On May 8, US President Donald Trump decided to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) declaring that the agreement concluded on 14 July, 2015 was insufficient to meet the US needs. The other signatory parties (Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany), besides the European Union (EU) are both dumbfounded and belittled, and they have been offering moral support to Iran. The agreement which was endorsed by the UNSC Resolution 2231, adopted on 20 July, 2015, had allowed Iran to continue with an enrichment program to meet the needs of its nuclear energy (for peaceful civilian utility purpose) through adopting a minimum enrichment program, but it had put an eight-year sunset clause on the import of ballistic missile technology.
The attached message Trump conveyed was also loud and clear: his predecessor, former US President Barack Obama, failed to foresee Iran’s regional ambitions detrimental to the US interests in the Middle East (ME). Trump is of the view that Iran’s nuclear capabilities cannot be seen in isolation from the context of Iran’s behavior in the ME. This is how the problem was not with the agreement per se but with the limited range the agreement covered or with the areas the agreement excluded. Trump thinks that an alternative agreement should be as comprehensive in nature as to constrain Iran’s nuclear and regional ambitions simultaneously.
The Trump office sees Iran’s regional ambitions in two forms. First, Iran’s continuation with advancing its ballistic missile program, as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps conducted ballistic missile tests on 8 and 9 March, 2016 in western Iran claiming that tests were possible under the UNSC Resolution 2231. Second, Iran’s support to its affiliated regional organisations active in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza Strip and Yemen. Precisely, of the two, Iran’s efforts to advance its ballistic missile program is a point of major concern, though the Trump office considers that both subsets of regional ambitions are inter-twined. That is, the expertise in the development of ballistic missile program is somehow proliferated throughout the region making all pro-Iran sections or pro-Iran organizations in the ME resort to the launching of mini-ballistic missiles on their respective opponents. If the ambition of Iran to be armed with nuclear weapons to influence the region has been stymied by the JCPOA, the ambition of Iran to extend its influence in the region through a mini-ballistic missile regime has been left unchecked.
The Trump office knows that the idea of disassociation between Iran’s efforts to acquire a nuclear weapon and Iran’s effort to carry on with a ballistic missile regime was the brainchild of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who aired it in 2005. The office thinks that the US administrations led by George Bush and Barack Obama failed to anticipate the relationship between the growth and proliferation of Iran’s ballistic missile program and the state of regional instability.
Nevertheless, the sceptic school of thought related to the Trump office has also raised objections on other sunset clauses mentioned in the JCPOA. The sceptic school opines that Iran’s polite conceding to the clauses meant that Iran must have constituted some alternative ways to achieving its goal of nuclear buildup and conventional arms development. The sceptic school got emboldened by Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s press conference on 30 April, 2018, alleging that Iran had crossed the nuclear red line almost a decade ago while developing secretly the Project Amad, and the same was not disclosed to the JCPOA.
The Trump office aims at achieving two goals. First, a comprehensive agreement could be reached with Iran that could check not only nuclear ambitions of Iran but also its political ambitions in the ME. Secondly, no sunset clause be offered to Iran thereby meaning that Iran would have to shut down its nuclear and ballistic missile programs immediately. Nevertheless, the challenge attendant to this kind of effort is that it took the US and its allies about 15 years to achieve the JCPOA in 2015, and it may take much time and energy to renegotiate a new agreement.
In the US-Iran equation, the US still enjoys an upper hand. The signatories of the JCPOA are helpless because of two reasons. First, the tailor-made option US has is to re-impose unilateral sanctions on Iran. Secondly, the US is demanding from its allies (some of which are signatory to the agreement) to share the financial burden of the security which the US has been extending to them for their presence in the ME. Certainly, this is bad news for Britain, France and Germany, which are otherwise against US’s forsaking the JCPOA. The financial help of its allies is important for the US because US finds its resources sapped in multiple engagements spanning over now one decade in the ME since the Iraq war in 2003. In the face of the new US demand to share the financial burden, these countries along with the EU may prefer to leave Iran to its own devices and may try to appease the US. Hence, the moral support Iran has obtained so far from the other signatory countries of the JCPOA is ephemeral. Further, Russia and China may veto any resolution against Iran at the UNSC but they cannot stop the US from imposing unilateral sanctions on Iran and from inviting secondary sanctions on themselves, if they continue helping Iran by importing its oil.
The critics lash out at the Trump’s decision in two ways. First, the US would waste time to renegotiate a new deal and this renegotiation may take many years to get finalized. Secondly, Iran may react by mounting more trouble for the US forces stationed in the ME. On the other hand, Iran is bound to face two challenges. First, how to brace itself for bearing US sanctions and international isolation. Secondly, how to forestall any regime change meant for replacing hardliners with moderates, though the prospects of the change are dim.
The concept of nuclear non-proliferation has assumed new meaning in the ME. Nuclear non-proliferation has been linked to regional activities or ambitions of a country. It is yet to be seen if this new definition is applicable to the ME only.