On third anniversary, survival of Iran nuclear deal in question

Sanctions to hit Iran starting in August after US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 agreement.

Exactly three years after Tehran signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – also known as the Iran nuclear deal – with China, France, Germany, Russia, UK, the US and the European Union, the survival of the hard-fought pact is in question following Washington’s withdrawal in May.

Under the deal agreement signed in Austria’s capital, Vienna on July 14, 2015, Iran cut down its uranium stockpile and scaled back its enrichment programme far below the level required to build a nuclear weapon. It also agreed in perpetuity to notify United Nations inspectors if and when it builds a new nuclear facility. 

In exchange, UN-approved sanctions were lifted in January 2016, and Tehran was allowed to resume trading oil and gas on the international market. A total of $100bn in frozen Iranian assets was also released.

As an original signatory to the deal, the US – under then-President Barack Obama – also pledged to waive secondary American sanctions as long as Iran continued to abide by the agreement.

That allowed Iran to earn an estimated $41bn in oil revenues in the 2016 fiscal year ending in March 2017, and $50bn more the following fiscal year that ended in March 2018.   

According to the UN nuclear monitoring agency’s latest report dated May 24, 2018, Iran continues to abide by the rules set in the multilateral agreement.  

But Obama’s successor Donald Trump, a long-time critic of the deal, pulled out of the pact on May 8 saying it was defective and one-sided

Since then, Washington has imposed a series of additional sanctions on Iranian entities and individuals, as well as foreign companies in Iran, squeezing the country economically and angering its leaders. 

Earlier this month, the US said that it would exert “maximum economic and diplomatic pressure” on other countries to stop buying crude oil from Iran.

In June, following a visit to India by Nikki Haley, US ambassador to the UN, New Delhi has reportedly asked its refiners to prepare for a “drastic reduction or zero” imports of Iranian oil starting in November, when oil-related US sanctions will be reimposed.

“Over and over again, this administration, especially President Trump, has shown his belligerent rhetoric to basically get its negotiating partner to give concessions,” said Kaveh Ehsani, professor in international studies at DePaul University in Chicago.        

But it is clear in the JCPOA negotiations that Iran already gave up its nuclear enrichment, added Ehsani. “So what is there to negotiate?”

Defiance in Tehran

The US decision to withdraw from the deal has left Iran in a quandary: stay in the deal amid the impending economic sanctions or resume nuclear enrichment?

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani have expressed defiance, saying Tehran will never bow down to US demands – such as an end to the country’s ballistic missile programme and withdrawal of its forces from Syria – to reach a new agreement.   

Iran has insisted that it has the right to defend itself using ballistic missiles. On Friday, Khamenei’s top foreign policy adviser, Ali Akbar Velayati, also said that Iran will only leave Syria at the request of Damascus, “not because of Israel and America’s pressure”.

Amid the US-led effort against Iran, there are still signs that Tehran wants to keep the nuclear deal alive. But to do this, Iran has demanded that Europe implement economic guarantees before the US sanctions return between August and November, when the so-called “wind-down period” will expire. 

Mohammad Marandi, a specialist on American studies at the University of Tehran, said Iran’s decision to stay in the deal could hinge on the “practical measures” that the European would take, foremost of which is the continued purchase of Iranian oil. 

“The important thing is the implementation. Otherwise, verbal support for the agreement is not enough,” he told Al Jazeera.

Marandi said that even though many in Iran felt that their country “gave up too much” in signing the nuclear deal, everyone agreed that “once it has committed itself to something, Iran must abide by it”.

Trump announced in May that the US is withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal [Reuters]
Trump announced in May that the US is withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal [Reuters]

For Arash Azizi, a political commentator and doctoral student of history at New York University, “the deal as we knew it is already dead”.

If there is a “face-saving opportunity” that Europe and the other remaining signatories can offer to Tehran, it might still decide to stay in the deal.

“Iran is quite reluctant to leave the deal, and the truth is that it doesn’t have a lot of other options,” he told Al Jazeera.

Bracing for effect of US sanctions

But Azizi also noted that there is not much “meaningful concessions” Europeans can give to Iran, unless they are able to get concessions from the US

As it is, the Europeans do not even have a unified stand on Iran, with France already pressuring Tehran to stop all talk of renewing nuclear activities, said Azizi.

On July 6, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian was quoted by a French radio station as saying that Iran should “stop the threats” of withdrawal from the deal.

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Meanwhile, Ehsani, of DePaul University in Chicago, said that he is “not very optimistic” that the US and Iran would engage in bilateral talks to save the nuclear deal.

Unless the US decides to return to the JCPOA and implement “in full” its commitment to the nuclear agreement, there is no prospect for Iran to talk to the US, said Marandi of the University of Tehran. 

Marandi acknowledged that once US sanctions will return later this year, Iran will face a “period of difficulty”.

“What the Americans are trying to do is try to make ordinary Iranians suffer to an extent that they will bow down to the United States,” Marandi said.

But he said that Iranians will eventually “adjust” and will prove that the US “no longer has the soft power that they have, especially under Trump”.

“All that is left is the weaponisation of the dollar and financial institutions, and the Iranians are determined to make sure that the Americans will fail.”

Source: Al Jazeera