Contrary to some of the reporting and the analyses following Wednesday's Iranian announcement that they were no longer in compliance with parts of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, this doesn’t mean that Iran is any less committed to the nuclear agreement. The announcement came exactly a year since U.S. President Donald Trump himself announced that the U.S. was withdrawing from the JCPOA, which raises the question, why did Iran wait an entire year to make its own tiny withdrawal in retaliation?
The answer is clear. Even without the U.S., the most powerful and influential of the original signatories, in the deal. Even after a series of sanctions has been reimposed on Iran. Even after the Europeans have largely failed to compensate Iran for the losses accruing from these sanctions, despite their promises to do so, Iran is still in the deal. In fact, the non-compliances it announced Wednesday exactly mirror two waivers on the export of heavy water and enriched uranium which the U.S. revoked a week ago. In other words, the only clauses in the JCPOA which Iran is now officially not complying with, limits on their stocks of heavy water and enriched uranium, are those which it can’t comply with anyway due to the new sanctions.
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If anything, the latest development is a testament to how much Iran wants to cling to the agreement. Even in the face of sanctions and crippling economic damage. Because without the agreement, which allowed them to receive tens of billions in frozen assets and removed much wider international sanctions, Iran would have faced much worse and be forced to save face by continuing with an expensive nuclear program that would have likely brought an American or Israeli attack upon them.
The JCPOA is now much less advantageous for them, but they still much prefer to stick with it. To abandon it, after Iranian President Hassan Rohani, with the blessing of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, invested so much political capital in it, would invite massive internal turmoil and probably force Rohani to resign, along with his silver-tongued spokesman, Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif, the public face of the deal. Khamenei may have long ago soured on the deal himself, but he is also aware that pulling out now would be an admission of massive failure also on his part.
Iran is left with the rather empty threat of non-compliance to the uranium and heavy water limits for sixty days (not actually exceeding these limits for now) and potentially in the future also non-compliance with the limit on levels of uranium enrichment.
The threat was issued mainly for appearances sake and in the by now rather forlorn hope that the European signatories of the JCPOA - Germany, France and Britain, may still find a way to allow a few European countries which have not yet left, to continue doing business with Iran.
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Rohani’s announcement was also a barely concealed distress signal over the most recent American steps which are not directly connected to the nuclear agreement. The deployment of an aircraft carrier and B-52 Stratofortress Bomber to the region may just be saber-rattling, but they are aware that National Security Advisor John Bolton is currently calling the shots on Iran in the White House.
Until now, it seemed that the overarching principle of Trump’s haphazard foreign policy was to avoid new wars and any large-scale American military commitments. But Bolton has never hidden his desire to pursue regime change in Tehran, by military means if necessary. The Iranian leadership does not have to be paranoid to wonder whether Bolton isn’t trying to force his president’s hand in to going to war.
The rules of the Middle East dictate that Iran cannot show any fear of the prospect of war, though they are fully aware that their dilapidated military is in no shape to repel an American attack. So they are belatedly threatening to withdraw from parts of the JCPOA, in the hope that this may alert the international community to the possibility of an American attack. The problem with this tactic is that Bolton and Trump are not particularly receptive to international entreaties. Actually, if the world tells them they are dangerously wrong, it would probably encourage them to carry on.
If anything, Iranian threats to withdraw from the nuclear agreement would be music to Trump’s ears. He understands very little about the deal and its significance. What he does clearly remember is how the Obama administration hyped it up as its key foreign policy legacy and in doing so, sowed the seeds of its failure.
The Iran deal was far from perfect, but as an arms-control agreement, it was a pretty reasonable treaty. It did what similar deals in the past, mainly between the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War achieved, kept the arms race in check and minimized the chance of all-out war. That’s why even the chiefs of Israel’s security establishment, despite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s relentless opposition to the deal, were generally positive toward it. While aware of its many flaws, they were still happy with an agreement that guaranteed Israel at least a decade during which Iran would pause in its pursuit of nuclear weapons.
The glaring flaw of the JCPOA wasn’t in the terms of the deal, but in the way it was presented by the Obama administration, particularly by then-Secretary of State John Kerry as a historic agreement that averted almost certain war.
Instead of presenting it accurately as a necessary but limited arms-control deal, and publicly recognizing that the JCPOA would do nothing to rein in Iran’s other activities in the region - its support, boosted by funds made available by the deal, for the blood-soaked Assad regime in Syria, for the Houthis in Yemen and for the destabilization of Iraq, Kerry and Obama portrayed the deal as a new dawn of reengagement with Iran. Literally as peace in our times.
In doing so, they created a target for any Republican administration that would come in their place, especially one of a vain and vindictive president such as Trump who wanted nothing more than to dismantle “Obama’s legacy.” Now Iran’s leaders, by threatening the deal, are playing in to Trump’s hands and doing exactly what he wants them to do. They could also be giving Bolton exactly the excuse he is looking for.