RIP JCPOA: Why the Iran Nuclear Deal Won’t Be Revived

World Politics Review, 15.07.2020
Judah Grunstein, editor en jefe

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks behind a screen showing portraits of the late Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the late revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini, and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. (AP/Vahid Salemi).

A series of mysterious explosions have rocked Iran over the past several weeks, including in two locations known to be military and nuclear sites. Although it remains unclear what—or who—is causing the blasts, it is becoming increasingly reasonable to assume they are not mere coincidences. Meanwhile, a leaked document this week purportedly revealed the outlines of a 25-year strategic partnership agreement being negotiated by Iran and China, by which Beijing would provide Tehran with much-needed investment and great-power patronage in return for heavily discounted oil.

Both developments highlight the wisdom of the now-teetering Iran nuclear deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, but also its limitations and the obstacles to any future efforts to revive the agreement.

The explosions, the latest of which happened Monday at a gas plant in eastern Iran, have occurred at several power and energy facilities as well as other industrial locations. But two in particular have captured international attention—one at a liquid fuel production facility used in Iran’s ballistic missile program, and another that heavily damaged a building at the Natanz nuclear facility used to assemble next-generation centrifuges for Iran’s uranium enrichment program.

It’s safe to assume that if the explosions are the work of a foreign hostile power, that the hostile power is most likely either Israel or the U.S., or else the two working together.

If so, what would they be trying to accomplish? Both have recently been engaged in low-level skirmishes with Iran that have flirted with, but somehow avoided, the level of open hostilities—for the U.S., the exchanges of fire in Iraq in December and January that culminated in the killing of Iran’s top military commander, Gen. Qassem Soleimani; for Israel, a tit-for-tat volley of cyberattacks. Israel has also repeatedly targeted Iranian forces and proxies in Syria with airstrikes to enforce a buffer zone near its border.

So if the U.S. and/or Israel are behind the explosions, the current campaign of sabotage could simply be an extension of those tensions. But whether it is meant as a continuation of calibrated, indirect strikes or an escalation remains unclear. A recent New York Times article on the explosion at Natanz suggested that Iran’s limited response to the killing of Soleimani might have emboldened U.S. and Israeli policymakers, creating “an incentive for further operations against it.” That would be a risky interpretation of Iran’s face-saving non-escalation after the Soleimani strike, which already represented a major U.S. escalation. It’s possible Iran has been effectively deterred, but if not, Tehran is likely to eschew a similar off-ramp now in favor of a counter-escalatory strike that once again raises the risk of open conflict.

The explosions could also be an unrelated effort to set back the Iranian nuclear program and, according to Eli Lake, “purchase more time for a democratic revolution” in Iran. Yet another possibility is that the campaign is an attempt to humiliate the Iranian leadership among its domestic audience, demonstrating its inability to protect the country’s highest-security military installations from foreign sabotage, and thereby hasten that same democratic revolution.

A democratic revolution in Iran can’t be ruled out as a possibility, of course, but very few clear-eyed Iran watchers believe one is imminent or likely. More probable in the face of any popular uprising would be a bloody crackdown by a regime that has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to use violence to retain its hold on power. Even if the current regime fell, the likeliest outcomes would be that it is replaced by an even worse regime, or that it leaves in its wake yet another destabilizing power vacuum in the Middle East.

Regardless of the explanation for the campaign of sabotage, if that’s what the explosions are, nothing about it suggests much thought has gone into its long-term goals and implications. Instead, it bears a striking resemblance to Israel’s “mow the grass” approach to Gaza and more recently Syria, only this time targeting Iran on its home turf: periodic strikes to reestablish the status quo, without any effort to address the underlying drivers of conflict.

Worse still, the explosions expose once again how short-sighted the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018 was. The Natanz nuclear installation that was severely damaged on July 2 was a declared site subject to safeguard inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency as part of the JCPOA. And while future strikes might still target as-yet unknown locations, for now nothing about the explosions suggests that Iran was hiding any of its nuclear activities from IAEA inspectors. By every indication, the JCPOA was working to achieve its sole objective—putting severe constraints on Iran’s ability to pursue a nuclear weapon—until President Donald Trump decided to unilaterally walk away from it.

At the same time, the Parchin military facility, which was the first to suffer an explosion on June 26, demonstrates the limitations of the nuclear deal. Like Natanz, it is familiar to Western observers, but as part of Iran’s ballistic missile program, which remained outside the parameters of the JCPOA. The logic at the time was that limiting the negotiations to the nuclear dimension of U.S.-Iran tensions was the only pathway to a deal to remove the most serious threat—a nuclear-armed Iran—from the table. Though not explicitly articulated at the time, it was hoped the nuclear deal would then serve as a confidence-building measure that might, over time, facilitate future U.S.-Iran dialogue toward resolving their many other differences.

Subsequent events in Iraq and Syria proved just how difficult that would be under even the best of circumstances, with administrations in both Washington and Tehran open to the possibility of improved relations. Trump then quickly put an end to any chance of that happening. But Iran’s missile program was a major sticking point even during the brief JCPOA honeymoon period, a concrete reminder of the lack of trust between the two sides and their widely divergent threat perceptions. That it figures prominently in an apparent sabotage campaign that also has Iran’s nuclear program in its crosshairs is therefore unsurprising.

Assuming that Iran continues to show restraint until the November U.S. presidential election, and assuming also that the election is won by Democratic candidate Joe Biden, how likely is it that he achieves his stated intention to return the U.S. to the JCPOA? This is where the Iran-China strategic partnership comes in—not so much for what it might concretely deliver as for what it represents. According to a leaked document obtained by The New York Times, the deal would certainly be a game-changer if it is ever finalized and implemented. Iran would get massive amounts of investment in its telecommunications and banking sectors, and in its port and rail infrastructure, as well as military cooperation on weapons development and joint exercises. For its part, China would secure a prominent stake in Iran’s economy and guaranteed supplies of oil, both at highly discounted prices.

For a variety of reasons, though, the partnership, originally proposed in 2016, faces major obstacles. For one thing, it is already generating opposition within Iran due to the perception that it would lock in what is popularly perceived to be an unbalanced relationship with China. For another, China has a long history of overpromising and underdelivering on deals like this. Add to that the fact that China has historically been reluctant to buck U.S. sanctions and is even less likely to do so given the current dismal state of U.S.-China relations, and it becomes hard to imagine either side exerting itself to push the agreement through.

From a U.S. perspective, however, just the possibility of an Iran-China partnership makes the JCPOA less attractive, even to an advocate of the nuclear deal like Biden, because it underscores the dangers a normalized Iran, freed from the constant threat of U.S. sanctions, would pose to American interests. Nothing about the partnership would run afoul of the JCPOA, meaning that Washington would have no choice but to stand back and watch as its principal global competitor and worst nemesis in the Middle East joined forces. That’s even more unpalatable given the “tough on China” bipartisan consensus that is now solidifying in Washington—a position that Biden, too, has adopted.

Of course, this was always going to be the bitterest pill the U.S. would have to swallow in the event the nuclear deal was successful: watching Iran use the benefits of the deal to continue challenging its interests. Given all that has transpired since the agreement was signed, it’s hard to imagine any American president investing significant political capital into getting the deal back off life support.

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