United States President Donald Trump’s speech on October 13, decertifying Iran’s compliance with the landmark nuclear deal agreed to by Iran and the P5+1 group of world powers (US, Britain, France, Russia, China plus Germany) unveiled the beginning of a broad and confrontational US strategy towards Iran. The move, however, has put one of the most complex and high-stakes international issues, which was assumed to be resolved after 13 years of seesaw diplomacy in 2015, in limbo. The emerging situation may end in a chain of unpredictable actions and reactions that nobody, including Trump himself, can foresee.
Trump expressed his goal as directing his administration “to work closely with Congress” and US “allies to address the deal’s many serious flaws so that the Iranian regime can never threaten the world with nuclear weapons”. He said the shortcomings of the agreement included “sunset” provisions under which limits on Iran’s nuclear programme will begin to expire. He also criticised the deal’s silence on Iran’s ballistic missile programme.
But it was apparent that Trump did not know if the Congress and US allies would buy into his plan. “In the event we are not able to reach a solution working with Congress and our allies, then the agreement will be terminated ... Our participation can be cancelled by me, as president, at any time.”
US allies, however, came out bluntly opposed to Trump’s position and indicated that Trump could not unilaterally scrap the deal.
Federica Mogherini, the European Union foreign policy chief, responded to Trump’s announcement, saying, “This deal is not a bilateral agreement ... so it is clearly not in the hands of any president of any country in the world to terminate an agreement of this sort.” She added, “The president of the United States has many powers, but not this one.”
Shortly after, the leaders of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom slammed Trump’s unilateral decision. Their joint statement expressed that “The International Atomic Energy Agency has repeatedly confirmed Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA” — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, otherwise known as Iran nuclear deal — “through its long-term verification and monitoring programme.” They encouraged “the US Administration and Congress to consider the implications to the security of the US and its allies before taking any steps that might undermine the JCPOA, such as re-imposing sanctions on Iran lifted under the agreement”.
This, so far, simply means that the EU will not consent to the US unilaterally changing or watering down the agreement. This puts the Americans in an awkward situation, if not tying their hands completely. When adding Iran’s possible reactions to the mix, the future becomes even more obscure. On October 8, the commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Mohammad Ali Jafari, warned the Americans that if new sanctions are imposed on the IRGC, the US would have to “move their regional bases outside the 2,000-kilometre range of Iran’s missiles.” Simply put, Jafari was warning that if new sanctions were imposed on the IRGC, Iran would attack American military assets (the US fifth fleet) in the region.
On the other hand, in 2015, shortly after the conclusion of the nuclear agreement, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in a letter to Iran’s President, Hassan Rouhani, clearly indicated that any new sanction by “the opposing countries in the negotiations” under any pretext, including “repetitive fake excuses of support for terrorism or human rights”, would void the agreement.
Following Trump’s speech, the US Treasury Department sanctioned the IRGC and added new entities to its sanctions’ list that are claimed to be related to the IRGC. However, Iran’s reaction was extremely mild. The IRGC issued a statement and condemned the sanctions, and Iran’s leader took a rare, pragmatic and diplomatic stance.
“Until the opposite side does not tear up the JCPOA (barjam in Farsi), we will not tear it up. But if he tears up the deal, we will shred it,” Khamenei remarked on October 18.
Nevertheless, Iran’s main purpose of signing the nuclear agreement and largely rolling back its nuclear programme was to have the sanctions — primarily the US sanctions that created an immense pressure on Iran’s energy and banking sectors — lifted. Thus, the re-imposition of sanctions on Iran’s energy and financial sectors would make Iran’s commitment to the agreement meaningless.
In the US, in response to Trump’s move of passing the buck to the Congress, which has 60 days to respond to Trump’s demands, two senators, Bob Corker and Tom Cotton, both known as Iran hawks, are drafting legislation that could lead the US to sanction Iran even if it adheres to the terms of nuclear deal. Cotton openly advocates regime change in Iran. According to several reports, under the legislation proposed by Corker and Cotton, sanctions would be automatically re-imposed if Iran comes within a year of obtaining a nuclear weapon. This would effectively eliminate the “sunset” clauses of the JCPOA, under which the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear programme expire after 10 to 15 years.
If it passed and became law, Iran would most likely abandon the agreement as the move would technically alter one of the crucial points of the JCPOA by limiting Iran’s nuclear programme indefinitely. According to the bill, Iran would be also punished for flight testing, manufacture or deployment of warhead-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles.
But what adds to the vagueness of the future is that the Senate would need 60 votes to pass the Corker-Cotton legislation, which itself would amend previous legislation titled Inara. That is a high bar, considering that the Republicans have only 52 senators and no Democrat senator has yet stepped forward in support of the bill.
So if the Congress would not hand Trump a bill that satisfies his hawkish position towards Tehran, will he use his authority to refuse to abide by the JCPOA that requires the US president to extend the sanctions waivers when the extension is due next time in January?
Whether Congress alters US commitments under the JCPOA or Trump violates it by refusing to extend the waivers, how will the Europeans react? Will they stand by Iran and go against their most crucial ally? Or will they, as they argue, break international law and support the American position? In the latter case, in which Iran would likely renounce the deal, what would be its next step?
Past experience during the years of crisis between Iran and the West over its nuclear issue teaches that Iran would pursue a tripartite plan: It would significantly expand its nuclear programme, speedily enlarge the size and scope of its ballistic missile programme, and intensify its military activities.
How would the US and the West react then? Where would this vicious circle end? No one appears to know. But one thing is for certain: As the German Foreign Minister, Sigmar Gabriel, warned on October 14 — Trump’s move has increased risk of war.
Shahir ShahidSaless is a political analyst and freelance journalist writing primarily about Iranian domestic and foreign affairs. He is also the co-author of Iran and the United States: An Insider’s View on the Failed Past and the Road to Peace..