The US presidential elections are approaching even as America itself has descended into the kind of violence not seen for the last 50 years.
US President Donald Trump faces enormous internal challenges, from the economic repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic to the demonstrations and arson attacks taking place in dozens of US cities in protest against police brutality and institutional racism.
The US administration has also managed to pour more fuel on the fire in foreign affairs by a decision aiming to finish off what remains of the Iranian nuclear deal before the presidential elections in November.
It has announced that it is ending nearly all the last vestiges of the US sanctions relief programme provided under the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the official name of the Iran nuclear deal with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany, by revoking all but one of the sanctions waivers covering civil nuclear cooperation.
The waivers had allowed Russian, European and Chinese companies to continue to work on Iran’s civilian nuclear facilities without attracting US penalties. France, Germany, Britain, China and Russia, all struggling to keep the nuclear deal alive, have sharply criticised the US decision.
The foreign ministries of Germany, France and Britain said they “deeply regret the US decision” in a joint statement. “These projects, endorsed by UN Security Council Resolution 2231, serve the non-proliferation interests of all,” they said.
“The JCPOA is a key achievement of the global non-proliferation architecture and currently the best and only way to ensure the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme. That is why we have worked continuously with the aim of ensuring the full and effective implementation of commitments under the JCPOA, in particular the return of Iran to full compliance with its nuclear commitments without delay,” the foreign ministers said.
Russia has also criticised the US decision, with Moscow declaring that US foreign policy was becoming “more dangerous and unpredictable.” Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry, said the US decision to end the waivers “hampers” international non-proliferation and efforts to preserve the JCPOA.
“The Arak reactor conversion [in Iran] is an important part of the JCPOA and a joint project of the parties to the agreement,” he said. “China is ready to work with other parties to continue upholding the deal and safeguarding its own legitimate rights and interests.”
One European diplomat summed up the mood by saying that “we had hoped that America would not take this step. It is a step without a strategic goal. It only damages the US’s reputation.”
“The American goal is to close all windows of hope to Iran, and push Tehran to withdraw from the nuclear agreement or breach it in an explicit way, precipitating the death of an agreement that is already on life support,” he told Al-Ahram Weekly.
The nuclear cooperation waivers were last renewed in March and expired at the end of May. The revocation now gives foreign companies 60 days to wind down their operations in Iran.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is one of the supporters of the move within the US administration. “The Iranian regime has continued its nuclear brinkmanship by expanding proliferation-sensitive activities,” Pompeo said, adding that Iran had admitted to activities in violation of the deal.
He accused Iran of “nuclear extortion” and said the ending of the waivers “will lead to increased pressure on Iran and further isolate the regime from the international community.” Pompeo also imposed sanctions on two officials in Iran’s Nuclear Energy Organisation involved in the production of the centrifuges used to enrich uranium for nuclear fuel.
In March, Pompeo opposed extending the waivers, among the few remaining components of the nuclear deal that the administration had not cancelled. But officials said at the time that US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin had argued that the coronavirus pandemic had made eliminating the waivers unpalatable at a time when the administration was being criticised for refusing to ease its sanctions on Iran to deal with the outbreak.
The waivers allow foreign companies to work at some of Iran’s declared nuclear sites without becoming subject to US sanctions. Their supporters say they give international experts valuable insights into Iran’s nuclear programme and that the work, for example on nuclear isotopes that can be used in medicine, is civilian in character.
However, Iran hawks in the US Congress pressed Pompeo to eliminate all the waivers, saying that they gave Iran access to technology that could be used for weapons. They strenuously objected to a waiver that allowed work at Iran’s once-secret Fordow facility built into the side of a mountain.
Pompeo cancelled that waiver in mid-December, but the others, which permit work at the Bushehr nuclear power station, the Arak heavy water plant and the Tehran research reactor, had been kept in place. The waiver for work at Bushehr will now be the only one to be extended, in this case for 90 days.
Trump withdrew the US from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018 and has steadily re-imposed the US sanctions on Iran that had been eased or lifted under its terms. Iran’s economy has been struggling as a result, and Tehran has been violating the restrictions in order to put pressure on other nations, notably European, to do more to help it economically.
Iran has taken steps away from the accord and has started injecting uranium gas into more than a thousand centrifuges to enrich it for nuclear fuel. It has said the steps could be reversed if Europe offers it a way to avoid the US sanctions choking off its oil sales abroad.
The Trump administration’s decision to put further pressure on Iran may aim to make it withdraw from the nuclear deal altogether. However, Iran is unlikely to take such a drastic step, at least not in the coming months.
Iran may be able to cope with the US sanctions until the end of the year in the hope that Trump will be defeated in the November elections. While Democratic Party candidate Joe Biden is no angel in relation to Iran, he served as former US president Barack Obama’s vice-president when the nuclear deal was signed.
But whether or not Biden is elected in November, there may be no escape from renegotiating some clauses of the nuclear deal, and Iran has started to put more hardliners in important positions in preparation.
Last week, Iran’s parliament elected Mohamed-Bagher Ghalibaf, a former mayor of Tehran with links to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, as its next speaker, solidifying hard-line control of the body as tensions with the US intensify.
Ghalibaf said in his first major speech as speaker in the conservative-dominated chamber that negotiations with the United States would be “futile”. However, Iran will likely talk if the opportunity comes, the only questions being under what conditions and with whom.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 June, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly