Yesterday US President Donald Trump issued an executive order restoring one set of economic sanctions on Iran that were lifted by the Obama-era nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The sanctions cover Iranian trade in items including metals such as gold and steel, automobiles, and aircraft.
In early November, Trump plans to reintroduce even more crippling sanctions on Iranian oil and banking. Collectively, these sanctions are likely to cause immense damage to the Iranian economy. Even carpets and foodstuffs are being sanctioned by the United States. The European Union and the three European countries that signed the nuclear deal (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom) are attempting to assemble an economic package that will save the deal from complete collapse, but so far with little progress and growing frustration on all sides. A joint statement issued yesterday by European foreign ministers says they “deeply regret” the White House decision.
By reimposing sanctions, Trump aims to force the current regime in Iran to negotiate a more comprehensive nuclear deal, or to inflict enough economic pain to change the regime’s behavior—if not the regime itself. Iran now finds itself in the crosshairs of a president who has made it his personal mission to aggressively combat Tehran.
Trump’s strategy might not have the intended effect, but it is likely to cause Iran to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Does that mean Iran will go all Pyongyang and start developing nuclear weapons? Probably not. But unless a new nuclear deal can be made, Iran can be expected to resume its pre-JCPOA program of uranium enrichment, taking the country to the threshold of becoming a nuclear weapons state.
Why Iran will probably leave the JCPOA. When the JCPOA was signed three years ago, its supporters hailed it as a breakthrough against the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and a chance to welcome Iran back into the fold of nations following a long exile that began in 1979. The nuclear deal’s detractors claimed that the agreement was not broad enough, because it allowed Iran to continue its ballistic missile program unabated and to support its proxies in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen—thereby continuing to push an agenda of regional hegemony.
The May 8 withdrawal of the United States from the JCPOA amplified the debate. The United States is pursuing an almost fanatical campaign, lobbying its allies and partners across the globe, and educating them about the latest sanctions package—as well as the penalties for noncompliance. Critics say the sanctions regime will be ineffective because China and other countries will take advantage of the situation. But others, including several major foreign companies, are taking the sanctions seriously, in some cases withdrawing altogether from Iran.
What is clear is that sanctions will make an already difficult domestic economic situation worse in Iran. Iranians are largely young, educated, and tired of the regime’s policies. Many are angry about the billions of dollars spent in support of foreign wars, and protests are escalating. Iran also finds itself overextended regionally with challenges to its grand strategy in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria. While Tehran’s ally Bashar al-Assad will remain in power, Iran will now find itself in competition with Russia for dominance in Syria, both economically and politically, despite the high price Tehran has paid in both men and money to support Assad.
Trump has made clear that he places little weight on international norms, especially when it comes to treaties made by his predecessor. This is one of the few positive points for Iran, as Trump has largely isolated the United States from its European allies, who are now working closely with Iran and the European Union on a solution to safeguard the JCPOA. This will allow Iran to blame the collapse of the deal on the United States. But that is little compensation for the economic price the regime will pay with the return of sanctions.
A lack of effective economic and political mechanisms to secure the nuclear deal’s benefits for Iran make it clear that the JCPOA has a limited shelf life moving forward. Without access to international markets, Iran has no incentive to remain within the nuclear deal. Once Tehran weighs the costs of holding back its nuclear program versus the benefits of restarting it to pre-JCPOA enrichment levels, an Iranian exit from the nuclear deal is only a matter of time.
Why it’s not in Iran’s interest to leave the NPT. Iran has several options once it leaves the JCPOA. Some statements by Iranian leaders suggest that Iran will race to acquire a nuclear device, ramping up its nuclear program so as to achieve this goal as quickly as possible, either overtly or covertly. Iran’s critics point to its past violations of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in the early 2000s, confirmed by an Israeli intelligence operation earlier this year. (Iran has been a party to the treaty since 1970.)
While frightening, this scenario is unlikely, because it would place Iran in the same category as North Korea: a pariah in the eyes of the international community. On a strategic level, Tehran is keenly aware of this possibility and wants to avoid it at all costs. Even if Iran would like to have a militarized nuclear program, the cost would be massive if not unbearable for the regime.
Like North Korea, Iran is subject to many different types of sanctions, but they are nowhere near as isolating as those North Korea faces. Iran is more reliant on the world economy than North Korea is, especially with regard to petroleum-related exports, and isolation on the scale that North Korea faces would likely be a mortal wound for the regime.
Iran can wait a while before acting decisively, as many of the current UN Security Council sanctions will expire soon. A violation of the NPT by Iran would be a uniting factor for the American and European parties to the Iran nuclear deal and would force countries like Russia and China to come down hard on Iran.
Withdrawing from the NPT and pursuing a militarized nuclear program would also expose Iran to a possible military strike by the United States or Israel. While Trump seems reluctant to wield American military power, Israel has a strong record of being able and willing to strike. Israel has been unafraid to attack Iranian targets in Syria when it feels threatened on its border or in the transfer of advanced munitions from Tehran to Hezbollah via Syria. While Iran is a much larger and more powerful country on paper, Israel has proved in recent battles with Iran to be the superior force. There is strong consensus in Israel that a nuclear Iran would be an existential threat, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has considered striking Iran in the past.
Rather than withdrawing from the NPT, it is more likely that Iran will return to something akin to a pre-JCPOA scenario, with a nuclear program that is enriching uranium to 20 percent or more without the full oversight of the International Atomic Energy Agency—which will almost certainly lose its current ability to access Iran’s known non-military nuclear sites upon Iran’s exit from the JCPOA. In this scenario, Iran will have a short “breakout period”—the time needed to produce enough weapons-grade uranium to build its first nuclear device—estimated at five weeks to a year.
It is important to note that there is a strong likelihood that some trading partners considered important to Iran economically—such as China, India, Turkey, and the European Union—will at least partially flout US extraterritorial sanctions. Such a scenario would be the best of both worlds for Tehran, allowing the regime to achieve the prestige and tacit recognition of a nuclear program that is illicit in nature, all the while not being subject to UN Security Council resolutions and maintaining its standing in the international community. The threat of a military option will not evaporate into thin air, but the United States and Israel may think twice before striking Iran, considering the possible international backlash and the possibility that military action would not cause enough damage to destroy or significantly set back Iran’s nuclear program.
A new deal must be the new goal. There is plenty of middle ground between a nuclear-armed and a nuclear-free Iran. If Iran withdraws from the JCPOA at some point, as seems likely, that would cause the complete collapse of the agreement. And if Iran returns to pre-JCPOA levels of uranium enrichment and continues its ballistic missile program and illicit regional activities, it would then be in the best interests of China, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany to work together with the United States to force Iran back to the table for negotiations and a new deal. The alternative—a new nuclear-armed or threshold nuclear state—is worse.
Trump should have leveraged the threat of withdrawal to negotiate a new deal, but that’s no longer an option. The international community now faces a situation in which a united front in support of American-led sanctions may eventually be the only way to avoid future conflict and prevent Iran from covertly violating the NPT. While Iran may not trust nor wish to engage with the United States right now, Tehran may change its tune once sanctions begin to bite, as it did during President Barack Obama’s second term in office. Europe, China, and other countries should work with Trump, despite hurt feelings and clear dislike for the president’s bullish policies on Iran and a plethora of other issues. While regime change and democracy are noble goals, history suggests that regime change is a fickle process that does not always lead to positive outcomes.
If Iran will not willingly curb its nuclear or ballistic missile programs or halt its illicit regional activities of its own volition, it is the international community’s responsibility to keep the regime in check. The current circumstances are not ideal, but a nuclear-armed Iran or a regime on the threshold of acquiring nuclear weapons would certainly lead to conflict if not all-out regional war.
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