By Dana Allin, Editor of Survival, and Mark Fitzpatrick, Executive Director, IISS–Americas
With a timely assist from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s exposé about Iran’s old nuclear files, US President Donald Trump looks set to pull the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal. Although he likes to keep people guessing, every indication is that when the next deadline for waiving nuclear-related sanctions on Iran comes up on 12 May, he will refrain from doing so. This will be a material breach of the US obligation under what is formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Whether the deal can survive without the United States will then depend on Iran’s reaction, and on how hard Washington’s dismayed European allies work to keep the deal alive.
In his state visit to Washington on 24–26 April, French President Emmanuel Macron did his best to persuade Trump to stick with the accord. Offering improvements in each of the areas in which Trump has insisted the deal is flawed, Macron sought to appeal to the president’s vanity by calling for a ‘bigger’ deal to supplement the JCPOA. At the end of his trip, however, Macron told reporters Trump likely will pull out of the deal as part of ‘a strategy of increasing tension’ and for domestic political reasons. Macron also called it ‘insane’ to oppose agreements recently entered into.
The same day, Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg said that the delivery of 777 long-range passenger planes to Iran had been deferred ‘in line with the US government process’ but that Boeing’s production lines were not impacted. He implied that an alternate customer had been secured, which likely meant the United Arab Emirates. The Boeing sale would have been in accordance with a provision of the JCPOA in which the US committed to allowing the sale of commercial passenger aircraft, and related parts and services, to Iran.
While Macron and fellow Europeans disagree that the deal is ‘flawed’, or that they should bear responsibility for solving the problem that Trump has created, they have been keen to save the JCPOA by addressing the four issues he identified. Supplementing the deal by reaching a common position among the Western allies on dealing with Iran would, in any event, enhance its security benefits. Macron thus played up the ways in which French, Germany, UK and US officials have already reached a near agreement on additional measures. On inspections, the allies would confirm the right of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to conduct inspections anywhere it has reason to believe nuclear activity might be taking place. The archives of Iran’s past nuclear weapons development efforts that Netanyahu theatrically revealed will need to be reviewed by the IAEA for any clues as to current nuclear activity. Preserving the IAEA’s investigatory rights, which are permanent under the accord, is one of the strongest reasons for preserving the JCPOA.
With regard to missiles, the Western powers are ready to declare that any Iranian intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) development would trigger a very strong pushback. It should be recognised that Iran currently does not have an ICBM programme. On the most difficult issue – the sunset provisions of the JCPOA’s limits on nuclear enrichment – the allies would declare that if Iran’s future nuclear capabilities are not proportional to its civilian energy programme, then they reserve the right to reimpose sanctions. Given that Russia has agreed to supply fuel for the reactors it provides, Iran will not need an industrial-sized enrichment programme for the foreseeable future.
A fourth pillar of the supplemental agreement among the allies would address Iran’s regional military activity in Syria and Yemen by sanctioning Iranian militias and commanders intervening there or transferring missiles. This part of the envisioned package deserves some broader reflection. It would be a good thing, by all means, if the Western allies could unite around new and more effective measures to undermine Iran’s military support for the Bashar al-Assad regime and Hizbullah’s nefarious disruptions. However, a few cautionary notes are in order. European allies are doing the United States no favours if they encourage President Trump’s inclination to follow the Saudi, Emirati and Israeli lead in depicting Iran as the prime mover of all Middle Eastern trouble, and subordinating everything – including the JCPOA – to a cold or even hot war against Tehran. Iran’s malign role, if not the universal cause, is real enough. There are limits, however, to what the allies can or should do about it. In Yemen, the tragic civil war and human catastrophe is unlikely to be resolved by greater application of Saudi military force. In Syria, the most recent US-French-UK airstrikes in response to the regime’s chemical-weapons use arguably delivered a needed message, though it is highly uncertain whether they established an effective deterrent against future atrocities.
What is more clear, however, is that these airstrikes’ tightly limited scope again underscored that neither the US nor its European allies are ready to engage Iran in a decisive battle of interests over Syria. That would be a competition that Tehran, and Moscow, would win. And given that President Trump clearly lacks the stomach or focus for a long slog in Syria, to sacrifice the JCPOA’s significant non-proliferation achievement to vague notions about neutralising Iran’s regional power is nonsensical.
The incoherence of such a trade-off is even clearer in historical perspective. Analogies from history are always imperfect but often needed. To those who object to partnering in a non-proliferation instrument with an Islamic Republic that backs Assad and supports terrorism, we would recall the history of US arms-control negotiations with the Soviet Union. In the 1960s and 1970s, when Moscow was supplying a Vietnamese enemy that fought and killed 50,000 American troops, Washington and Moscow were nevertheless able to jointly lead the negotiations for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), as well as agreeing to bilateral arms-control limits on anti-ballistic missile (ABM) systems and strategic nuclear weapons (SALT).
One reason that both the Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon administrations were willing to negotiate with Moscow, even while fighting Moscow’s proxy in Vietnam, was the simple fact that Russia possessed the nuclear capability to effectively destroy the United States (and vice versa). A paradoxical reason that the Donald Trump administration refuses to accept an already signed non-proliferation bargain with Iran is that the latter, by comparison, is extremely weak. Yet a regional power’s relative weakness does not confer omnipotent strength on the United States, as the Iraq debacle should still remind us. Strategy still requires setting priorities, accepting trade-offs and negotiating – and honouring – agreements with adversaries, even weaker adversaries.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel reinforced Macron’s overall message in her own meeting with Trump on 27 April, though if Trump-whisperer Emmanuel could not persuade pal Don, the more distant Angela will not have done any better. The next act of this drama will demand a great deal of France, Germany and other European powers. If Trump carries out the sabotage he is threatening, then France, Germany, Britain and their EU partners will need to send a clear message to Washington that they will work to preserve the JCPOA even at the risk of a more serious transatlantic rift. This means girding themselves for a resolute pushback against US imposition of secondary sanctions against the companies of its own allies.
The Europeans should strive with all their power to preserve the JCPOA for that day sometime in the future when the United States returns to its senses, and returns to honouring its own commitments.