Trump's breach of Iran deal a dark day for non-proliferation

China Plus Published: 2018-05-09 18:38:41
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By Carl Benjaminsen

President Trump has announced that the United States will breach the Iranian nuclear deal by reimposing unilateral sanctions on Iran’s banking, energy, shipping, and transport industries, starting in 90 days.

The Iranian nuclear deal, called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), increased the so-called “breakout time” for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon from a few months to more than one year by imposing stringent limits on Iran’s nuclear capabilities. Iran agreed to the removal of three-quarters of its almost 20,000 centrifuges, which are required for enriching uranium for use in civilian nuclear power reactors – or to make cores for nuclear weapons. It surrendered to Russia its stockpile of uranium, reducing the amount it held by 98 percent to just 300 kilograms, and agreed to limit its stockpile to this level until 2031. It also agreed not to enrich uranium beyond the level required solely for civilian use. And there were restrictions on Iran’s development of other dual-use technologies that could facilitate its development of nuclear weapons. 

U.S. President Donald Trump signs a memorandum declaring his intention to withdraw from Iranian nuke deal at the White House in Washington D.C., the U.S., on May 8, 2018. [Photo: Xinhua]

U.S. President Donald Trump signs a memorandum declaring his intention to withdraw from Iranian nuke deal at the White House in Washington D.C., the U.S., on May 8, 2018. [Photo: Xinhua]

Is the deal working? The overwhelming consensus says yes. During a speech at Harvard University in November last year, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) director general said “Without the JCPOA, we would have much less knowledge of Iran’s nuclear program.” He called the agreement “the most robust verification system in existence anywhere in the world.” As far as the IAEA is concerned, Iran is upholding its end of the deal. In 2016, the chief of Israel’s defence forces, Lieutenant General Gadi Eizenkot, said “Without doubt the nuclear deal between Iran and the West is a historic turning point. It is a big change in terms of the direction that Iran was headed, and in the way we saw things.” Tamir Pardo, the former director of Israel’s external security agency Mossad, said Iran “is fully complying with the deal.” American’s European allies, including France and Germany, had implored President Trump not to abandon the deal. And on Tuesday, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Geng Shuang said the deal helped with “upholding the international non-proliferation” and was “promoting peace and stability in the Middle East.” He said that China was calling on all parties to the deal to continue “fulfilling their obligations in a faithful manner.” 

Despite Iran’s ongoing compliance with the deal, and the efforts of America’s allies and other world leaders to convince him to continue to support it, President Trump is sticking to his 2016 election promise to breach the agreement by reimposing unilateral sanctions on Iran. 

It remains to be seen what happens next. A U.S. State Department spokesperson said America doesn’t want its latest actions to “impact or have unintended consequences on our allies and partners.” But the 39 billion U.S. dollars’ worth of deals Boeing and Airbus signed with Iran after the United States lifted their unilateral sanctions will likely now have to be abandoned. And shortly after President Trump’s announcement, the new U.S. ambassador to Germany tweeted that “German companies doing business in Iran should wind down operations immediately.” 

Iran does little direct trade with the United States. America’s unilateral sanctions on Iran are effective at hurting the Iranian economy because the U.S. Government can threaten to sanction European, Chinese, and Russian companies that do business with the country. So, even though the Europeans overwhelmingly support the JCPOA, if the sanctions are to be effective, the United States will need to threaten its own allies with sanctions if they don’t follow its lead and pull their interests from Iran. It’s not clear how the Europeans will respond to this threat. But what was made clear by the U.S. State Department was that President Trump has not worked with America’s European allies on a coordinated, multilateral approach. So far, U.S. State Department spokespeople were not prepared to say outright whether the United States would sanction European companies for continuing to adhere with an agreement the United States has chosen to abandon.  

The move by the United States to breach the Iranian nuclear agreement has put at risk a critical tool that limited the further proliferation of nuclear weapons. We don't know if, and under what conditions, the Iranians might restart a nuclear weapons research program. But if the deal does collapse entirely because of President Trump’s decision, the world stands to lose the intensive inspection regime that would indicate if this was happening. And Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman raised the spectre of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East when he told CBS television earlier this year “Saudi Arabia does not want to acquire any nuclear bomb, but without a doubt, we will follow suit as soon as possible” if they believe the Iranians were working on a bomb. In a region already experiencing severe instability due to ongoing conflicts, the last thing the world needs are more of the countries involved to have nuclear weapons in their arsenal. 

The world can only hope that calmer heads will prevail, and the threat of nuclear proliferation can be contained. But the move by President Trump to break the word of the United States and walk away from the JCPOA is a big step in the wrong direction. 

(Carl Benjaminsen is a copy editor and reporter at China Radio International. After working in the NGO and local government sectors in Australia, he decided to pursue his passion for learning about China and moved to Beijing, where he now lives.)

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