Two years after US withdrawal from the Iran deal, where are we now?
Two years have passed since the unilateral U.S. withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal with Iran. Today, evidence suggests this has resulted in increased tensions and mistrust between the two countries, weakened diplomacy and multilateralism in the international system, a disregard for international law and the United Nations Security Council, increasing differences between the United States and its European allies, and empowerment of the opponents of ties with the U.S. within Iran.
Donald Trump withdrew from the multilateral nuclear deal with Iran, known as the JCPOA, in May 2018, and reinstated sanctions against the country. Subsequently, the U.S. administration began a campaign of maximum pressure on Iran to force it into accepting new negotiations, but met with resistance. Iran began a step-by-step rollback of its commitments under the JCPOA on May 8, 2019, so that there are effectively no more restrictions on its nuclear program at this point. Throughout this time, other JCPOA participants have mostly acted as onlookers. What follows is the position of the signatories to the JCPOA at present.
U.S.: By withdrawing from the deal, the U.S. rendered it ineffective; however, Donald Trump has not yet reached a “better” agreement as he claimed he would. Increased sanctions and designation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization only increased tensions between the two countries to such an extent that they found themselves on the brink of a war in January. There now exists the possibility of an accidental clash between Iranian and U.S. navies in the Persian Gulf or a conflict in Iraq. There is a saying in Persian “you lose your honor and cause us trouble,” which refers to someone pursuing a pointless task. Presently, Donald Trump seems to be a prime example of this. By pulling out of a multilateral deal, he has eroded U.S. credibility, increased the possibility of an unwanted war, challenged ties with his European allies, and caused much trouble for the Iranian people with his widespread sanctions.
Iran: According to surveys, the U.S. public believed that Iran would abrogate the JCPOA after its signature. In reality, it was the U.S. that did so. Hence, the deal showed that Iran can be trusted, although it also convinced Iranian leaders further that the West cannot. On the other hand, Iran’s policy of reducing its commitments under the JCPOA to force the EU to stand up to the U.S. has all but completely failed. While the pressure of sanctions has increased with the COVID-19 pandemic, Iran is now waiting for the outcome of the U.S. presidential election. Iran’s domestic situation now favors the opponents of ties with the U.S. Iranian moderates have been completely weakened by losing this year’s parliamentary elections, and the support of public opinion before that. A conservative win in next year’s presidential election is considered likely.
European Union: The EU would have reaped the most benefits from the JCPOA in terms of security and economy. But many European companies, such as Total, Peugeot, Siemens, Renault, left Iran after the U.S. exit from the nuclear deal and EU leaders were content with issuing a statement condemning the U.S. action. The poor response was a blow to the EU. As the Iranian foreign minister said, the EU should stand up to U.S. sanctions not for Iran, but for its own sovereignty and long-term economic interests. But European leaders have so far preferred to wait for the outcome of the U.S. election. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s remark on abandoning the JCPOA for a “Trump Deal” represented the height of pulling punches when faced with Trump’s bullying. Despite EU claims on human rights, the rule of law, justice, and other moralities and norms, the actions of its leaders showed that self-interests are more important to them than anything else in practice.
Russia: Russia seems to support Iran’s position on the surface, but Iranian public opinion holds no trust for this country. Russia condemned both the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA and maximum pressure on Iran. But next to security — primarily its exit from Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter — a main aspect of the JCPOA for Iran was its economic interest in removing sanctions, about which Russia has very little to say. Although some steps have been taken, such as increased trade in national currencies, Iran’s needs, which are primarily oil sales, have effectively not been met as Russia itself is an oil exporter. Russia has also opposed extending Iran’s arms embargo, as it hopes to sell arms to Iran.
China: China claims the title of the most mysterious country in this agreement. Like Russia, it opposed both the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA and maximum pressure on Iran. But at the same time, Chinese companies like the China National Petroleum Corporation left Iran and China’s imports of Iranian oil dropped drastically. Iran is seeking a strategic relationship with China, but China wants to “deepen strategic trust” with Iran. China even opposed Iran’s membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. They do not refrain, however, from staging joint naval exercises with Iran and Russia. Although the two countries have strengthened their ties in the recent COVID-19 pandemic, China has already shown, like Russia, that it is not a reliable ally of Iran. It is just willing to cooperate with Iran to some extent for its own interests.
The JCPOA, which could have acted as a basis for the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons , effective diplomacy, and multilateralism is now on its deathbed. U.S. officials have announced that under the JCPOA, they will prevent the lifting of the arms embargo on Iran which is due to expire in October. Iran has warned that such a move will be the end of the JCPOA.
Another Persian saying advises that “fools throw rocks in a well that no wise men can take out,” which explains that foolish actions such as this create problems that are difficult, if not impossible, for even capable hands to solve. The Trump administration’s exit from the JCPOA has not only caused trouble for other countries — it has even created new, possibly insurmountable challenges for the U.S.
Trump may have concluded by now that the JCPOA was not, in fact, the worst deal in U.S. history — but leaving it was certainly his biggest foreign policy mistake.