Iran nuclear deal on the brink

The deal is imperfect – but abandoning it is the worst option

Can relations between Iran and America improve? Yes, but it is hard to see this happening with both sides being only too happy to blame each other for domestic political gain
Can relations between Iran and America improve? Yes, but it is hard to see this happening with both sides being only too happy to blame each other for domestic political gain

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, was an agreement reached between Iran and global powers (China, Russia, the US, France, UK, Germany, and the EU) to curb Tehran’s nuclear program. The deal was signed in July 2015, and then President Barack Obama came in for considerable criticism by the Republicans for what was seen as a flawed deal, given that it only postponed Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons to a later date.

That criticism has validity, as the restrictions in place on its ability to develop nuclear weapons-related technology and capabilities end in 2030, with some elements being allowed by 2025. In return, global powers along with the UN would remove layers of economic sanctions, which can be snapped back quickly should Iran fail in complying with the terms of the agreement. The agreement is far from perfect, although should Donald Trump seek to scrap the deal this month, the implications would be far-reaching and uncertain.

Iran’s ability to research and develop nuclear weapons in hiding has also been hindered through a provision in the JCPOA, extending its “breakout” time for possessing a fully capable nuclear weapon to a year. The agreement and Iran’s compliance are being monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the same organisation that was correct in assessing that Saddam Hussein did not possess weapons of mass destruction prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. To date, the IAEA has certified that Iran has complied with the terms of their agreement, and a number of economic sanctions have been lifted by the international community.

The American President faces a 12th May deadline to certify to the US Congress whether Iran is complying with the terms of the deal, and to extend the agreement by a further 60-day period. President Trump has made it clear that he feels that the deal is a poor one for the US, and that he is seriously considering scrapping it altogether. America’s international partners in the agreement, namely the EU, China and Russia have urged Washington to continue to adhere to the deal, as it ensures stability in the region, and opens up an opportunity to foster better relations with Iran in the long-term, which in itself would encourage Tehran to avoid pursuing any nuclear ambitions which could destabilise the Middle East.

This may all come to naught if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is to be believed. On Monday, he claimed that an Israeli raid in Tehran last January yielded a large cache of documents (some 55,000 pages and over 180 CDs worth of data) which proves that Iran has been secretly aiming to develop nuclear weapons for years – something that the international community had long feared. However, this information predates the JCPOA agreement, and this is not to say that Iran is not complying with the deal. This is not to say that Israel’s assertions are themselves a red herring, but the timing of Netanyahu’s announcement muddies the waters, but changes little in reality.

President Trump’s reservations have some merit, but they also show a lack of understanding of global politics, which are also evident in his approach to dealing with other nations. Trump asserts that Iran has acted as a destabilising actor in areas such as Lebanon, Syria and Yemen, and as a result, is not worthy of his trust. Whilst it is true that Iran is often on the opposite side of America’s interests in these countries, this part of Iran’s behaviour was not subject to the JCPOA. Tehran is, according to the latest reports, still adhering to its end of the bargain. If the US were to withdraw from the deal, the implications could be far-reaching.

The current deal expires in 2030, twelve years from now. By leaving the agreement, the US would damage its credibility when entering into negotiations in the future, regardless if these are undertaken under the Trump Administration or not. If negotiating partners do not trust America’s ability to see through agreements from one administration to the next, they will demand more concessions from Washington before entering into any agreement – if they enter into one at all.

If the Iranian nuclear agreement were to begin to collapse this month, it also calls into a question how Europe, China and Russia will react. Will they continue to adhere to the agreement themselves, without the US? Would Tehran be interested in an agreement that does not have Washington’s backing? Iran would likely pull out of the agreement shortly after America does, and pursue the development of nuclear technology, and most likely, a nuclear deterrent.

In a scenario in which Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons, it is likely that Saudi Arabia, under the increasing influence of its Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, would start its own nuclear programme. Such an arms race in the Middle East would create a self-fulfilling prophecy of crisis and instability in a region which has long since become synonymous with violence.

The United States has legitimate grounds on which to criticise the Iran agreement, but politics aside, it required considerable concessions on both sides and any such agreement is bound to be flawed. President Trump should not seek to scrap this agreement in order to get better concessions. This agreement can serve as a foundation for a separate deal with Iran which seeks to improve relations and lessen animosity. Ripping up this deal will not solve any problems, it will simply take the leash off of Tehran’s nuclear ambitions and put the blame on Washington in the world’s eyes.

Can relations between Iran and America improve? Yes, but it is hard to see this happening with both sides being only too happy to blame each other for domestic political gain. A new agreement with Iran can be reached. But this will not happen if the nuclear deal is scrapped, and matters can only deteriorate from there.

Coming from the zero-sum world of business, Trump prides himself on getting the best deals possible. He ought to realise that, sometimes, a flawed deal is better than no deal at all.