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CWA # 311, 24 July 2020

The Middle East
Iran Nuclear Deal: It is time to write the obituary, for three reasons

  Samreen Wani

Trump administration's 'maximum pressure' against Iran with the explicit purpose of seeing it yield to American demands has proven counterproductive. If anything, Iran has only managed to outmanoeuvre the United States.

Five years since the Iran nuclear deal was first signed, its future today hangs by a thread. With the annulment of US obligations under the JCPOA, the reimposition of sanctions on Iran's economy and the targetted assassination of General Qassem Suleimani, Washington and Tehran are at daggers drawn. Even a minor strategic miscalculation will qualify as casus belli. With tensions persisting and the precariousness surrounding the deal, it is time to write the Iran Deal's obituary. For the following three reasons.

First, the fallacy of 'maximum pressure'

Trump administration's 'maximum pressure' against Iran with the explicit purpose of seeing it yield to American demands has proven counterproductive. If anything, Iran has only managed to outmanoeuvre the United States. From breaching its enrichment caps under the deal to threatening American warships in the Persian Gulf, from building on its missile program to stepping up attacks by its proxies against US assets in the region, from attacking US banking and financial institutions to the launching of a military satellite- Tehran looks anything but enfeebled.

In early July, Iran's Parliament prepared a plan to stop the voluntary implementation of the Additional Protocol to the NPT Agreement by the IAEA which allows surprise inspection of nuclear sites. Additionally, the mutual designation of each other's armed forces as terrorist organizations has expanded the scope for legally justifying any military action as 'legitimate' and in 'self-defense'. According to a story in the New York Times in March this year, the Pentagon self-defence plan for an escalation of military combat in Iraq. In the same month, the Washington Post reported that the militias backed by Iran are becoming more 'audacious' in attacking US personnel in Iraq in 'broad daylight'. 

Within the Trump administration, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and NSA Robert O' Brien have been pushing the camp for a more forceful approach toward Iran with the hopes of seeing it buckle under pressure. Not surprisingly, Trump also seems to be taking his Iran notes from David Wurmser, known for pursuing and pushing President Bush into the Iraq war. Serving in the capacity of an 'informal advisor' Wurmser is also believed to have made an argument for the drone strikes against General Suleimani.

Another extension of the 'maximum pressure' campaign is the broadening of cyberspace attacks that the Trump administration has granted the CIA in conducting disruptive cyber operations against institutions and individuals from adversarial countries- chiefly Russia, Iran, China and North Korea. According to some former US officials, the CIA has conducted 'at least a dozen operations' in the last two years. This development is worrying considering how it alters threat perceptions for global financial institutions and data security, including raising many legal and ethical questions.

The United States has not yet found the right mix of policy instruments to ensure either deterrence, engagement or containment of the growing Iranian influence in the region.  

Iran, on the other hand, is yet to fully counterbalance the overwhelming US military presence in the region and is yet to neutralize the combined threat of the Israeli and American intelligence and technological predominance. This is where General Qassem Suleimani was important because he understood the divisions and alliances in the Middle East better than his US adversaries. A unique military acumen forged on the region's battlefields and success in embedding Iran in numerous regional countries made the General a threat to US preeminence in the region and posed a challenge to its strongest allies. He was the face of a strategic Iranian emergence before he was assassinated- an act Agnes Callamard Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council terms' unlawful' and 'arbitrary'.

Writing for the New York Times in the wake of General Suleimani's assassination Nicholas Kristoff commented 'There is too much confidence in the ability of the [US] military toolbox to solve complex problems....we often overstate Iran's religiosity but underappreciate its nationalistic sensibilities'.

Second, the uncertainty of two Presidential elections

The outcome of the presidential elections in both the US and Iran (barely months apart from each other) is undoubtedly going to have a significant bearing on the future of Iran's nuclear trajectory. President Trump's handling of the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter protests, the state of the economy and the rising levels of unemployment have made his case for re-election weak (though not impossible). The Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has expressed his will to continue with the deal if elected, but there is no way to know what will remain of the deal to be salvaged for the next administration. Moreover, Glenn Greenwald's outstanding analysis of the recent House Armed Forces Committee (that approved an astounding $ 740 billion in the military budget for 2021) shows that when it comes to continuing America's expansionist and militaristic policies overseas, there is a unanimous bipartisan consensus among the Republicans and Democrats.

However, as of now, there is very little incentive for Iran to continue with the deal. What one can say for certain is that the Iranian demands next time will most certainly go beyond just reversing the financial losses from the US withdrawal. The elaborately televised burial of the General and the outpouring of grief on the streets of numerous cities of Iran are an indication that the Regime is neither willing to forget nor willing to concede.

In Iran meanwhile, the failure of the Rouhani government in countering Iran's economic isolation and distrust of the US government has set the stage for the return of a hardline president in 2021. In the calls for Rouhani's impeachment and the conservative sweep of February's legislative elections, there are clear signs of turbulent times ahead.

So whether it is Joe Biden or the Iranian hardliners who come to power, the entire equation is not just of restoring the deal or opening up the Iranian financial space for business, but also for assuring self-respect and authority. 

Third, the futility of 'Strategic Patience'

Since the US breach of the nuclear deal, the European signatories seem to have adopted what some experts call 'strategic patience' which does little beyond giving assurances of honouring the deal. They seemed to have pinned all their hopes on the next US presidency for easing tensions which frankly, seems futile. This policy of 'wait and watch' has already disappointed Iran and pushed it into the arms of Russia and China whom it sees as reliable partners. The elaborate strategic agreement between Iran and China stretching over 25 years is a clear manifestation of Iranian disillusionment with any meaningful action by the EU. China-Iran military partnership also serves as a bulwark against US bullying in the region. The EU's absolute ineptitude in countering the United States' violations of the deal- whether it is the failure of Dispute Resolution Mechanisms in addressing the impasse or the rollback of sanctions- has left them with very little leverage. If the Europeans are willing to sit this one out, they might as well reconcile to the possibility of just a symbolic involvement in any future negotiations.

The only country that is hedging its bets and leaving nothing to chance is Israel. A spate of mysterious attacks on sensitive locations in Iran like the fire and explosion at an electric power plant at Ahvaz, the attack at the Parchin military facility and the cyber attack on Iran's main port have sparked numerous conspiracy theories. The explosion in Iran's Natanz nuclear facility, largely believed to be a covert operation carried out by Israel, is unlikely to have happened without the prior knowledge of US intelligence agencies. Both have a history of collaboration in hampering Iran's nuclear ambitions- remember Stuxnet? Or the deaths of Iranian nuclear scientists? Israel however, never takes direct responsibility for any of its covert attacks. But, the restart of nuclear enrichment, the exceeding limits of heavy water stockpiles by Iran and the attacks on US interests in the region has increased Israeli impatience with the current status quo. 

Writing for the Guardian on Iran, Simon Tisdall observes 'sabotage, sanctions, sickness - it is a brutal cocktail. An opportunity to defuse the crisis is being squandered perhaps permanently'. With diminishing prospects of any kind of dialogue, anxieties in the region remain high. If strategic patience runs out this low-intensity conflict risks going ballistic anytime.  

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