United States-Iran Deal : A Covenant Under Threat

If the recent brouhaha originating from the White House about abrogation of the arduously-achieved Iran Nuclear Deal brokered by the P5 nations +1( UK, USA, France, China, Russia + Germany)  and the EU is anything to go by, the global landscape is indeed in a flux. In a world under a questionable yet real threat of possession of nuclear weapons of mass destruction by a rogue state like the Democratic People’s Republic Of Korea(North Korea), annulling the deal would prove to be catastrophic in the already volatile sands of the Middle East.

Firstly it would raise serious doubts regarding the US’s resolve towards standing by already ratified international agreements. And secondly, it would further isolate the US which has been on a retraction path from various global forums under the protectionist policies of President Donald Trump and would aggrandize the inevitable rise of China.

The Iran Nuclear Deal, a culmination of two-years of back-channel and official diplomacy alike was touted to be one of the greatest achievements of the Obama Presidency. It was a landmark deal which helped global powers  bring a hubristic Iran to the negotiating table and making it halt its nuclear enrichment program in return for lifting of decades of crippling economic sanctions. But the accord seems to be under a veritable existential threat.

Last week, Donald Trump refused to re-certify the deal, a once-in-90 days exercise under the legislation of Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA) passed in May 2015 under Senator Bob Corker’s stewardship as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Commonly called the Corker- Cardin Law, it limits Presidential authority by making him certify to the Congress that the deal serves US national security interests. It is not a part of the Iran Deal. The reasoning for this expected-move by the US  President was that Iran ‘was not in compliance with the spirit of the deal’ and the ‘economic waiver granted to Iran was not in US’s best national interests’. However his speech stopped short of accusing Tehran of violating the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action(JCPOA), the soul of the deal signed on July 14, 2015. The President has termed it ‘the worst deal ever’ and is in line with his previous actions of scrapping signature Obama initiatives like Healthcare and various international accords.

The signals originating from Washington have been vague at best with Nikki Haley, the US Representative to the UN alleging that Iran has been in defiance of the deal and the UN resolution 2231 by carrying out arms smuggling and supporting local terror groups. The US National Security Advisor Gen HR Mc Master alleged that Iran has of-late been running too many reactors and exceeding its capacity on storage of heavy water which can be used to produce enriched-plutonium.

The US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has been ambivalent in his statements while stating that ‘expectations of the agreement of a more peaceful, stable Middle East have not been met. Perhaps the technical aspects have been met, but the aspirations haven’t.’ The remarks were made in response to questions asked after he arrived from a meeting chaired by  High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini.

There seems to be a broad conclusion even within Trump’s inner circle of Iranian compliance with the finer aspects of the detail. The EU Foreign Policy Chief also made it clear that it wasn’t a bilateral agreement but a multilateral one and the US President was not in a position to de-certify the deal. Moreover she said, the economic interests of European companies would be kept in mind before taking any decisions. Unilateral secondary U.S. sanctions would entail stringent provisions applying to EU companies that deal with Iran. Some of them may buckle and refuse to continue economic ties with Iran, while some may seek the refuge of regulations that the EU used to shield entities from U.S.’s secondary sanctions.

The enrichment sites included the Arak Heavy Water Reactor, Uranium enrichment plant at Natanz and a test centre at Fordow Nuclear Facility.

It would entail a decision either to work with the more lucrative well-established American markets or emerging Iranian economy. It is noteworthy that in the two years since sanctions have been lifted, Iran’s economy continues to grow at a rate of 9.2% per annum and GDP has increased by nearly 4 points. However, the current flurry of statements represent American helplessness  to counter Iran’ s growing strategic and economic influence in the region.

Further,  the US has not been able to control or limit Iranian regime’s support to the Assad Government in Syria, it’s logistics and military support to the Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Palestine and the Houthis in Yemen. It has also not been able to scale down the pace of Iran’s Ballistic Missile Programme. Since these aspects have not been covered under JCPOA, the US finds it increasingly difficult to counter Iran on these fronts owing to mounting pressure from allies Saudi Arabia and Israel.

The Trump Administration has, of now referred the deal to the US Congress for ‘amending the agreement and strengthening its enforcement’. Iran has made it clear that it has been fulfilling it’s obligations under the JCPOA which have been confirmed by the International Atomic Energy Agency(IAEA) and that it would not be the first to pull out from the deal. It has also flatly refused to re-negotiate the terms of the deal. The US meanwhile has imposed fresh sanctions on Iran for its continuation of the ballistic missile programme in violation of UNSC Resolution 2231, the same under which the deal was enacted.

The US administration fears that this threat is capable of metamorphosing into an inter-continental ballistic missile capable of reaching distant US allies. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps(IRGC), the elite military service of Iran has vowed to ‘continue and expand its missile program’ in defiance of the sanctions.

The Missile Program in contrast to the Nuclear Enrichment Program does not reflect a threat to international security when considered in isolation or mutual exclusivity. Re-imposing the sanctions will have a bazooka-effect, since Iran will be purged of all its international obligations and may develop nuclear-guided ballistic missiles in not so distant future. The solution to the Ballistic Program, as was in the case of nuclear enrichment, lies in diplomacy alone and stronger enforcement of the UNSCR 2231  by law enforcing agencies. The IRGC has often been charged with spearheading conflicts in the unstable Middle East especially the bloody war in Yemen and Syria. It has been credited with the covert Nuclear enrichment program which went on for many years until it was caught by Intelligence agencies.

The main US contention is that since the deal has a ‘sunset clause’ under which after 10 years the limits on uranium, advanced centrifuges, and other nuclear restrictions begin to evaporate. The Iran Deal has far-reaching consequences for any violations minor or major there is only one penalty: re-imposition of sanctions. Twice in 2016, Iran had exceeded it’s heavy-water limit marginally by 0.7% and 0.08% in January and December respectively. However each time complied with the limits of JCPOA when notified since it believed that the cap 130 metric tons were not absolute and it could keep the excess in absence of potential buyers. The other sticking point the US raised was increased number of nuclear centrifuges.

Centrifuges are used to enrich Uranium. Enriched Uranium upto 5% can be used for energy generation and enriching it to 90% makes it capable of being used to design a nuclear warhead. Iran has downscaled their centrifuges by 2/3rds and continues to operate and comply with the IAEA regulations as stated in its report. So, the current statements seem to propagate falsehoods in order to generate a public opinion against the deal. All the current American insecurities relate to the future possible violations by the Iranian regime and should not come in the way of correct implementation program.

Any attempts to re-negotiate the terms of the agreement, which President Obama famously once called it ‘ a historic deal which will cutoff Iran’s attempt to develop a nuclear bomb.  It contains the most comprehensive inspection and verification regime ever negotiated to monitor a nuclear program. The prohibition on Iran having a nuclear weapon is permanent.  The ban on weapons-related research is permanent.  Inspections are permanent.’, would further diminish US credibility. Not to mention it would be vetoed by Russia and China when it comes up for discussion in the UNSC.

With the US pulling out of the Paris Climate Accord, the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement(NAFTA) and the Trans Pacific Partnership(TPP), the American decline of global leadership has never been more visible. The long-held yardstick of self-imposed unilateral US Sanctions seems to be on the decline since the world today is no longer bi-polar as it was during the Cold war days.

In a multi-polar world with emerging markets in Asia, the threat of terrorism and climate change, few countries would tow the US line of thought in keeping up with a new era of globalization. US non-compliance would make the US Policy on Afghanistan difficult to achieve and would invariably increase the stakes of another battle after the Iraq Invasion in face of a resurgent Taliban. Further, it would limit the US’s co-operation with Russia in the Civil War in Syria where the latter has a upper hand. Co-operation on North Korea with China would also be another hurdle if the Iran deal is to be de-ratified. In summary, it is not only in India’s interest of a stable nuclear-free Middle East but of the whole global community that the bars of JCPOA are not shattered lest the monster within escape.

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