The tearing up of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is likely to have enormous consequences. It cannot be denied that this is a decision that should not have been entered into lightly. It was an agreement that took 12 years to develop and on the surface appeared to be working. Those who have been pushing for the status quo, including the European Commission and leaders such as Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel and Theresa May, cannot be labelled as “weak”, there are strong arguments for maintaining the status quo and it is true that the JCPOA has led to a form of stability.
However, we also should not be blind to the reasons behind President Trump’s decision; beneath the surface there were undeniably major issues with Iran and their unwillingness to abide by the rules set out for them. As Timothy Stanley has highlighted:
“The deal amounted to bribing Iran to suspend its nuclear program, which is like feeding a wild animal scraps of meat to dissuade it from biting you.”
What is the JCPOA?
Before dissecting the reasons behind President Trump’s decision however, it is important to understand exactly what the JCPOA is. In 2015 Iran agreed to rein in its nuclear programme in a deal struck with the US, UK, Russia, China, France and Germany.
Tehran said that it would significantly cut its stores of centrifuges, enriched uranium and heavy-water, which are all major components for nuclear weapons.
The deal came after Iran had been dealt devastating economic sanctions by the United Nations, the US and the EU that are estimated to have cost it tens of billions of pounds a year in lost oil export revenues. Billions in overseas assets had also been frozen.
It was considered to be a major foreign policy achievement of President Barack Obama and has undoubtedly achieved a level of stability in the region.
What are the issues with the JCPOA?
JCPOA lifted the sanctions against the Iranian regime and essentially threw the regime an economic lifeline and normalised it within the international order.
But Iran is not a normal regime and has clearly expressed a level of contempt for the rules based global order that governs international foreign policy. It is undeniable that Iran has openly invested in uranium enrichment and has continued to invest in nuclear weapons, this is not a secret and these operations happen quite openly.
The Iranian regime has used its newly found economic freedom to expand its power within the region; they’ve established a military presence in the Yemen, in Syria and Lebanon. The impact has been that the closer a country is to Iran, the less likely it is that it will hold a positive position on its regime. The closer you are to Iran the more vulnerable you are to be potential attacks. Therefore of course western countries such as the US, UK and France have up until now, turned a relatively blind eye to the happenings in Iran, they are not close enough to feel the impacts.
JCPOA in its current form does hold a risk of injecting too much power to Iran, which at this stage may see Iran as a hegemonic power on the brink of attaining the bomb. It is a classic case of being very careful what you wish for.
The prospect of Iran becoming a hegemonic power is terrifying for its immediate neighbours. As Iran continues down this path it would seem that confrontation with Iran is inevitable and more or less already happening.
What are the potential impacts of President Trump’s decision?
From a foreign policy perspective, this has the potential to completely re-align how the US counters Islamic extremism. It means that the US may be less focussed on tackling the Islamic State and potentially identifying Iran as a key destabiliser of the Middle East.
What is a greater impact however, is that there is a new centre of gravity in diplomacy. The move made by President Trump deals an enormous diplomatic blow to the European countries, including Germany, France and the UK. These countries have staked everything on saving JCPOA and now these hopes have been dashed. Momentum in geopolitics is now beginning to move with the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia. Trump is forging a new local coalition and is backing it against Iran in a move that goes against convention.
President Trump is gearing for a regime change in the Middle East. It is clear that he does not want Iran viewed as a normal country; he sees this as counterintuitive and unhelpful for the US’s strategic interests. But this does have the potential to backfire on him, if he gets into a consistent habit of going back on previously-agreed decisions, he risks reducing the international legitimacy of the US Presidency.
What does this mean for the EU?
The answer to this question is yet to be fully determined. The EU has joined the British, French and German Governments in pledging ongoing support for the deal.
The main issue for many of these countries is that there is no Plan B. Whilst President Trump’s reasons are valid, there is a risk of pure chaos and no way to necessarily stop it. Perhaps a more sensible approach would have been to work more intently at forging a new deal that addressed the multitude of issues addressed above.
Nevertheless, the EU and its Member States cannot be impervious to the flaws of JCPOA and the reasons why President Trump has turned his back on the deal. From a pragmatic point of view, the goal now must be to act quickly and resolve the issues in Iran before the situation gets out of hand.
The stance taken by the EU is rational and understandable. However, given the importance of this issue and the potential obstinacy of President Trump, perhaps the EU would be better served by looking to work with the US on this issue. Divide between Europe and the US will not lead to a solution and the EU shouldn’t try and compete with the US as it will only lead to further problems.