U.S. Abrogation of Iran Deal Leaves a Puzzling Legacy

By Bernhard Schell

Image source: Forum IAS.

ISTANBUL (IDN) – Iran has been bashed for its January 5 announcement that it would no longer abide by certain "operational restrictions" on uranium enrichment in the nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA. The declaration has also prompted doubts about the regime's activities and intentions and the fate of the nuclear deal. [2020-02-15-29] ARABIC | ITALIAN | JAPANESE TEXT VERSION PDF | PORTUGUESE | SPANISH

"These questions are best understood in the context of the structure of the JCPOA, a deal built on Iran’s commitment that its nuclear activities would be exclusively peaceful," says Ernest J. Moniz, Co-Chair and Chief Executive Officer of the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI).

In a Q&A, he explicates: "First, Iran has biting restrictions on its nuclear activities, some time-limited and others in perpetuity. Second, and more important, Iran is subject to a unique comprehensive verification regime, with the international inspectors granted capabilities available to them nowhere else."

Moniz refutes the widespread view that Iran's announcement was a response to the killing of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani. "The timing was coincidental to the killing of Soleimani. In May 2019, one year after the United States unilaterally withdrew from the JCPOA, President Hassan Rouhani announced that Iran would begin stepping back from some of its commitments and would announce additional steps away from the deal every 60 days, unless the remaining JCPOA partners delivered promised sanctions relief."

The NTI Co-Chair adds: "Iran deemed the subsequent steps taken by the E3/EU countries – France, Germany, and Britain, and the European Union – 'insufficient'. Its 'fifth and final' announcement came on January 5, as expected."

He urges the international community to work to reinvigorate diplomacy to address the Iranian nuclear challenge. Recent actions by Britain, France, and Germany to trigger the 'dispute resolution mechanism' may serve this purpose, he said, "but it is a risky gamble".

Other Iran experts share this view. "By triggering the Iran deal's dispute resolution mechanism, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom are hoping to push the sides back to the negotiating table—but they may escalate instead," argues columnist and foreign-policy analyst on Iran and the Middle East, Saheb Sadeghi, writing in Foreign Policy.

"At a minimum, it will be necessary for the United States to work with our European allies, as well as Russia and China, to press Iran not to further expand its nuclear program. Whether or not the JCPOA survives, the core elements of the deal should remain important touchstones for any future arrangement: well-defined restrictions on Iran’s nuclear fuel cycle activities for a significant period, paired with the highest possible level of international monitoring and verification," says the NTI CEO.

Accentuating another crucial aspect, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell has said that Europe must ensure Iran’s benefits from the nuclear deal if it wants the deal to survive. “If we want the Iran nuclear deal to survive, we need to ensure that Iran benefits if it returns to full compliance,” he wrote in an article in the Project Syndicate published on February 8.

Borrell, a Spanish Socialist, was notified in January by Paris, London and Berlin that they had deployed the dispute mechanism. He said that the EU will extend indefinitely the time limit to resolve disputes in the nuclear deal to avoid having to go to the UN Security Council or triggering new sanctions.

“There is agreement that more time is needed due to the complexity of the issues involved. The timeline is therefore extended,” Borrell said in a statement on January 24.

In the meeting with Borrell in Tehran on February 3, President Rouhani criticized the EU for failing to honour its commitments after the U.S. quit the deal and reinstituted sanctions on Iran. However, Rouhani said, "The Islamic Republic of Iran is still ready to cooperate with the European Union for resolving issues, and at any time that the other side (EU) fully observes its commitments Iran will also return to its commitments."

In May 2019 Iran started to reduce its commitments to the JCPOA at bi-monthly intervals in response to the abrogation of the pact by the U.S. coupled with the European Union’s inaction to shield Iran's economy from choking sanctions.

Anna Sauerbrey notes in an opinion piece in the New York Times on February 10 that the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX) set up by Germany, France and Britain in January 2019 "is a prime example of the futility of Europe’s struggle for strategic autonomy from the United States".

Ever since U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the JCPOA in May 2018, "European countries have struggled to come up with an appropriate response". But in vain. Because the enormous impact of America's secondary sanctions comes not just from the market power of the United States, but also from the power of the dollar and "America’s capacity to legally or factually control financial transaction systems".

Sauerbrey quotes David Jalilvand, a foreign policy expert who runs Orient Matters, a Berlin-based political and economic consultancy specializing in the Middle East: "On some level, almost every company has some sort of connection with the U.S."

Even if a company doesn't operate on the U.S. market, either its bank does, or one of its insurance companies or one of the reinsurance companies backing their insurance companies. "As a consequence, even companies that do not operate on the American market are affected."

"One key, then, to Europe obtaining 'strategic autonomy' in international relations," continues Sauerbrey, "is obtaining a capacity for independent financial transactions."

Tehran has made clear in its announcements that it is taking steps while remaining "within the deal", to cease performing "in part" certain nuclear deal commitments. Iran stated that the steps could be reversed. Though it can never “reverse” the experience gained through nuclear operations, Iran can remove and dismantle equipment and ship out or dilute the material.

According to the NTI Co-Chair, "Iran has so far continued to comply with a key element of the deal: its stringent verification and monitoring measures, including on specific non-nuclear activities needed for nuclear weapons development. If Iran chose to 'break out' of the deal or rush to build a bomb, the verification system would provide early indication."

Reports from International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors, who remain on the ground daily, suggest Iran is increasing its enrichment levels, though only minimally, but is expanding work on more efficient gas centrifuges. But the continued presence of the IAEA is interpreted to mean that the "worst case" breakout estimates, which would require Iran to use all its known facilities and materials, cannot take place without immediate detection by the UN nuclear watch-dog.

As far as plutonium is concerned, which also can be used to build a bomb, Moniz maintains, Iran is abiding by limits in the nuclear deal that prohibit facilities from separating plutonium and is continuing to cooperate with China and Britain to modify its design for a new nuclear research reactor so that it will not produce suitable material for a weapon.

The atomic reactor that they were building before the JCPOA, which would have produced enough plutonium annually for one or two bombs, has been partially destroyed, underlines the NTI chief. [IDN-InDepthNews – 15 February 2020]

Image source: Forum IAS.

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.

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