Before the next step in the Iranian Nuclear Treaty saga

US President Donald J. Trump’s targeting of the two-year-old agreement curtailing Iran’s ability to produce nuclear weapons has little chance of sparking a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. It merely serves to show the futility in nuclear deterrence and in international agreements and the significance of energy economics.

President Trump has been keeping the world in suspense over the last few months by not to disclosing when he intends to trash the Iranian nuclear deal he calls an embarrassment. On one hand a disclosed telephone conversation a few days ago between the British and Israeli Prime Ministers gives Iranian leaders hope that European signatories of the agreement will not trash it and will try to persuade Trump to stop short of pulling out and avoid steps that would effectively undermine the accord.

On the other hand if Trump’s record is anything to go by, he is unlikely to heed European calls to keep the Iranian nuclear deal in place, just as he ignored pressure from Europe and others not to pull out of the Paris climate accord.

The most likely scenario is that Trump will refuse to certify Iranian compliance with the deal by October 15, a quarterly requirement mandated by Congress. That would open the door to a re-imposition by Congress of secondary sanctions that were lifted as part of the nuclear deal. So watch the Washington DC news on Monday morning!

If this is the case then it will highlight the futility of such international agreements. Renewed American secondary sanctions on Iran would put European companies and banks at risk of running afoul of US law if they continue to do business with Tehran. There is no indication that it would deter Iranian intentions.

If the United States leaves the treaty and if Europe also follows, then the deal will certainly collapse and Iran will go back to what it was doing before. Hence de facto European compliance with either American secondary sanctions or with the Iranian Treaty would not risk a nuclear arms race.

Spelling this out is to state that Tehran could pursue an unfettered nuclear program but it would require Russian assistance. Even if this were to occur it is unlikely to spark a nuclear arms race with Iran’s arch enemy Saudi Arabia. Despite Saudi cooperation with Pakistan, a nuclear power that has been known since the 1980s future Pakistani assistance is unlikely to involve Pakistan supplying Saudi Arabia with a full nuclear weapon or weapons; more probably supplying sensitive equipment, materials, and know-how used in enrichment or reprocessing.

So what has been gained over the last two years since the signing of the treaty and what could be lost by it being trashed? The answer doesn’t lie in the Iranian nuclear program! Teheran gained the most of the lifting of sanctions by opening its energy export market. The lifting of international sanctions as part of the nuclear agreement gave Iran a vested interest in deploying its energy wealth in ways that would allow it to balance its relations with China and Europe.

Iran boasts the world’s second-largest natural gas reserves and its fourth-largest oil reserves and these could go to Asia via either Turkmenistan or Pakistan and to the European Union / Turkey via the Southern Gas Corridor on the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP).

The next step in the Iranian Nuclear Treaty saga is thus to evaluate Teheran’s potential economic losses rather than its potential nuclear ambitions. In doing so any US secondary sanctions need to consider European energy requirements. Europe and Turkey will weigh these in deciding whether or not to abide by the US secondary sanctions.

Similarly if Trump decides to trash the treaty Europe may decide that its energy needs are paramount over any Iranian nuclear non-compliance. One thing for certain is that now that Europe, Turkey, Asian countries and Teheran have reached agreements, these will not be cancelled by Trump’s whims!

Where does this leave Israel? Watch the Washington DC news on Monday morning to see if Trump will refuse to certify Iranian compliance with the deal by October 15, a quarterly requirement mandated by Congress. Then see if he calls for Congress to impose secondary sanctions. Thereafter look towards North Korean nuclear and missile tests for Iran is not at the top of his list for military strikes or political / diplomatic attention. That leaves Teheran the winner to do as it pleases and Israel forced to do what it needs to do, whenever and whatever.

About the Author
Dr Glen Segell is Fellow at the Ezri Center for Iran & Persian Gulf Studies, University of Haifa.
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