump then added: “If it was up to me, I would have had them non-compliant 180 days ago”; and added: “(Next time) I think they’ll be non-compliant.”
Mr Trump’s visceral animosity for Iran was apparent all through the election campaign and was affirmed in the first days of his presidency. On January 27, the President signed an executive order banning nationals from seven Muslim-majority nations, including Iran, from entering the US for 90 days and suspending all refugee admission for 120 days. Iran called this ban “an obvious insult to the Islamic world and, in particular, to the great nation of Iran”. Mr Trump also called the agreement “the dumbest deal”.
The “compliance” certification in July marks the most recent stage in the downward trajectory of US relations with the Islamic Republic. US reports suggest Mr Trump was anxious to find Iran non-compliant, and experienced a “meltdown” when his senior security officials denied him this option. Not trusting his state department officials, Mr Trump has now set up a team of White House officials to study the JCPOA, clearly hoping to find ways in which Iran was found violating the agreement.
More moderate analysts have noted that, since the agreement was signed, Iran has got rid of all its highly-enriched uranium. It has also eliminated 98 per cent of its stockpile of low-enriched uranium, leaving only 300 kg, less than the amount needed to fuel one weapon. The number of centrifuges maintained for uranium enrichment is down from 19,000 to 6,000. The rest have been dismantled and put into storage under tight international monitoring.
All enrichment has been shut down at the once-secret, fortified, underground facility at Fordow, south of Tehran. Iran has also accepted round-the-clock supervision by IAEA inspectors, cameras and monitoring equipment at its nuclear facilities. On this basis, the IAEA has certified full compliance by Iran seven times.
US reports indicate the administration is looking at several options to end the agreement. While officials suggested the US could withdraw from the agreement, as it has done from the climate change accord, the most likely approach seems to be to exert so much pressure on Iran that it itself withdraws from the deal. This includes seeking aggressive and intrusive inspections of Iran’s military facilities to discover a covert nuclear weapons programme.
Over the longer term, it seeks to bring Iran back to the negotiating table to finalise an agreement to ensure its weapons programme is checked even after the present deal runs out 10 years later. In thus wants to correct the “serious flaws” it sees in the agreement finalised under the Obama administration.
Iran’s refusal to accept intrusive inspections, which is very likely, is expected to justify the US view that the country is not in compliance with the agreement. If Iran accepts, Mr Trump will crow it has successfully promoted US national security interests.
The other approach of the Trump administration is to go beyond the nuclear agreement in judging Iran’s conduct, referring to its missile tests, violations of human rights, its support for terrorism and its role in promoting “instability” in West Asia, holding Iran solely responsible for the conflicts in Syria and Yemen.
Neo-con hawks have also stepped into the ring to encourage the President’s belligerence by promoting their old agenda — regime change: a memo drafted by Mark Dubowitz, CEO of AE-backed Washington-based “Foundation for the Defence of Democracies”, has concluded that “Iran is susceptible to a strategy of coerced democratisation because it lacks popular support and relies on fear to sustain its power”.
In response to US hostility, the Iranian Majlis sanctioned half a billion dollars to develop ballistic missiles and strengthen the Al Quds Brigade of its Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), its military arm to promote its interests in West Asia.
Mr Trump’s desperate desire to somehow abrogate the nuclear deal and escalate tensions with Iran has evoked considerable criticism from influential commentators. The New York Times said that Mr Trump is putting his presidency in jeopardy as he risks alienating his senior Cabinet ministers who are uneasy about certifying Iran non-compliant.
Others have also pointed out that the US will face serious difficulty in getting support from the IAEA and its European allies: while the IAEA has concerns it will lose credibility if they were to serve the US’ political agenda, the Europeans fear the implications of the abrogation for regional and global stability. Above all, few of Mr Trump’s domestic supporters are likely to back one more American military intervention in West Asia.
If Mr Trump succeeds in getting the nuclear agreement abrogated by walking out or forcing Iran to withdraw, the consequences are likely to be quite horrendous. Iran will be convinced that, whatever it does, the US will not ease sanctions and allow a normal place for the Islamic Republic in regional and world affairs. It will learn from the North Korean example that possession of nuclear weapons is the only effective guarantee for its security. President Rouhani has warned that, if fresh sanctions are imposed, Iran could walk out of the agreement “within hours” and that its revived nuclear programme will be “far more advanced”.
This will feed into Israeli and Gulf paranoia, encouraging Israel to launch a pre-emptive strike on Iran’s facilities, even as Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Cooperation Council allies embark of acquiring nuclear weapons of their own. Whatever the specific provocation, West Asia is likely to witness widespread and destructive conflict, already presaged by the wars in Syria and Yemen.
Talmiz Ahmad is a former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia