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Trump and the Iran Nuclear Deal

By on January 5, 2017

Iran’s ever-evolving nuclear aspirations are far from breaking news to most of the world. For over two decades, the country’s desire to continue developing its nuclear program has dominated global conversation. In 2015, years of ongoing negotiations with Iran finally concluded when the U.S. and five other world powers agreed to lift sanctions targeting the Islamic Republic’s banking and energy sector in exchange for restrictions in Iran’s nuclear program. Now, almost a year after it’s inception, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), otherwise known as the Iran nuclear deal, will undergo a fresh round of opposition as the new Trump administration prepares to take office.

Snubbed by many as nothing more than a bunch of politicos beating a dead horse, the Iran deal was the culmination of over twelve years worth of negotiations between seven states and the European Union. Under the deal, Iran maintains the ability to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. It agreed to refine its metal to no more than 3.7 percent enrichment, the level needed to fuel nuclear power plants.

Iran also pledged to limit its enriched-uranium stockpile to 300 kilograms, 3 percent of its stores over the next fifteen years. In return, the UN, EU and US agreed to lift sanctions and slowly release more than $100bn in assets frozen overseas.Throughout the course of his campaign, president-elect Donald Trump advocated for a more aggressive Iran policy. Trump pledged that dismantling the Iran deal will be a top priority once he steps into office, calling it “one of the dumbest deals ever.”With less than a month away from being sworn into office, Trump will soon have the opportunity, and the domestic political authority, to reverse the deal in its entirety.

However impulsive Trump may be, reversing the Iran deal would be ill- advised, if not unrealistic. Among other reasons, abruptly dismantling the Iran deal now would serve to isolate the US not just from Iran, but from everyone who participated in the negotiations and who would undoubtedly be affected by the US’s actions. First, renegotiating the Iran deal will be difficult, if not entirely impossible, amidst international pressure to keep the deal’s essential framework in tact. Changing its terms would require the cooperation of Iran and the other signatories: China, France, Russia, Germany, the U.K. and the European Union. Just a few weeks ago, the European Union reiterated its “resolute commitment” to the JCPOA and called for the upholding of commitments by all sides.

Moreover, pulling back now is unlikely to reverse effects already set in motion by the year-old nuclear deal. History rarely- if ever- provides refunds. The fact remains that however strongly critics disapproved of the Iran nuclear deal before its inception in 2015, a deal was still reached. Abandoning the agreement post-facto will neither turn back the clock nor put the US, Iran, or any other world actor back in the same position as it was pre-JCPOA. For better or worse, the sociopolitical climate has since shifted. Since the Iran deal, cooperation between Iran and Russia has strengthened immeasurably. There has been a rapid expansion of communication and economic relations between the two countries, including efforts made to facilitate travel and waiver visa for the two countries’ nationals; negotiations for the establishment of a joint investment bank; agreement for investment by Russia in Iran up to USD 40 billion; and the opening of two lines of credit worth five billion USD and two billion USD by Russian banks. Iran-China ties have also expanded in the post-JCPOA period. With the lifting of sanctions, Sino-Iranian communications as well as various military-to-military exchanges have developed between the two countries. Similarity and interest in developing military technologies to counter U.S. systems struck a resonance between both countries as Iran began to engage China in purchasing several of its military technologies including anti-ship cruise missiles, long distance air-to-air missiles and sea mines.

On a separate note, it is important to acknowledge that despite recent claims of revamping some of its nuclear technologies, in the past year Tehran has reduced its stockpile of enriched uranium by 98 percent, placed two-thirds of its centrifuges in storage, and disabled a reactor capable of producing plutonium. Abrogating from the deal now, or even threatening to do so, would in all likelihood cause Iran to rethink its own compliance. In light of Trump’s impulsive comments, Iranian leaders including Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani, immediately warned that Iran is ready to build a new nuclear enrichment plant the moment the other side violates the nuclear deal.

It is too early to say with complete certainty what position Trump will take once in office regarding the JCPOA. To be sure, pushing back on Iran in the Middle East and continuing to shrink the Islamic Republic’s nuclear aspirations will be an important priority of the incoming Trump administration. However, the international consequences of tearing up the Iran deal in its entirety would only serve to escalate already high tension between the US and Iran.

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About Leah Molayem