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Hardly anyone will have been surprised by US President Donald Trump’s decision last week not to certify that Iran is complying with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) even though the International Atomic Energy Agency says it is meeting all its nuclear obligations.
Nor was Trump’s two-dimensional philippic against Iran and its behaviour in the region inconsistent with expectations. However, his threat to ditch JCPOA if its terms are not toughened and made permanent casts a shadow over the future of the agreement.
It’s easy to forget that at the UN General Assembly in 2015, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu held up a picture of a bomb and warned that the point at which it would be impossible to stop Iran from having the means to make a nuclear weapon was approaching.
It is encouraging that the leaders of the UK, France and Germany followed Trump’s announcement with their own statement reiterating their support for the JCPOA
The US had made clear that it would take any action necessary to prevent this and the West seemed close to yet another disastrous conflict in the Middle East.
The 2015 JCPOA prevented that by imposing tough constraints on Iran’s nuclear programme in return for the rolling back of the nuclear-related sanctions that were damaging Iran’s economy.
It is encouraging that the leaders of the UK, France and Germany followed Trump’s announcement with their own statement reiterating their support for the JCPOA and cautioning the US against undermining the agreement. It will be sad if Trump, on this issue, pushes Washington’s closest European partners into the same camp as Russia and China.
If the President’s demands are taken at face value, then the US withdrawal from the JCPOA is just a matter of time.
The negotiations leading to the JCPOA were long and arduous. Both sides made compromises that were hard to swallow. The provisions relating to duration, Iran’s missile programme and inspection of Iran’s military bases were among the most difficult and contentious.
Still, it is too early to pronounce the funeral rites over JCPOA. US concerns about Iran are not completely misplaced and there are ways for its partners to help address them
It is fanciful to suppose that Iran would now return to the table and concede every point. Indeed, Tehran is likely to point out that the obstacles that the US has placed before non-American companies seeking to do business with Iran are barely compatible with JCPOA, in which all the parties committed to refrain from policies intended to adversely affect the normalisation of trade and economic relations with Iran.
Still, it is too early to pronounce the funeral rites over JCPOA. US concerns about Iran are not completely misplaced and there are ways for its partners to help address them. It is sensible for the Europeans to make clear that even when the various timelines in JCPOA expire, they will remain committed to preventing Iran from returning to the sort of nuclear programme that gives rise to suspicions about its intentions and the capability to match.
Working together to push back on Iran’s destabilising actions in Middle East hotspots, increasing measures to constrain Tehran’s missile programme and ensuring strict policing of the nuclear deal are all worth addressing.
A lot will depend on what Congress does next. Senators Corker and Cotton, two of Congress’s Iran hawks, are preparing draft legislation which would – under US law only – have the effect of extending the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear programme indefinitely.
There are uncertainties about an in-your-face strategy. Securing endorsement of such an approach by Washington’s European partners would be important – not least in gathering enough Congressional votes for it to pass
Thus, if Iran came within twelve months of potential break-out, US sanctions would be re-imposed automatically. The IAEA’s monitoring role would be ‘strengthened’ and there would be further limits on Iran’s advance centrifuge research and development. Corker claims that his draft legislation would not – at the point of passage – conflict with JCPOA.
But there are uncertainties about this in-your-face strategy. Securing endorsement of such an approach by Washington’s European partners would be important – not least in gathering enough Congressional votes for it to pass.
Trump will no doubt tell sceptics that supporting something such as the Corker plan is the only way to keep the US in JCPOA. The Europeans should not allow themselves to be strong-armed in this way.
This would amount to unilaterally extending a time-limited deal in a way that Iran would be certain to reject.
Instead, the Europeans should be ready to lead patient discussions with Iran about what happens after the various provisions of JCPOA begin to lapse. What sort of nuclear programme will Iran seek what safeguards will there be?
For example, if Iran wants civil nuclear power, how about a regional bank to control the supply of nuclear fuel?
Whatever the fate of JCPOA, Trump’s statement betrays a depressingly simplistic approach to the complex politics of the Middle East
One point which will unite the US and its European partners is that even after the provisions of JCPOA start to lapse, if Iran reverts to a large, opaque and ill-justified nuclear programme, it is certain to find itself once more in full confrontation with the international community.
Putting it into US law in aggressive terms would simply start a process of muscle-flexing on both sides that will imperil the agreement while it is still achieving what it was designed to do.
Whatever the fate of JCPOA, Trump’s statement betrays a depressingly simplistic approach to the complex politics of the Middle East. After the conclusion of JCPOA, the author found himself briefing a Republican Senator on its provisions. He courteously asked intelligent questions but it was clear that he was not to be persuaded. At the end of our conversation, he said that the difference between us was that the author wanted a win/win solution; he didn’t.
That is evidently Trump’s approach, too: he sees Iran as a malign force and he wants to see them lose even if others aren’t up for the fight. It worked for Gary Cooper in High Noon, but win/lose solutions rarely work so well in international affairs.
The Taliban lost in 2001. Saddam Hussein and his Sunni supporters lost in 2003. How did all that turn out for us?
There is plenty to deplore in Iran’s behaviour, both at home and abroad. As British Ambassador to Iran, the author saw how the Green Movement was crushed after the 2009 elections. Its support for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad is shameful.
Trump sees Iran as a malign force and he wants to see them lose even if others aren’t up for the fight. It worked for Gary Cooper in High Noon, but win/lose solutions rarely work so well in international affairs
However, to pretend that Iran is the only country in the Middle East with a record of delinquent behaviour, or that Tehran does not have valid security interests in the Middle East, or that Iran is run by crazed mullahs with a burning ambition to export revolution, is frankly facile.
It is right to do everything possible to constrain Iran’s negative behaviour, including its ballistic missile programme. But lasting stability will only come when Shi’a Iran and its Sunni neighbours find a way to talk to each other and to recognise that the challenges they face – extremism, social change and economic stresses – mean that co-existence is the only solution.
We should be encouraging that. Trump’s one-sided denunciation of Iran does not.
We have now seen Friday the 13th Part I. We will now await Part II with some nervousness.
Sir Simon Gass is a Senior Associate Fellow at RUSI and former Director General, Political, at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He also served as British Ambassador to Iran 2009–11.
Banner image: Iran's Khorramshahr missile, which has a range of 1,250 miles (2,000 km) and can carry multiple warheads. Courtesy of Mohammad Hassanzadeh/Wikimedia
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.