Last month, the U.S. government certified Iran’s compliance to the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal – a required approval mechanism that dictates the life or death of the deal, reviled by the White House’s new resident.
“The Secretary of State is in the process as we speak of certifying to the Congress that the conditions that are laid out in the [Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act] have been met based on information available to the United States,” an anonymous official told The Hill in mid-July.
“However, the Secretary of State and the President intend to emphasize that Iran remains one of the most dangerous threats to U.S. interests and to regional stability and to highlight the range of malign activities by Iran that extend well beyond the nuclear realm,” the official added.
The Trump administration argues that the deal was intended to curb Iran’s support of President Bashar Al Assad via weapons transfers, open hostility to Israel, and continual human rights abuses. But a deal explicitly intended to prevent a nuclear weapons program cannot really aim to change a country’s entire foreign policy agenda.
Last month, U.S. Senators Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton, David Perdue, and Marco Rubio wrote a letter to the White House alleging that Iran had violated the deal’s technical requirements – another untrue claim according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the deal’s main international watchdog.
The deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), has accomplished one key shift in Iran’s domestic politics. It has given moderates and liberals strength in numbers in Tehran, signaling the people’s eagerness to cooperate with the international community on political issues for economic access.
In May, incumbent President Hassan Rouhani, the Iranian face of the JCPOA, beat out rival Ebrahim Raisi by an 18.5 percent margin. Raisi condemned the ruling government of dealing too closely with the United States, an inherently suspect country in orthodox Iranian politics since the ousting of Western-backed Shah Mohammed Reza in 1979.
Still, young Iranian voters, who will make up an increasingly large chunk of the electorate in the coming years (two-thirds of the country’s population is now under 35), voted to keep Rouhani’s politics on top. This outcome was particularly vital for the selection of the next Ayatollah, which occurs by vote of the country’s legislature. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei turned 78 on July 17th and is reportedly suffering from advanced prostate cancer. His days are likely numbered, and he acknowledged this publicly in the days prior to the May elections, hoping to drum up support for conservative candidates who may elect a more traditional religious leader.
Stability in Tehran’s adherence to the JCPOA translates to its continued participation in the international oil game. Since January 2016, when restrictions against the country’s oil sector were officially lifted, Tehran has managed to reach pre-sanction production levels. OPEC’s output quotas have prevented further growth, but those limits are due to expire in March 2018, which is a blink of an eye relative to the six years of economic ostracization Iran weathered before the deal went into effect.
The JCPOA, like NAFTA, is officially “under review” according to the State Department. The classification is decidedly vague and suggests that the administration’s policy masterminds have not devised a plan succinct enough to replace the current deal without making the situation worse. Or the delay could mean Iran just hasn’t been a U.S. priority lately.
The Gulf’s well-orchestrated row against Qatar represents the single biggest development in anti-Iran sentiment in the Middle East since Trump’s election. But like other international stories, this one isn’t covered very well in TV news media. The Russia election scandal takes up most of the airtime. North Korea’s recent ballistic missile tests, which suggest the pariah country could ostensibly hit the U.S., has taken Iran’s place as the biggest nuclear weapons concern for the State Department.
In short, the JCPOA lives because the Trump administration has not prioritized the deal in the current geopolitical landscape. Withdrawing from the unratified deal, like Trump withdrew from the unratified Paris climate change agreement, would take serious geopolitical capital, capital that he lost after leaving the Paris agreement. The European Union could stick to the JCPOA, which is just as well for them because their companies actually have skin in the Iranian oil scene. American oil majors are still barred from doing any business in Iran, so Tehran has nothing to lose economically from a U.S. abstention. At this point, Trump is forced to use carrots, not sticks, to get the policy outcome he desires from Iran.
By Zainab Calcuttawala for Oilprice.com
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