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Trump and the Iran nuclear deal – a crisis in the making

Matthias von Hein
September 15, 2017

As the world grapples with a nuclear-armed North Korea, the Trump administration is working to terminate the Iran nuclear deal. The catch is, it works and prevents a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

The roadmap for Iran is exchanged
Image: picture-alliance/epa/D. Calma

US President Donald Trump has exactly one month, namely until October 15, to confirm to Congress that Iran is complying with the nuclear agreement. He has to do so every 90 days, as stipulated by the so-called Corker-Cardin law. It was passed by a largely Iran-critical Congress in 2015 to ensure lawmakers had a permanent say in US dealings with Iran. If the president fails to certify that Iran is in compliance with the nuclear agreement, Congress has 60 days to reinstitute sanctions against the country. This would equate to the US de facto leaving the nuclear treaty, which could possibly spark a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

Thus far, Trump has certified twice that Iran is adhering to the nuclear deal, albeit reluctantly. Now, growing evidence suggests he does not intend to recertify the deal in mid-October. Not only did he tell the Wall Street Journal on July 25 that he would be "surprised if they were in compliance." Trump also added that he would, if necessary, ignore his aides' recommendations and even those expressed by the State Department. Trump has meanwhile tasked his own White House working group with producing arguments that Iran is not complying with deal.

Opposition to nuclear deal

That the Trump administration is intent on canceling the Iran nuclear deal also became evident recently at the conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI) think tank, which played an important role in drumming up support in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War. On September 5, Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, held a speech at the AEI on Iran and the nuclear deal, dismissing the nuclear treaty and Iran as an untrustworthy partner. Haley erroneously claimed that "Iran has been caught in multiple violations over the past year and a half."

Indeed, Iran did slightly exceed the agreed limits for heavy water, twice. Heavy water is used to moderate certain types of nuclear reactors. After talks with its treaty partners, Iran agreed to immediately export excess heavy water. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which is tasked with monitoring the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), has consequently certified again and again that Iran is adhering to the conditions of the nuclear deal. The IAEA last did so on August 31, just five days prior to Haley's speech. Haley herself had visited the IAEA in Vienna in late August, insisting on tougher inspections that include military facilities.

Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran's nuclear authority, visits a nuclear power academy
Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran's nuclear authority, visits a nuclear power academyImage: Tasnim/N. Najafzadeh

Most closely monitored non-nuclear state

The JCPOA does not, however, allow for inspections "everywhere and at all times," as Haley demands. The IAEA may inspect previously agreed sites and can undertake inspections "where and when" evidence points to a treaty breach. So far, Iran has rejected not a single inspection request. In a study published in July, the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) thus declared Iran the world's "most closely monitored non-nuclear state." And IAEA director Yukiya Amano recently attested that "Iran is subject to the world's most robust nuclear verification regime. Our inspectors are on the ground 24/7. We monitor nuclear facilities, using permanently installed cameras and other equipment."

Haley's talk at the AEI deliberately mixed up JCPOA stipulations with Iranian rocket tests, regional conflicts and human rights issues. Yet the Iran nuclear deal was never intended to pertain to anything other than Iran's nuclear ambitions. It was solely designed to compel Iran to abandon its nuclear arms program, which it has succeeded in doing. Furthermore, the deal could allow Iran to return to the international community. This has only been a partial success. And so Iran has been able to improve its strategic position markedly in the previous two years, to the frustration of the US and some of its allies.

But a paper published on September 6 by the Soufan Group, a private strategic security intelligence consultant, draws a surprising conclusion: Easing JCPOA sanctions is not to blame. Instead, Iran's regional clout can be mainly explained by the strategic mistakes of its enemies. Chiefly, Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen and its conflict with Qatar.

Misinterpreted German intelligence

This does not hinder Iran's enemies from also utilizing reports by Germany's domestic intelligence service to attack the nuclear deal. In early July, the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) referred to Hamburg's domestic intelligence service to claim that Iran was planning to purchase nuclear material in Germany. The claim was soon cited in other US media. These Iranian attempts to acquire nuclear material, however, dated back to 2009 - long before the nuclear deal was agreed.

German authorities had tried to clarify the timing of these Iranian plans, according to Mark Fitzpatrick. The director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) urged the German authorities to "further clarify this context." Fitzpatrick is optimistic that the JCPOA will endure, despite the Trump administration's stance and a largely critical Congress. That, he told DW, is because Iran has declared it will honor the nuclear agreement even if the US leaves, provided the other treaty partners - the European Union, Great Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia - don't abandon the treaty. This affords the EU a significant role, says Fitzpatrick.

Europeans have reiterated their support for the Iranian nuclear deal. One day after Haley's talk, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le-Drian expressed concern that the Trump administration was putting the nuclear deal in question. And EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini has stressed that "the nuclear deal doesn't belong to one country; it belongs to the international community."