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Can Donald Trump really scrap the Iran Nuclear Deal?


Muhammad Sheik is a Masters researcher in International Relations at UKZN specialising in Sino-Iranian Relations and is also a radio producer and broadcaster.

Unilateral action from the US would do far more than simply “decertify” the Iran nuclear deal. The geopolitical implications are far more serious than Donald Trump realises.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, more commonly referred to as the “Iran Nuclear Deal”, was adopted on 14 July 2015 in Vienna with the aim of regulating the nuclear enrichment capability and capacity of Iran. British Prime Minister Theresa May, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron issued a joint statement calling the nuclear deal “the culmination of 13 years of diplomacy”.

Trump’s vociferous public criticism of the Iran Nuclear Deal has been clear. He’s on record as saying, “The Iran deal was one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States ever entered into … but what’s done is done” – or is it?

To ask whether Trump will scrap the Iran nuclear deal, or should he, is factually incorrect, because that assumes that he can, which he cannot. This deal was not conceived in isolation, it is a multinational deal and as such cannot simply be scrapped or revoked by one country.

The United States, Iran, China, France, Russia, the UK, Germany and the European Union are all signatories to the deal which effectively places strict limits on Iran’s nuclear programme, and in exchange countries relax sanctions imposed on Iran as a penalty for its nuclear activities. The hypocrisy is overwhelming and clear as day but let’s look at the consequences of such a ridiculous decision by the US President.

First, decertification of the deal by the United States, while foolish, is not in itself a violation of the deal as it does not reimpose sanctions on Iran. Technically, there is nothing in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that requires Trump to certify Iran’s compliance with the deal. That responsibility would fall to the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act conceived by the US Congress in 2015 which gives them the right to review any agreement reached in nuclear negotiations with Iran by the P5+1, aiming to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

Second, if the US pulled out of the deal, which requires Iran putting limits on its nuclear energy programme in return for sanctions relief, this may make other states rethink their decisions about nuclear weapons compliance too, setting a very dangerous precedent. As German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said this week, “My big concern is that what is happening in Iran, or with Iran from the US perspective, will not remain an Iranian issue – but many others in the world will consider whether they themselves should acquire nuclear weapons too, given that such agreements are being destroyed.”

The issue of nuclear proliferation is also one which has dominated foreign policy discussion around Tehran’s role towards ensuring the peace and stability of the region. Iran has been a signatory of the Biological Weapons Convention since 1975, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons since 1991, and the Chemical Weapons Convention since 1995. In an ironic twist, the very nations now calling for an end to Iran’s nuclear enrichment programme were those actively encouraging it during the reign of the Pahlavi regime. According to noted Political scientist Professor Gawdat Bahgat:

In the late 1960s, the Atomic Center of Tehran University and a research reactor were established. Enriched fuel was supplied by an American company called AMF. In the following decade, Iran signed several agreements with the United States (1974) to buy eight reactors, with Germany (1974) to build a power reactor at Bushehr, and with France (1977) to build two reactors at Darkhovin. In addition, Iran purchased a 10 percent share in a uranium enrichment plant built by a French company called Tricastin. In other words, Western governments and companies worked closely with the monarchy to build an ambitious nuclear programme.”

Over the last few days Trump has made a number of factually incorrect assertions on the Iran Nuclear Deal while ignoring the complexity of strained ties between Tehran and Washington since the fall of the Shah in 1979. As with most of Trump’s addresses, additional fact-checking is required.

Trump says that the deal allows Iran to continue developing certain elements of its nuclear programme which will inevitably lead towards a “nuclear weapons breakout”. No country in the world ever has or will agree to an indefinite ban on nuclear activities, given that it has a right to have a non-nuclear programme under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

What Trump conveniently neglected to mention was that under the agreement, Iran is permanently prohibited from acquiring nuclear weapons, and will be subject to certain restrictions and additional monitoring. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s latest report on Iran in August 2017, the country remains in compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal made with world powers. The UN atomic watchdog’s third report since the inauguration of Donald Trump also states that Iran’s stock of low-enriched uranium is being used for peaceful purposes, and did not exceed the agreed limit of 300kg.

In June 2015, Iran had almost 20,000 centrifuges. Under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action it will be limited to installing no more than 5,060 of the oldest and least efficient centrifuges at its fuel enrichment plant in Natanz, located 70 kilometres south-east of Isfahan, for 10 years. Iran’s uranium stockpile has also been reduced by 98% to 300kg for 15 years. It must also keep its level of enrichment at 3.67%. By January 2016, Iran had drastically reduced the number of centrifuges installed at Natanz and shipped tonnes of low-enriched uranium to Russia.

For the next 15 years, Iran will have 24 days to comply with any IAEA access request. If it refuses, an eight-member joint commission – including Iran – will rule on the issue. It can decide on punitive steps, including the reimposition of sanctions. A majority vote by the commission will suffice.

Of all the decisions made by Trump during his time in office this may be the single most important global issue with lasting security implications which must be viewed as imperative in averting the threat of a global nuclear crisis. DM


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