The agreement between Iran and the “P5+1”, the 5 permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, over its nuclear program in 2015 was regarded as a breakthrough in a previously vicious circle of tension and distrust. The negotiating parties agreed that all Security Council sanctions, as well as economic and financial embargoes by the United States and the European Union, would be lifted in exchange for the suspension of the Iranian nuclear program.
The exuberant mood after reaching the agreement under the previous administration of the United States and Mr. Trump’s is a striking difference that has a far-reaching effect. Both in terms of lives affected and its influence on international relations, the presidency of Donald Trump will be felt long after he has left the office if this deal is abandoned. Although the agreement is far from perfect for all parties, it does guarantee a certain level of trust and cooperation between countries that for long haven’t been able to even sit at the same table. This article will discuss the watershed moment regarding this topic and its importance for all future situations in which trust and diplomacy have to overcome fraught relations and a possible war.
What is the deal about?
The first punitive measures against Iran’s nuclear deal date back to 2006 when the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1692 and imposed sanctions after Tehran refused to suspend its uranium enrichment program. During the years that passed both international and US bilateral sanctions were added to force Iran to change its course. However, it didn’t reach its goal despite all crippling sanctions to diminish the effectiveness of the nuclear program, during which not only economic measures were taken, but also hacking and the assassination of top Iranian scientists was used as a tool. Tehran successfully pursued what it called ‘its rightful nuclear goals’.
Negotiations on the nuclear deal really took off when both Iran and the US, the most important antagonists in this case, democratically chose leaders more willing to talk and less to confront. In case of the US Mr. Bush (Republican president from 2001 until 2009) was replaced by Mr. Obama (Democratic president from 2009 until 2017) and Iran Mr. Ahmadinejad (from 2005 until 2013) was replaced by Mr. Rohani (current president).
Under the agreement Iran agreed to curb its nuclear program, meaning the enrichment capacity is lowered for a specified duration, certain nuclear centers were redesigned and regular monitoring was allowed for the international nuclear watchdog, the IAEA. In exchange, all sanctions on Iran’s economic activities were suspended.
Although there are discomforts with this deal and its execution, currently all signatories except one believe that this is the best agreement to be reached.
What does Trump want?
Inflammatory language is not new for Mr. Trump and neither is a scandal. The declaration of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, cancellation of TPP trade treaty and calling NATO “obsolete” are just a couple of examples where the current US president follows a unique course in international relations. His objection to the Iran nuclear deal of his predecessor is widely known, where he regularly has called it “the worst deal in the history of the US”. Mr. Trump’s opposition primarily rests with what the US calls “the spirit of the agreement” and Iran’s growing influence in the region.
While ballistic missile technology is not part of the agreement, the US frets that expanding and improving Iranian capabilities in this area is detrimental to its own and its allies’ security in the region and the wider world. Furthermore, Washington fears that Tehran will have a much stronger hand in future negotiations when some of the limitations of the deal expire in 10 and 15 years, 2025 and 2030. According to US intelligence, Iran before the agreement in 2015 possessed a break-out capability of 2-3 months, meaning that Tehran could, in the worst-case scenario create a nuclear weapon in that period. Logically, when one already possesses resources for transportation, e.g. ballistic missile technology, such a threat is much more menacing.
Another point of contention has been the radical increase of Iran’s sphere of influence in the region. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Tehran has seen its influence grow in the majority Shi’a neighboring country of Iraq. In the wider region Iran calls the resurgent power of Bashar Al Assad’s Syria its ally together with Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Palestine’s Hamas and Yemen’s Houthis. All these actors play an important and decisive roll in their respective countries. Although some of this influence can be traced back to the US’ overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Washington nevertheless seems adamant on the roll-back of Iranian power in the region, to the likeness of its regional allies Israel and Saudi-Arabia.
What does Iran want?
The current Iranian president Hassan Rouhani was elected in 2013 with the promise to fix the economy, open up to the world and solve the international tension surrounding the nuclear program. The interconnectedness of these issues meant that the last topic was his primary focus.
A consequence of the disappointment surrounding the expected effect of the nuclear deal has been the recent demonstrations that have rocked several Iranian cities. The most important argument with which Rouhani’s administration convinced its population into supporting the deal, was the promise of a better economic future. However, when that failed to materialize, citizens took to the streets which sometimes led to violent clashes.
Convincing the Iranian population to more concessions was a hard job with a constructive and predictable president in Washington. However, the current commander-in-chief evokes nothing positive with the Iranian people and makes compromise more difficult. The response of Mr. Trump after the terrorist acts in Tehran by IS as being “its own fault” did something that rarely happens in Iran, uniting reformists and conservatives alike.
Despite all the belligerent rhetoric from Washington and Iran’s refusal to talk about its missile program or influence in the region, Tehran has carefully been preparing for any possible outcome. Since Mr. Trump’s inauguration, the Iranians have not executed missile tests, except for one immediately after Trump’s election. The fierce reaction from even proponents of the nuclear deal prompted Tehran to choose its next actions carefully as not to further antagonize.
What do the other signatories want?
Regardless of Mr. Trump’s fierce rhetoric, there is a genuine fear of Iran’s missile program and its influence across the region until a certain level. However, all parties do agree that instead of quitting the nuclear agreement all on its own, the deal should be maintained with whatever further negotiations that may follow.
Although Washington expected some support from its European allies, especially Great-Britain, Europeans maintain their support for the nuclear deal publicly, while privately all prospects are being discussed.
While the Chinese publicly support the deal, they have been remarkably silent on this matter. One explanation is the desire not to antagonize Mr. Trump while Beijing is dealing with its own set of issues and rhetorical attacks from Washington. The Chinese would, however, see one advantage if the deal breaks down: Iran would face sanctions again, thus difficulties for their energy sector. Due to historical reasons, oil on the international scene has been traded in dollars. Beijing has been seeking ways to depose the “petrodollar” and instate the “petroyuan”, its own currency. Iran could switch in order of being able to sell its oil on the world market.
Since the US’ entrance into the Middle East during the Second World War, its relationship with Iran has been complex. While the Iranians have not forgotten about the coup d’état organized by the CIA in 1953 to impose its will, so have the Americans not forgotten about the US embassy hostage situation from November 1979 until January 1981. The US-Iran relationship is complex and highly emotional at times. The Nuclear Agreement has been one of the few successes where they have agreed on something through negotiations.
However, besides a hallmark of cooperation, the deal is also more significant due to other reasons. In many ways, the nuclear program of North Korea is much more menacing than Iran’s. To start with, Pyongyang’s is confirmed to exist along with a successful ballistic missile program. The belligerent language of US’ and North Korea’s leaders until recently was pointing towards a serious nuclear confrontation.
Although in many ways the Iran case is different, the Nuclear Deal is still an important precursor and example for how regardless of historical animosity, diplomacy can work. The hard-fought trust of all parties can be annulled by a simple statement of withdrawal from Washington. This would, besides making fraught relations even worse and complicating a possible future agreement over Iran’s Nuclear agreement, decrease the chances of a deal with Pyongyang as there would be no trust to upholding the deal in the long-term.
Vanand Meliksetian for ApricotLawyer.com