By Ripping Up the Nuclear Treaty, Clumsy Trump Will Only Embolden Iran
While working as a diplomat at the British Embassy in Moscow in 2006, I often visited the massive Stalinist “wedding cake” building that houses the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Once, as I exited into the snow and gales, I clattered one of the huge, heavy wooden front doors into the petite figure of Iran’s chief negotiator in the nuclear treaty talks, Ali Larijani, who was coincidentally coming in the other direction with his delegation.
Mercifully, Mr Larijani was unhurt and a diplomatic incident to destroy the delicate discussions (in which I was also involved in a very minor role) was averted.
President Donald Trump’s move towards withdrawing the US from the Iran nuclear treaty is about as clumsy as my inadvertent assault on Larijani and no more likely to produce a positive outcome. Withdrawal from the Treaty would be a dangerous mistake and achieve none of Trump’s stated aims.
The treaty was one of the most difficult international negotiations of modern times and took over a decade of delicate discussions to conclude. By the time it was signed, Iran was perhaps a few months away from having a fully developed nuclear weapons capability. The treaty succeeded in putting this prospect on hold for at least a decade.
An Iran freed to proceed with developing nuclear weapons would be a greater, not lesser, threat
Trump’s first objection to the agreement is that Iran is breaching its obligations and continuing to develop its nuclear programme. He has demanded stricter enforcement measures be put in place. This argument can quickly be dismissed as spurious. The specialists involved in monitoring compliance are satisfied that Iran is sticking to the terms of the agreement. There are no grounds whatsoever for ripping up or re-opening the treaty on this basis.
The President’s second concern about Iran’s meddling around the Middle East has greater merit. Iran is heavily involved in Iraq. Its military forces and affiliated Lebanese Hizbollah militia were crucial to the survival of the Asad regime in Syria. And it is engaged in a brutal proxy war with Saudi Arabia in Yemen.
None of these interventions are desirable for the US and its regional allies. A strategy to deal with them needs to be developed. But abandoning the nuclear agreement would not help in any shape or form. An Iran freed to proceed with developing nuclear weapons would be a greater, not lesser, threat to the region. Removing this constraint would embolden Iran to interfere even more aggressively in its neighbours’ affairs. And some of them, notably Saudi Arabia, would rapidly seek nuclear weapons too to counter the Iranians.
The agreement would never have been reached if the unrelated military and other activities of the parties to it, such as the US in Iraq, had been mixed into the already complex negotiations. It would be extreme bad faith to reopen the agreement now to incorporate these entirely separate issues. And doing so would have no positive impact on them anyway.
In so much as the agreement does indirectly relate to regional military and political disputes, the current circumstances in Syria make the deal’s survival even more important now. Iranian forces are present there in significant numbers. This presence brings them right up to Israel’s borders. The two countries have already been involved in small skirmishes that could easily escalate into a much bigger conflict. The Israelis already have nuclear weapons. It is hard to imagine how Iran having them as well would improve anyone’s sense of security about this volatile situation.
none of the others are likely to join the US in withdrawing from the deal
One of the threats hanging over the talks that led up to the nuclear deal was that Benyamin Netanyahu’s Israeli government would unilaterally attempt to destroy some of Iran’s nuclear facilities before the agreement could be concluded.
Humouring Netanyahu, who has continued to virulently oppose the deal, appears to be one of Trump’s real reasons, as opposed to his stated ones, for undermining it. This is unwise because, as a recent report in the “New Yorker” detailed, many Israeli security experts disagree with their Prime Minister on this issue. They, correctly, believe that having Iran’s nuclear activities constrained and carefully monitored is far better for Israel’s security than the alternatives. These would be learning to live with a nuclear armed Iranian enemy or attempting an extraordinarily difficult military attack to stop its weapons programme, with all of the deeply dangerous consequences that might entail.
One potential saving grace of the agreement is that it is not Trump’s alone to cancel. Russia, China and the “EU3” of Britain, France and Germany are also signatories to it. The erratically governed Brexit Britain is presently unpredictable. But, certainly none of the others are likely to join the US in withdrawing from the deal. Even so, the impact of a US withdrawal and full re-imposition of sanctions on Iran would do significant damage that still might be enough to sink the agreement for all practical purposes.
While the doors of the Russian Foreign Ministry are not idiot proof, we can only hope that the Iran nuclear agreement that was partly negotiated there is.
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