A done deal undone

Devoid of reasoning, Trump's unilateral pullout from the signature US-Iran nuclear pact is defective at its core

By Author  |  Published: 13th May 2018  1:02 am
Donald Trump

On May 2, US President Donald Trump, declaring that he was making the world safer, withdrew the US from the landmark nuclear accord with Iran, abruptly restoring harsh sanctions in the most consequential foreign policy action of his presidency.

The 2015 agreement, which was negotiated by the Obama regime and included Germany, France and Britain, had lifted most US and international economic sanctions against Iran. In exchange, Iran agreed to restrictions on its nuclear programmme, making it impossible to produce a bomb and establishing rigorous inspections.

But Trump, a severe critic of the deal dating back to his presidential campaign, said in a televised address from the White House that it was “defective at its core.”

Former President Barack Obama called Trump’s action “misguided” and said, “The consistent flouting of agreements that our country is a party to risks eroding America’s credibility and puts us at odds with the world’s major powers.”

Punishing Iran
The sanctions seek to punish Iran for its nuclear programme by limiting its ability to sell oil or do business overseas, affecting a wide range of Iranian economic sectors and individuals. Major companies across the world could be hurt, too. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said that licences held by Boeing and its European competitor Airbus to sell billions of dollars in commercial jetliners to Iran will be revoked. He said the sanctions will sharply curtail sales of oil by Iran, which is currently the world’s fifth largest oil producer.

Iran’s government must now decide whether to follow the US and withdraw or try to salvage what’s left with the Europeans. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said he was sending his foreign minister to the remaining countries but warned there was only a short time to negotiate with them.

Laying out his case, Trump contended, “If we do nothing, we know exactly what will happen. In just a short period of time, the world’s leading state sponsor of terror will be on the cusp of acquiring the world’s most dangerous weapons.”

The administration said it would re-impose sanctions on Iran immediately but allow grace periods for businesses to wind down activity. Companies and banks doing business with Iran will have to scramble to extricate themselves or run afoul of the US government.

Impact in Iran
Many in Iran are worried about what Trump’s decision could mean for Iran. Already, the Iranian rial is trading on the black market at 66,000 to the dollar, despite a government-set rate of 42,000 rials. And many say they have not seen any benefits from the nuclear deal.

Iran’s poor economy and unemployment sparked nationwide protests in December and January that saw at least 25 people killed and, reportedly, nearly 5,000 arrested.

But some hardline Iranian politicians welcomed the US pullout. “The US pullout from the deal is the best achievement for Iran since it shows the real face of the US,” said lawmaker Ahmad Alirzabeigi. “We should not rely on the US, nor on Europe.”

“We will face hard sanctions following the US pullout, but they will not remain in place since the global community needs Iran,” added another lawmaker, Jabbar Kouchakinejad.

Unhappy World
Signatories to the 2015 deal urged Trump not to fundamentally undermine the UN Security Council-endorsed agreement so that the other parties — Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and Iran — can continue to respect it.

“Together, we emphasise our continuing commitment to the (deal). This agreement remains important for our shared security,” French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Theresa May said in a joint statement.

The three called on Washington to “ensure that the structures of the (agreement) can remain intact, and to avoid taking action which obstructs its full implementation by all other parties to the deal.”

In New York, Russia’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations, Dmitry Polyansky, said “we are disappointed”. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called the nuclear deal “a major achievement” that “has contributed to regional and international peace and security” and said he was “deeply concerned” by the US decision. He called on the other signatories “to abide fully” by their commitments.

European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, who helps supervise the way Iran and the six world powers implement the deal and settle any disputes, expressed concern about Trump’s suggestion that new sanctions might be slapped on Iran.

“I am particularly worried of new sanctions,” Mogherini said adding in a message directed to Iran – “Do not let anyone dismantle this agreement. It is one of the biggest achievements diplomacy has ever delivered, and we have built this together.”

Some Support Too
However, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has long been an opponent of the agreement, has been saying that the deal would never remove the danger of Tehran developing nuclear weapons. Trump cited Israel’s recent revelations about intelligence showing that Iran has lied about its programme as a reason to pull out.

Saudi Arabia also welcomed Trump’s move saying that Iran had exploited the agreement’s economic benefits to continue destabilising activities in the region by developing ballistic missiles and supporting militias — issues not addressed in the accord.

‘Worst Deal Ever’
The nuclear agreement marked President Barack Obama’s biggest foreign accomplishment. Trump has called the deal “a disaster” and “the worst deal ever”.

Trump criticises the deal for not including Iran’s ballistic missile programme or Tehran’s support of groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon and its aid of embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad. He also has criticised the fact the deal’s terms expire. He said the accord “threw Iran’s dictatorship a political and economic lifeline.”

The precise impact of Trump’s decision will probably take some time to decipher. In the short term, US Congress now has about 60 days to decide its next move. Iran can also trigger a dispute mechanism in the agreement, opening a maximum 45-day window for the airing of grievances and to seek a compromise. This could buy three months of valuable time.

As he left after nullifying the deal, Trump predicted that Iranians would someday “want to make a new and lasting deal” and that “when they do, I am ready, willing and able.”

Within the Boundary
• At its heart, the deal imposes restrictions on Iran’s nuclear programmme that make it impossible for Iran to produce a bomb, in return for lifting most of the US and international sanctions against it

• The world powers lifted the crippling economic sanctions that had locked Iran out of international banking and global oil trade

• It allowed Iran to make purchases of commercial aircraft, reach business deals and unfroze billions of dollars Iran had overseas

• But it does not directly stop Iran from testing or firing ballistic missiles. It also has a series of rolling expiration dates. In 8½ years, Iran can start testing up to 30 more advanced centrifuges, a number it can greatly expand two years later

• 15 years after the deal, restrictions on Iran’s uranium enrichment and stockpile size end

• During the life of the accord, Iran is limited to a level where it cannot produce a bomb and — if the deal were to fall apart today — experts say it would need at least a year to build one

• If Iran violates the deal, sanctions can immediately be re-imposed

• The deal’s opponents argue it allows Iran to build a bomb after it expires, something Iran has explicitly promised in the accord not to do

• After the 15 years are up, Iran could have an array of advanced centrifuges ready to work, the limits on its stockpile would be gone, and in theory it could then throw itself wholeheartedly into producing highly enriched uranium

• But at the same time, nothing in the deal prevents the West from trying to rein Iran in again with sanctions. The deal includes a pledge by Iran never to seek a nuclear weapon

• The deal’s architects and supporters say the idea is to increase dialogue and trust during the intervening 15 years and negotiate an extension or a new accord

The Restrictions
• Iran can only maintain a stockpile of 300 kilograms of low-enriched uranium, compared to the 100,000 kilograms of higher-enriched uranium it once had

• Iran can only enrich uranium to 3.67%, which can be used to fuel a civilian reactor but is far below the 90% needed to produce a weapon

• Iran previously had some 20,000 centrifuges (devices that are used to enrich uranium). It now can have no more than 6,104 older-model centrifuges at two inspected sites

• Iran reconfigured a heavy-water reactor so it couldn’t produce plutonium

• It agreed to convert its Fordo enrichment site — dug deep into a mountainside — into a research centre

• The United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Commission, can inspect any declared nuclear site at any time