US President Donald Trump is right to say that more must be done to rein in Iran. But it is the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – the nuclear deal that Trump is attempting to sink – that provides the foundation for such efforts.
There is an old rule of thumb in diplomacy: if you cannot reach agreement on an issue, expand the scope of the discussion. Today, the United States may be set to turn this approach on its head, broadening the discussion to destroy an already-existing agreement. And not just any agreement: President Donald Trump’s administration wants to dismantle the Iran nuclear deal. But while Trump described that deal as an “embarrassment” in his address to the United Nations, the international community’s agreement with Iran is actually one of the most important diplomatic achievements of the last decade.
Iran has always been a tough nut to crack in international negotiations. With power distributed among a seemingly endless array of forces and figures, which often contradict or even compete with one another, the negotiating environment is difficult to understand, much less navigate.
In this context, reaching a “grand bargain” that would address the full range of Iran’s bad behavior – not just its nuclear and missile programs, but also its support for international terrorism, regional destabilization, and human-rights violations – is unrealistic. To get anywhere, the subject matter must be kept as narrow and discrete as possible.
This was the approach of the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. The resulting Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is a misnomer. It does not address nuclear-related weapons programs or guarantee inspections in military installations. And most of its provisions will be in effect for only ten years.
But the JCPOA was not supposed to cover everything. Instead, it was meant to take the existential threat of Iran’s nuclear program off the table long enough to build a foundation for more constructive engagement that could bring progress on other fronts. The deal was a beginning, not an end.
Yet, before long, the diplomatic window that the JCPOA opened may be slammed shut. Under US law, the president is required to certify to Congress every 90 days that Iran has not breached the agreement, and that the continued suspension of sanctions is “vital to the national security interests” of the US. In early September, Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations, suggested that to torpedo the deal, Trump could simply argue that Iran’s other misdeeds were damaging enough to merit sanctions. The point of the JCPOA was to take the nuclear issue off the table, in order to enable the parties to address everything else. If the US puts everything else back on the table all at once, the deal will collapse.
In that case, getting Iran back to the negotiating table would be virtually impossible. The US alone would be unable to impose sufficiently powerful sanctions on Iran to secure that outcome, while the European Union – the primary architect of the JCPOA – would be highly unlikely to re-impose sanctions on an Iran that is complying with its commitments. And one can forget about Russia and China getting back on board.
European leaders recognize the JCPOA’s importance. Now they must take action to save it.
The implications of such an outcome would extend beyond Iran. The JCPOA is a rare recent example of international cooperation, and demonstrates the viability of a broad-based sanctions regime. In this sense, it provided a major boost to the global rules-based order – upon which Europe, in particular, depends. By bringing about its demise, the Trump administration could severely undermine future multilateral initiatives.
From a regional perspective, the end of the JCPOA would hasten America’s marginalization in the Middle East. The Iran deal was a key element of President Barack Obama’s effort to extricate the US from the region, as it promised to neutralize one of the main sources of instability necessitating continued US attention. But, far from restoring the status quo ante, killing the deal would leave America with little credibility in Middle Eastern affairs.
In the short term, the strategic vacuum would be filled partly by Russia, which has already seized on America’s gradual withdrawal from the region to strengthen its foothold there. Having established itself as a pivotal power through its military involvement in Syria, Russia is now using its energy resources to expand its influence further – with far-reaching geopolitical and security implications.
Already, the state-controlled oil company Rosneft has struck deals in Egypt, Iraqi Kurdistan, and Libya, while its counterpart Zarubezhneft has been pursuing oil and gas development projects in Iran. Meanwhile, the Russian gas giant Gazprom has forged ahead with construction of the so-called TurkStream pipeline. Add to that the pending Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will link Russia directly to Germany, and the EU’s prospects for diversifying its energy supplies – critical to its energy security – are fading fast.
In the longer run, the absence of the US from the Middle East will probably serve to prolong the chaos and destruction that has defined this decade, with intensifying – and increasingly overwhelming – repercussions for Europe. To be sure, there is an alternative scenario: Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey could reach a tacit (or even active) agreement regarding influence in the region, to the exclusion of outside parties. But, given longstanding hostilities in the region, the emergence of such an order is far from guaranteed.
Then there is the nuclear component of the challenge. The JCPOA offered a model for counter-proliferation efforts, which included the decoupling of nuclear power – a safe and reliable energy source – from proliferation of nuclear weapons. If this model is rejected after the fact by the Trump administration, its future application elsewhere will become much more difficult, if not impossible.
European leaders recognize the JCPOA’s importance. Now they must take action to save it. To that end, they should establish a relationship with Iran that goes beyond junkets to facilitate European investment or promote the planned energy partnership, and that addresses other outstanding issues, such as ballistic missiles, terrorism, and human rights.
Success will require tough talk, conditionality, and, yes, more sanctions. Trump is right to say that more must be done to rein in Iran. But it is the JCPOA that should serve as the platform for such action. That was the entire point.
Republished with Project Syndicate‘s permission
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