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Iran nuclear deal withdrawal could force other signatories to offer solutions

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US President Donald Trump’s decision is historic and might have immense consequences for the US role in the Mideast. (AFP)
  • Trump’s decision is historic and might have immense consequences for the US role in the Middle East
  • White House created a business environment that forced risk-averse banks and multinationals to adopt a wait-and-see policy on their dealings with Iran

US President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal ends a political and diplomatic soap opera that has stretched on for months.

The US move can hardly have come as a surprise — Trump had made clear his contempt for Obama’s most significant international achievement, an agreement the US leader referred to as the “worst deal ever,” and described as “rotten and decaying” during his speech on Tuesday.

Trump’s decision is historic and might have immense consequences for the US role in the Middle East, but it highlights a sobering reality: The US never fully implemented the nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

With repeated threats, the White House created a business environment that forced risk-averse banks and multinationals to adopt a wait-and-see policy on their dealings with Iran. More than anything else, this prevented Iranians from enjoying the full benefits of the JCPOA. If the wave of investors Iran was expecting failed to arrive, it is because the expected regulatory earthquake did not happen.

The US never intended to relax its economic pressures on Iran. Washington refused to send the strong signs the financial world was seeking, including the removal of Iran from a Financial Action Task Force list created to counter money laundering and terrorism financing.

However, Trump’s announcement this week has not killed the JCPOA. The nuclear deal is not an international treaty. It has no legal status, and no power beyond the simple commitment of its signatories: Russia, China, France, Germany, the UK, EU and the US.

For different reasons, the other states have reiterated their commitment to full implementation of the nuclear deal.

For France and Germany, the JCPOA is the first step toward a broader agreement that would encompass Iran’s ballistic missile program and its regional role. For the EU, the deal is its first and only diplomatic success. For Russia and China, it is a way to confront the US amid renewed economic tensions and the threat of a tariff war. For all the states, the deal represents a sound financial strategy to access a previously untapped market of 80 million people.

As Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif have said, Iran will stay in the deal as long as the other countries continue to support its implementation.

However, Trump’s decision to reinstate hard-hitting sanctions changes the situation, with non-US companies likely to face sanctions if they trade with Iran. Tehran will now look for concrete support to ease the pain sanctions will inflict on its economy.

While the EU might shy away from taking countermeasures over the US sanctions, Russia and China will have no such reservations. Iranians are looking toward the EU for a solution, but Trump’s decision is pushing them toward the East.

Such support will be crucial to help Rouhani fend off hard-liners who are pushing for his resignation. The Iranian leader’s announcement that Iran will start enriching uranium is a guarantee to those hard-liners, and the moratorium on uranium enrichment is his last call for help to the international community and, more specifically, the EU.

Without a clear response, Rouhani will be unable to resist those demanding a stronger stance. Some have argued Iran should follow North Korea’s path, leave the non-proliferation treaty, develop a bomb — and later receive an invitation to negotiate from the US president. For them, the US cannot be trusted and respects only strength.

The US will soon begin talks with North Korea on the removal of nuclear weapons from the Korean peninsula, but Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran deal could damage its ability to inspire trust and bring meaningful support to diplomatic negotiations.

Many countries in the Arab world had rejected the Iran deal as a flawed agreement that failed to acknowledge the full threat Tehran represents and announced their support for Trump’s decision.

The Iran deal can survive the US withdrawal and might even benefit from it by forcing the other signatories to offer solutions. The agreement is imperfect, but it effectively reduced the likelihood of Iran developing a nuclear bomb.

• Marc Martinez is a UAE-based country expert specializing in Iran.