On the face of it while pulling out America from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) appears to be a poll promise, President Trump has pushed volatile Middle East into a deep abyss. Trump who condemned the Iran deal as a shameful concession to a rogue nation promised to scrap the treaty if voted to power. In January, Trump reluctantly signed waiver of sanctions which is reviewed every 120 days and prevailed that he won’t sign the next waiver until radical changes are made in the deal. Trump unequivocally signalled his intention of repudiating the treaty months ahead and hence his announcement on May 8th has been unsurprising. He complained that the deal is “defective at its core” as it curtailed Iran’s nuclear ambitions for a fixed time. Russia exasperated by Trump’s threats raised this issue in UNSC condemning American unilateralism for contemplating changes in the historic P5+1 treaty which has fructified after twelve years of negotiations.
In the last week of April, French President Emmanuel Macron and later Chancellor Angela Merkel travelled to Washington to appease Trump. Notwithstanding, advice of European allies, Trump announced withdrawal of America days before the scheduled review of waiver on May 12th. Back, in 2015 when the historic deal was clinched, critics pointed at glaring lacunae, ill-equipped to rein in on nuclear ambitions of Iran. But countries chose to ignore frailties of the deal, hailed it as a stellar diplomatic feat of Obama administration. Since the deal, Iran conducted more than 20 missile tests and seamlessly expanded its influence in the region.
Days ahead of Trump’s announcement, Iran’s strategic partner Hezbollah swept polls of Lebanon reducing the influence of Saudi-proxy Prime Minister Saad Hairiri and buttressing Tehran’s dominance. Similarly, pro-Iranian leaders are expected to triumph in the over pro-Western forces in the Iraqi elections to be held on May 12th. Having portrayed itself as the messiah of Shias, Iran gained quick access into Iraqi domestic politics. After collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, to stall American expansion in its immediate neighbourhood, Tehran provided refuge and funds to Shia leaders. By 2014, when IS became a dominant force in Iraq, Iran extensively cultivated ties with Sunnis and Kurds, participated in anti-IS campaign and made territorial and communal gains. Iran wanted extermination of IS and restoration of peace in Iraq but preferred a weak government in Baghdad to have enough leverage. Powering its hegemonic aspirations, Iran is steadily growing in strength in the Middle East. Since lifting of economic sanctions, Iran has consolidated its position in Middle East. Clinching evidence confirms that Tehran has been supplying weapons and funds to Hezbollah operating in Lebanon, pro-Assad forces fighting in Syria and Houthi rebels fighting the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. Rejuvenation of Iran has intensified hostilities in the region with Iran and Israel locking horns across the Syrian border near Golan heights. Expectedly, barring two countries Israel and Saudi Arabia, major nations expressed concerns over Trump’s decision.
Trump’s decision created an unprecedented commotion and pushed experts into serious rethinking about the spate of impending nuclear threat and urgent need for evolving a consolidated plan of action. America’s European allies UK, Germany, France expressed serious concerns over Trump’s decision but pledged adherence to JCPOA. Russia was miffed by the decision and China which is threatened by US trade war expressed regret and vowed to safe guard the deal. Besides, withdrawing America from the deal, Trump signed Presidential memorandum reinstating “highest level” of economic sanctions on Iran. Trump’s decision was widely criticized since pulling out the multilateral joint agreement is tantamount to violation of global diplomatic norms. Secondly, 11 detailed reports of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) since January 2016 confirmed that Iran hasn’t violated rules of the treaty and evidently there is no plausible justification for dumping the nuclear deal.
Moments after Trump withdrew from deal Hassan Rouhani of Iran, announced that it will abide by deal and asked other allies to figure out a way forward without US and imposed time limit for such negotiations. But now the crucial issue remains whether the remaining parties can evolve a workable solution that can contravene the US imposed sanctions within limited time frame. He added “Iran will start enriching more than before” if the solution is not satisfactory. Expressing doubts over European support Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei warned, “without receiving strong guarantee from three European countries, we won’t stick to the nuclear agreement”. Iranians who were tired of the four decades of hard-line Islamic rule, overwhelmingly embraced JCPOA and counted on it to alleviate their economic plight. Much against domestic opposition from the Islamic clergy, Rouhani pursued the deal. Capitalising on Trump’s Iran’s foreign policy, hardliners stoked incipient distrust towards America.
Iran and America had tenuous relationship which was irrevocably damaged after Iran held 54 American diplomats and citizens hostage for 444 days in 1980. The republic which was largely controlled by Islamic hardliners since Iranian revolution 1979, avoided forging any relations with the West. But guided by the interest to develop economic and political partnership with international community, Iranian leaders made several attempts to reach out to America. In the process, Iran offered to make few concessions. But America rebuked Iran as part of “axis of evil”. Hence JCPOA, for Iran is a testimony of trust and by abrogating the deal, Trump validated Islamic clergy claims of America as a mistrustful partner.
Responding to Rouhani’s efforts, European bigwigs UK, France and Germany assured that EU3 will not allow the deal to be dismantled. But the larger question remains as how EU can conduct trade under the shadow of US sanctions in this globally interconnected world.
Trump’s decision has massive geopolitical implications. Iran which has just recovered from years of economic sanctions and isolation supplies 4% of global oil. Post-announcement, price of Brent Crude increased by 29 cents, highest since mid-2014. Economic momentum across the World has pushed the demand for oil and major consumers of Tehran’s oil include European and Asian countries. In August 2017, Congress passed Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) which is impeding India’s defence deals with Russia. US economic sanctions against Iran will bring all the oil customers including its European allies under the ambit of CAASTA. These trade dealings might create fresh fissures between America and its European allies. If America grants waiver to European allies and exempts them, then other countries will demand similar concessions with respect to their trade transactions with Russia, North Korea. Reducing the high posturing of “highest level of sanctions against Iran” to mere rhetoric.
China and India, two largest importers of hydrocarbons purchased Iranian oil even during sanctions. With increasing oil demand, both countries will seek a waiver or bypass sanctions to continue buying oil from Iran. If Iran’s two main customers manage to tweak American sanctions, the threat of strictest sanctions of Trump will be null and void. Aside Oil, Iran is strategically important to India as major connectivity hub for International North-South Corridor (INSTC) and investments in development of Chabahar port. America can hardly undermine importance of Chabahar port, an essential transit conduit to Afghanistan. Similarly, Iran is a pivotal link in China’s BRI (Belt Road Initiative) project for Eurasian Integration. China which is already locked in a trade war with America might now increasingly seek to cooperate with EU3 who disfavoured Trump’s decision. In the process, while US might not only be isolated but the revisionist attributes of China will receive a fresh lease for life. Reeling under the burden of economic sanctions Russia which Chinese orbit established strong ties with Beijing. Iran which has shifted its focus from West to East recently signed several agreements with China and Russia. Trump’s unilateralism hastened Tehran’s run into Chinese embrace. Already Iran is cooperating with Russian forces in Syria and this crisis will prompt Iran to join hands with Moscow on issues of mutual concern like Afghanistan, paving way for emergence of a strong China-Russia-Iran coalition. Trump’s ill-advised hasty action has shifted the geopolitical strategic balance in favour of China now. It has annihilated all hopes of regional cooperation in Middle East seat of internecine wars.
In the meanwhile, reports indicate America is mulling a regime change and James Mattis, Defence Secretary and John Bolton, National Security Advisor, known Iranian hawks are now in talks with Iranian resistance groups operating in exile Mujahideen-E-Khalq (MEK). MEK, was once listed as terrorist organization by US State Department. With nuclear deal at the verge of collapse, experts suggest that America might topple the Islamic Republic of Iran. Unravelling of the republic can create a havoc in the region. Strategists point out that Trump donot have a solid plan for regime change in Iran. But he scrapped the deal to destroy Obama’s political legacy and play to domestic politics.
Trump’s faltered Iran policy besides exacerbating regional stability will pose formidable challenges in restoring peace in the Middle East. Trump justified his action as an effort to curtail the “malign activities of Iran”. But what can explain American ineptness in curbing terror activities emanating from the land of Wahhabism and its covert indifference to Pakistan’s nuclear proliferation. With Iran enunciating its keenness to tread nuclear path if European countries fail to rework the deal, Saudi Arabia will intensify its campaign of acquiring nuclear weapon. American history which has been an epitome of hypocrisy has now triggered a nuclear arms race and decimated vestigial hopes of instituting a US-centric World. Besides with abrogation of Iran deal, a testimony of global diplomacy, countries might find it increasingly difficult to tame the nuclear aspirations of rogue nations.
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