The Wider Picture: The Iran Nuclear Deal


May, 2018


  • President Trump has announced the US is withdrawing from the Iran Nuclear Deal in what is a major setback for relations between the US and Iran
  • The decision was taken as the US felt the “sunset provisions” in place would allow Iran to continue to build their nuclear arsenal in time for when restrictions were eventually lifted
  • Trump may have been involved in the obstruction of justice, with potential impeachment repercussions
  • The withdrawal has sparked fears that the conflict between Iran and Israel will continue to escalate, especially after both countries have launched attacks in Syria
  • Israeli intelligence suggested Iran building nuclear weapons was one of the reasons Trump chose to withdraw, although this has not been proven under the current deal
  • The US has faced European backlash over economic sanctions, along with Iran potentially gaining allies in the form of China and Russia
  • The withdrawal may have significant consequences for the upcoming summit between North Korea and the US who will be discussing denuclearisation

“Trump is using the nuclear deal, intentionally or unintentionally, to define the positions for the latest international conflict between global powers”

President Trump has announced he is withdrawing the US from the Iran Nuclear Deal. The deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), limited Iran’s nuclear capabilities while ensuring the Iran would have economic sanctions against them lifted. Trump’s decision was met with fervent disapproval by US allies, yet equally the US withdrawal was seen as a significant gain for Israel’s position in their ongoing conflict with Iran. The decision not only raises questions on facilitating Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but more importantly is shaping the wider political climate.

We begin by dissecting why the US chose, or felt compelled, to withdraw from the deal. President Trump cited the deal’s inherent flaws, namely “the sunset provisions”, which allow Iran to, in simple words, bide their time until the constraints on nuclear capabilities are lifted or reneged. Trump said “the deal’s sunset provisions are totally unacceptable. If I allowed this deal to stand, there would soon be a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Everyone would want their weapons ready by the time Iran had theirs.” There is an element of truth here. Iran’s sunset provision stipulates the JCPOA, unless renewed, limited Iran’s nuclear activity for 10-25 years after the agreement came into practice. Instead of needing to break or cheat the agreement, Iran would be able to build an industrial size enrichment program, in conjunction with a more stable and powerful economy greater equipped to deal with potential economic international sanctions.

However, by withdrawal from the deal Trump is increasing fears that if Iran starts to produce uranium again and ban inspectors from the International Atomic Agency from verifying its programme, Saudi Arabia could then start developing nuclear weapons, and Israel could launch unilateral airstrikes against Iran – an arms race perhaps could ensue. This view is supported by Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif,  who said he would work with the deal remaining partners — France, the UK, Germany, China and Russia — to see whether they could ensure full benefits of the agreement remain for Iran. However, if negotiations with other partners fail then President Hasan Rouhani has made clear he has no qualms with starting the country’s uranium enrichment programme again. Yes, Iran may be in a position to significantly enhance it’s military power in the coming decades, yet the trade-off now would opening up the Middle East to a nuclear frenzy where both Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia will have little legal restrictions on nuclear weapon development. Still, the question remains is the furore surrounding the US withdrawal justified? Saudi Arabia conceivably could follow Iran’s path and enhance their own nuclear weapons capability while the nuclear deal is in place and thus the arms race may happen regardless of Trump’s decision to withdraw. Perhaps then, Trump saw the withdrawal from the deal as critical to ensuring Iran won’t have the stable economy in place to fully implement a nuclear program they potentially would have had if the deal continued.

The latter does seem more likely at the present with Iran’s increasingly aggressive presence in the region doing little it seems to persuade Trump and the US to reverse its decision. Iran launched 20 rocket missiles at Israeli forces in the occupied Golan Heights. The battle for regional dominance shows no sign of slowing down, with the latest move by Iranian forces suggesting the diplomatic approach post US withdrawal from the agreement is unlikely to materialise. Nonetheless, Iran is not alone in escalating tensions between the two regional powers. Israel responded with strikes of their own, reportedly the heaviest by Israeli forces in Syria since the civil war began, hitting Syrian air defence positions. Both countries see each other as their biggest threat, with Syria becoming a proxy outpost for conflict to take place. During the last seven years, Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias have supported Bashar Al-Assad alongside Lebanese Hezbollah forces. Israel fears Iran is solidifying a Lebanese-Syrian front against it, which has led to an increase in attacks and retaliation over the last few months from both sides.

Crucially, the US withdrawal stemmed, at least in some part, from Israeli influence. Mr Trump said: “It is clear to me that we cannot prevent an Iranian nuclear bomb under the decaying and rotten structure of the current agreement. The Iran deal is defective at its core. If we do nothing, we know exactly what will happen.” Trump was clearly worried about Iran’s past intentions to pursue a nuclear weapon, with Israeli intelligence documents recently showing Iran at one time had plans to build one. Although Trump is making his case for withdrawal by drawing upon this information, it isn’t anything new and the US and others knew of it when signing the agreement. Critically the documents didn’t reveal anything about Iran’s current nuclear program which is said to be complying with the deal. Trump’s speech then was, while full of insightful and valid points, was hampered with misunderstanding of the deals provisions.

While the US is consolidating their presence in the Middle East, they may be isolated themselves from the international community. The UK, France and Germany issued a joint statement saying they “regret” the decision and made it clear they would remain in the agreement. The EU has also come out in defence of the reports certifying Iran’s compliance with the deal and have reiterated its commitment to “full and effective implementation of the deal”. Part of this coincides with President Macron’s stance that there is “no plan B” in place if the deal falls apart, yet European backlash also stems from economic origins. Trump said he would initiate new sanctions on the regime, crippling the touchstone agreement negotiated by his predecessor. Trump said any country that helps Iran obtain nuclear weapons would also be “strongly sanctioned.” The sanctions implicated that the US will seek to punish companies involved in business with Iran. This means European companies doing business with Iran, and especially those who use the US banking system, may face problems. The EU has responded that it will be seeking ways to help business continue to do business in Iran and introduce measures to secure financial independence from the US, for example the creation of a European finance house to oversee euro-denominated transactions with Iran. Moreover, while the sanctions have created a rift between the US and its European allies, Iran may gain allies in the form of Russia and China. In China’s case, analysts believe they will continue to buy crude oil from Iran, with Russia also not likely to abide by the sanctions especially considering they are under a barrage of US sanctions themselves. Therefore, Trump is using the nuclear deal, intentionally or unintentionally, to define the positions for the latest international conflict between global powers.

Looking forward, central to the Iran Nuclear Deal is North Korea and it’s not hard to see why in the current political climate. On one hand, you have proponents of the US decision who see the decision to withdraw as important to show Kim Jong-Un that the US will aim to steer the conversation, at the impending summit between the US and North Korea, to favour their interests. Robert E. Kelly, a professor of political science at Pusan National University in South Korea, said “Only a fool would trust the US to keep its word in a rogue state nuke deal now.” Trump, although setting a strong precedence that the US will not accept a weak deal, may have jeopardized the negotiations before they have even begun. The US have set a high bar for success in the talks, yet Kim Jong-Un is not desperate and may see the decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal as a sign of things to come – the US has proved to be an untrustworthy partner in abiding by agreements. Therefore, it will be interesting to see whether Trump’s decision comes back to haunt him and undoes the progress made thus far by North Korea and South Korea towards denuclearisation.

The hope then here, at least from the international community, in particular the trio of France, Germany and the UK, is that the US will return to the negotiating table to allay the tension emanating from the Middle East and Europe.


Written by Abdi Buwe, Edited by Keval Dattani

Warwick Congress Blog

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