Opening Pandora’s Box: Repercussions of US withdrawal from Iran nuclear deal

Manal Lotfy , Wednesday 9 May 2018

The consequences of Trump’s decision to pull out from the Iran nuclear deal and imposing “high level” economic sanctions are ominous

FILE PHOTO: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani attends a meeting with Muslim leaders and scholars in Hyderabad, India, February 15, 2018. REUTERS

US president Donald Trump: ‘The United States will withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal. It is a horrible, one-sided deal that should have never, ever been made… I will sign a presidential decree to reinstate the highest level of economic sanctions against Iran.’

Iranian president Hassan Rouhani: ‘If we achieve the deal’s goals in cooperation with other members of the deal, it will remain in place... By exiting the deal, America has officially undermined its commitment to an international treaty… The US has never fulfilled its commitments and Donald Trump has a history of undermining international treaties.’

French president Emmanuel Macron: ‘France, Germany and the UK regret the US decision to leave the JCPOA. The nuclear non-proliferation regime is at stake… We will work collectively on a broader framework, covering nuclear activity, the post-2025 period, ballistic activity, and stability in the Middle-East, notably Syria, Yemen, and Iraq.’

Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu: ‘For months now, Iran has been transferring lethal weaponry to its forces in Syria, with the purpose of striking at Israel. We will respond mightily to any attack on our territory.’

EU diplomatic chief Federica Mogherini: ‘The 2015 agreement is delivering on its goal which is guaranteeing that Iran doesn’t develop nuclear weapons, the European Union is determined to preserve it.’

Saudi Foreign Ministry statement: ‘Iran used economic gains from the lifting of sanctions to continue its activities to destablise the region, particularly by developing ballistic missiles and supporting terrorist groups in the region.’


“We would open the Pandora’s Box. There could be war,” warned French President Emmanuel Macron, expressing his fear, in an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, about uncertainty surrounding the Iran nuclear deal that US President Donald Trump described as the “worst deal in history”, “ridiculous” and “insane”.

There are genuine fears in Europe about President Trump’s “all or nothing” approach to the Iran nuclear deal, a prominent European official who participated in the negotiations that led to the deal in 2015, told Al-Ahram Weekly.

“Abandoning Plan A with no Plan B is not a strategy. The Iranian deal was a difficult one to achieve. We negotiated for months. At one point no one was getting any sleep. But we got there in the end. We agreed with the Iranians to build the most robust monitoring system on their nuclear activities. Tehran is complying with the deal. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is satisfied with the implementation. So, abandoning the deal is a huge mistake. If Trump’s administration has issues with Iran’s other activities in the Middle East, that should be addressed separately from the nuclear deal,” he said.

Trump’s approach complicates the options of his European allies and EU leaders are “angry” at Trump, the European official told the Weekly.

In a last-minute bid to convince Trump not to withdraw from the deal, the French president and German Chancellor Angela Merkel made back-to-back visits in April to press Trump to consider his options.

Meanwhile, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson spent Monday in Washington meeting with administration officials to make a case for the deal.

Appearing on Fox News, Johnson urged the US president not to “throw the baby out with the bathwater”. He added Trump was “right to see the flaws in the deal”, but argued they could be fixed.

Johnson also emphasised that “Plan B does not seem, to me, to be particularly well developed at this stage. If you do that, you have to answer the question, what next? What if the Iranians do rush for a nuclear weapon? Are we seriously saying that we are going to bomb those facilities at Fordo and Natanz? Is that really a realistic possibility? Or do we work around what we have got and push back on Iran together? There doesn’t seem to me at the moment to be a viable military solution.”

Johnson also wrote a New York Times op-ed emphasising that “only Iran would gain” from abandoning the nuclear deal whose provisions “handcuff” its nuclear activities.

“Under the deal, Iran has placed two-thirds of its centrifuges in storage and relinquished about 95 per cent of its uranium stockpile. The ‘break out’ time has been extended to at least a year — and the agreement is designed to keep it above that minimum threshold,” Johnson wrote.

“Moreover, inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency have been given extra powers to monitor Iran’s nuclear facilities, increasing the likelihood that they would spot any attempt to build a weapon. Now that these handcuffs are in place, I see no possible advantage in casting them aside. Only Iran would gain from abandoning the restrictions on its nuclear programme,” he added.

It should be noted that while in Washington, Johnson managed only to meet Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, but did not get to see President Trump.

Britain, France and Germany have been working behind the scenes for weeks to preserve the agreement and it is not difficult to see why the EU, Russia and China are desperate to protect it.

Will Trump kill the deal? Could he simply refuse to continue waiving sanctions against Iran, but stop short of declaring the deal void? No one knows, and that makes it very complicated, especially for the UK, France and Germany.

If Trump decided to impose sanctions on Iran immediately, it would present European states with a difficult dilemma: do they follow suit and re-impose sanctions, or refuse and risk facing American sanctions against their companies that deal with Iran?

Uncharted Territory:

Trump’s move will also pose a test for Iran. What will happen to Iran’s existing obligations to allow nuclear inspections? How would Tehran react to the re-imposition of sanctions?

Under the international deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Iran has limited its nuclear activities in return for eased economic sanctions.

For the EU, killing the deal with no alternative is a political disaster. “How can we convince Iran in the future to come to the table to negotiate its ballistic missiles programme? How can we invite Iran to change its behaviour in the Middle East?” asked the European diplomat in conversation with the Weekly.

“Without incentive, we can’t convince Iran to cooperate. Pulling the plug from the deal will only make it very difficult to affect Iran’s behaviour in all sort of issues,” he added.

And the signs the EU is getting from Tehran only emphasise the difficult road ahead. An Iranian diplomat in London laughed off the possibility of renegotiating the existing deal or a new deal.

“That is out of question. No one in Iran, moderates or conservatives, will accept to go down this road. The deal is a good deal for everyone involved. We are happy to keep it as long as it serves us well and protect our interests and dignity. But we are ready for all options. Because to be honest, as we see it, the problem is not the deal but Iranian influence. We are a big county and we are influential and there is nothing America and her allies can do about that,” he told the Weekly.

President Hassan Rouhani warned this week that the United States would face “historic regret” if it pulled out of the accord. In remarks carried live on state television, he said Iran had “a plan to counter any decision Trump may take and we will confront it”. But he also hinted Iran could work out a deal with other signatories, excluding the US.

“If we can get what we want from a deal without America, then Iran will continue to remain committed to the deal. But if not, Tehran will continue its own path,” President Rouhani said.

It is early days to specify the implications of a possible US departure from the agreement. However, there would be some predictable outcomes.

First, US withdrawal would send a message to other nations — particularly North Korea — about the reliability of the US as a negotiating partner.

Second, the move could potentially lead to an arms race in the Middle East if Iran were to decide to leave the deal and re-start its nuclear programme.

Third, feeling exposed and vulnerable, Iran would likely be even more assertive in the Syrian, Lebanese, Iraqi and Yemeni proxy wars. And with no deal or incentive, it would be very hard for the West to confront Iran’s regional activity.

Trump has repeatedly said the deal’s terms are too lenient as it limits Iran’s nuclear activities for only a fixed period and fails to stop the development of ballistic missiles or to address Tehran’s regional activities. But withdrawing from the deal is not the way to address its flaws, according to Johnson.

“Far better to police the deal with the greatest rigor — and the IAEA has certified Iran’s compliance so far — while working together to counter Tehran’s belligerent behaviour in the region.”

In a final attempt to save the deal, President Macron raised last month the possibility of a new deal addressing Iran’s ballistic missiles programme and regional activities. This prospect was highly welcomed by Democrats in the US Congress and many Republicans as support for exiting the deal is thin.

“This agreement is highly flawed, but it is functional,” said Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East peace negotiator for Democratic and Republican presidents, on CNN.

“Walking away from it without a Plan B, I think, is a political interest of the president, but it is not in the national interest,” he said.

Obama Complex:

Trump’s stand and his determination to break the deal left many analysts in Washington arguing, “It is not the deal, stupid. It is Obama.”

Since arriving at the White House more than a year ago, Trump made it his priority to demolish Obama’s legacy.

He started with Obama Care, or the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, and failed spectacularly. Even his own party voted against his plan to sink the act because the president did not have an alternative.

Then Trump withdrew from the Paris Climate Accord and the Trans-Pacific Free Trade Agreement.

The 2015 nuclear deal is the signature foreign policy achievement of Obama’s presidency, and his close association with the deal put it in the crosshairs of his successor.

With a new foreign policy team, including National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who both oppose the deal, President Trump is less and less persuaded by his European allies to keep the deal.

But now is not the time for bad calculations. The region more than ever needs stability.

The consequences of leaving the deal could be far worse than staying in.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 May 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly with headline: Opening Pandora’s Box 

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