Iran’s Range Of Options

As the clock ticks closer to Trump’s Iran decision in mid-May, dark clouds are thickening over the Iran deal as a result of the recent White House reshuffling of replacing relative Iran doves with fiercely anti-Iran hawks. Confronted with the likely prospect of Trump’s finally delivering on his campaign promise of tearing the agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iran’s diplomacy has accelerated to a higher gear. Tehran is hoping to minimize the damage and still somehow salvage the JCPOA with the help of the rest of the nations who authored it—Russia, China, France, England, and Germany.

Chances are, however, that the process of demise of the JCPOA is irreversible. Tehran continues to pin a great deal of hope on Europe, which remains divided on how to properly respond to Trump’s on-going march against the JCPOA. But few in Iran’s decision-making echelons are optimistic that Europe will stand up to Washington and choose to collide with the Trump administration over Iran. In fact, there is a growing worry that, despite their stated misgivings about Trump’s anti-JCPOA posture, the Europeans will end up appeasing him. Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman are lobbying the Western governments to adopt firm positions against Tehran and its perceived hegemonic actions in the region. 

As a result of the growing uncertainty over the fate of JCPOA, the initial European enthusiasm for investing in Iran has all but disappeared, and Iran is now openly questioning the loyalty of France’s oil giant Total over its new multi-billion dollar energy contract. Indeed, Total may well pull out of the Iran oil market as the United States, after withdrawing from the JCPOA, reinstates sanctions affecting foreign corporations doing business with Iran. This is a sad commentary on Europe’s lack of resolve concerning transatlantic US-Europe relations.

Later this month, however, French President Emmanuel Macron will visit the White House in an effort, reportedly, to persuade Trump of the importance of sticking with the JCPOA. Macron may win a small, but temporary, concession if Trump again defers final judgment on the JCPOA. After all, Trump’s foreign policy team is still in transition: Mike Pompeo has yet to be confirmed as the new secretary of state, and recently appointed National Security Advisor John Bolton has yet to settle into his new role. In addition, the Pentagon remains publicly pro-JCPOA. A deferral would give a new lease of life to the JCPOA. But it might only delay the final blow until September when the war cabinet is in full saddle.

Anticipating the worst, the government of President Hassan Rouhani has preemptively bolstered Iran’s economic and trade relations with China, India, Pakistan, Azerbaijan, and East Europe in the hopes that these countries will not revert to their pre-JCPOA shunning of Iran because of international sanctions. No new UN sanctions are likely following a US withdrawal from the JCPOA, so Iran is fairly confident that the era of oil sanctions is over. In the absence of effective oil sanctions, Iran’s economy will remain afloat. Tehran will manage to survive any American post-JCPOA blows, which other nations won’t duplicate so long as Iran plays its card right.

Of course, Iran will respond to a US exit from the JCPOA. Both President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif have repeatedly stated that Iran will give “serious” and “proportionate” responses. Other Iranian officials, such as the head of Iran’s atomic energy organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, have threatened to resume full-scale nuclear work. Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi echoed this sentiment when he recently told an audience at London’s Chatham House that the West should expect the renewal of the Iran nuclear crisis if the JCPOA fails.

Araghchi, who has since then held bilateral talks with the US officials in Vienna within the context of JCPOA’s internal conflict resolution mechanism, has hinted that Iran is open to further negotiations but only after other parties faithfully implement their part of the JCPOA bargain. That seems increasingly unlikely, at least from the US vantage point, which is why Iran is nowadays assessing its options, ranging from limited to extended retaliation. The latter includes Iran’s reciprocal exit from the JCPOA, the termination of all its nuclear obligations under the accord, and perhaps going so far as exiting the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty altogether.

Although NPT withdrawal does not seem very likely, Iranian anger at an American “betrayal” in the face of Iran’s good-faith implementation of its obligations may force the moderate Rouhani government to adopt such extreme measures to placate national sentiment. Under increasing pressure from hardliners, the government may well move closer to Russia and China, reduce its cooperation with the IAEA, and end its implementation of the Additional Protocol even as it stays within the JCPOA. In such a scenario, Iran would abide by the terms of its normal safeguard agreement and nothing more. Such a measured response would deprive Iran’s adversaries of the necessary ammo to snap back sanctions, which would occur if Iran exits the JCPOA. Iran can then use its selective non-implementation as leverage with the Europeans and others.

Iran’s image, power, and prestige are currently on the line, and it goes beyond the nuclear issue. For anyone in Iran to contemplate a less-than-forceful response to a unilateral U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA is indeed tantamount to political suicide.

Nader Entessar is professor emeritus of political science at the University of South Alabama and Kaveh Afrasiabi is a former political science professor at the University of Tehran. They are the authors of Iran Nuclear Accord and the Remaking of the Middle East (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018) and Iran Nuclear Negotiations: Accord and Detente Since the Geneva Agreement of 2013 (Rowman & Littefield, 2015).

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