Iran nuclear deal endures but the hope behind it has not

Accord enters third year despite continuing mistrust and tension between Washington and Tehran

US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) speaks with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) verified that Iran has met all conditions under the nuclear deal during the E3/EU+3 and Iran talks in Vienna on January 16, 2016.
The historic nuclear accord between Iran and major powers entered into force as the UN confirmed that Tehran has shrunk its atomic programme and as painful sanctions were lifted on the Islamic republic. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / KEVIN LAMARQUE
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Two years ago, Barack Obama hailed the signing of the Iran nuclear deal in Vienna as a historic landmark that “offers an opportunity to move in a new direction” with the Islamic Republic.

But any hopes that the former US president had of a political transformation from the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on July 14, 2015 are all but dead.

As for the deal itself, dubbed by Mr Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, “the worst deal ever”, the disarmament component of it appears to be holding and Mr Trump has backed away from his campaign promise to “rip it up” or even renegotiate its substance.

The deal between Iran on one side and the US and other world powers on the other was designed to prevent Tehran from developing a nuclear weapon by imposing restrictions and strict monitoring of its nuclear programme. In return, tough international sanctions that had crippled Iran’s economy were eased.

A US state department official told The National that the "Trump administration is currently conducting a comprehensive review of our Iran policy, and once we have finalised our conclusions, we will meet the challenges Iran poses with clarity and conviction".

The official stressed US adherence to the nuclear deal “will ensure that Iran is held strictly accountable to its requirements” until this review is completed.

Another official told Reuters on Thursday that Mr Trump is “very likely” to recertify Iranian compliance with the Iran nuclear agreement although he continues to have reservations about it.

Ali Vaez, a senior Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group, said the deal's tragedy “is that it is as successful as it is fragile”.

“It has delivered so far on its narrow objective: effectively and verifiably blocking all potential pathways for Iran to race toward nuclear weapons, while opening the door to the country’s international rehabilitation and economic recovery.”

However, Mr Vaez added that the accord is vulnerable because it has not begun to transform the enmity between Iran and the US “leaving it exposed to an unstable political environment”.

Even opponents of the deal such as Mark Dubowitz, the chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said the agreement “has partially and only temporarily succeeded in pushing Iran's nuclear breakout time from a couple of months to one year”.

Its failings, he said are “in giving Iran patient pathways to nuclear weapons and international ballistic missile capabilities while rescuing the Iranian economy and giving the regime hundreds of billions of dollars in current and expected sanctions relief with which to expand its regional dominance and immunise itself against future pressure".

Mr Vaez said Mr Trump decided to keep the deal in place based on a pure cost-benefit calculus.

“Killing the accord or allowing it to die when Iran is in compliance would lead the other signatories — representing a near international consensus — to blame Washington squarely and likely destroy the broad coalition critical for sanctions enforcement that provided leverage for negotiating the accord in the first place,” he said.

Mr Vaez added that “the administration probably prefers to kill it with a thousand paper cuts, so that the blame game is muddy”.

The Trump administration has imposed new treasury sanctions on Iran, and the US Senate voted by a margin of 98-2 on a bill that also allows for more sanctions on Tehran’s banking sector and its powerful Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Mr Dubowitz said the deal may stay in place but the US administration will probably mount a massive campaign to pressure Iran outside the deal while insisting that Tehran agree to accept changes in a follow-on agreement.

These changes would be to key areas such as access for the UN's nuclear watchdog, the IAEA, to military sites, among others. Both experts agree that any talk of a rapprochement between US and Iran after the deal is in the realm of fantasy. “Even the limited thaw in bilateral ties has now dissipated,” said Mr Vaez.

In both Tehran and Washington, powerful stakeholders moved to ensure the nuclear deal was “a ceiling on, not a foundation for, rapprochement”, he said.

In Tehran, the forces come from the conservative core of the political system ­— the supreme leader and the revolutionary guards. In Washington, the biggest resistance to the deal comes from the US Congress.

Mr Dubowitz said the deal has made Iran's behaviour worse in the region.

“A revolutionary regime with imperialist ambitions is now flush with cash and emboldened to continue a plan of achieving regional dominance,” he said.

On the fate of the Iran nuclear deal that is set to expire in 13 years, Mr Vaez said that such a period is “an eternity in Middle Eastern politics” and “the real question is whether the accord will survive the Trump presidency”.

Mr Dubowitz was more fearful, however, that Iran could emerge over the next decade with an “industrial-size enrichment programme, a near-zero breakout time, an easier clandestine path to a nuclear warhead”, all the while becoming “increasingly immunised against Western sanctions.”