On May 8th President Donald Trump declared that the US is walking out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that stirred up a flurry of diplomatic activity across continents. The Iranian Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif visited Beijing, Moscow, and Brussels. Before getting into the nitty-gritty of these post-scrapping activities, let’s first take a look at the historical background of the deal.
It was on July 14, 2015 that the JCPOA, known commonly as the Iran nuclear deal, was announced in Vienna as an international agreement between Iran, the five UNSC permanent members, viz., China, France, Russia, United Kingdom and the US, besides Germany and the European Union.
Under the agreement, Iran is required to eliminate its stockpile of medium-enriched uranium, cut its stockpile of low-enriched uranium by 98%, reduce its gas-centrifuges by about two-thirds for 13 years, enrich uranium for the next 15 years only up to 3.67%, add no new heavy water facility in the next 15 years, confine its Uranium enrichment activities using first-generation centrifuges to a single facility for the next 10 years, and allow free access to IAEA to all its nuclear facilities to monitor and verify Iran’s compliance with the agreement, while in return the US, EU and UN Security Council will lift nuclear-related economic sanctions so long as Iran, on verification, is found abiding by the agreement.
This is hoped to stall the risk of Iranian nuclear proliferation for a decade. Although a few opine that peaceful agreement could be a win-win solution, there hangs a big question over the ‘sunset’ provisions: What after 15 years, for the agreement allows Iran to enrich Uranium beyond 3.67%? Secondly, the provisions for inspection are not strong enough to fully account for its past weaponization activities, accounting for current centrifuge inventories and access to inspect sites to check on these functions leaving a wide gap from what is desired. Thus, the JCPOA, like any other diplomatic compromise, is indeed, imperfect.
Nevertheless, what needs to be appreciated here is: realising that Iran had successfully advanced its uranium enrichment programme and is indeed in a position to produce enough enriched uranium to make a nuclear bomb, Barack Obama administration opted for JCPOA hoping that stringent verification process would at least slow down Iran’s nuclear programme. Further, it was also hoped that once sanctions are lifted, the moderate forces in Iran may get strengthened paving the way for America to exercise new diplomatic options.
Obviously, this does not satisfy the current US President Trump and hence his threat to jettison the agreement right from the day he became the President. He declared that unless the EU and other parties to the agreement help him in getting his concerns satisfactorily addressed, he will reimpose sanctions on Iran. His concerns are: one, the ‘sunset’ clauses after which Iran can ramp up uranium enrichment; two, ban on Iran’s ballistic-missile program; three, unconstrained access for IAEA inspectors to any military site regardless of whether there has been any indication of nuclear activity there; and four, its ‘reckless’ behavior in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and elsewhere in support of terrorist activities must be stopped forthwith.
Unsurprisingly, the key sponsors of the agreement—Britain, France and Germany—who having focused on hiving off the nuclear proliferation from other concerns, are of course, interested to keep the agreement afloat, for right now there is no better alternative on hand. Although they are as much concerned about Iran’s ballistic missiles program and its role in Middle East, they, perhaps, still believe that “walking away at this point would be a much bigger gamble”, for there is no guarantee that they could exert enough pressure on the Supreme Leader Khamenei and the other hardliners in Iran to come back to the negotiating table and accept tougher terms.
In such a scenario, US administration has finally walked out of the JCPOA creating quiet an uncertainty in the Middle East, besides causing much consternation to the E3. Reports indicate that the US administration is very particular of Iran complying with conditions such as permanent end to uranium enrichment, unfettered access for the inspectors, end to missile proliferation, ending support to Hezbollah, Hamas, Houthi rebels in Yemen, Shia militias in Iraq and Taliban in Afghanistan and its complete withdrawal from Syria.
Now the big question is: Will the US allies cooperate in complying with the US sanctions against Iran? If the reports are to believed, the European Union leaders appear to be in no mood to comply with US sanctions, for they have directed the European Commission to invoke Blocking Statute that forbids European companies from complying with the extra-territorial effects of US sanctions. Nevertheless, the fact remains that large European companies cannot afford to ignore the US sanctions.
In the meanwhile, Iran has responded to the US action rhetorically more. Its foreign minister visited Beijing, Moscow and Brussels. exploring the possibility of salvaging the deal. Reports also indicate that he explored with EU leaders the scope to trade in Euros and depositing Iran’s oil-takings in Europe’s central banks. However European leaders may not evince interest to forgo American market. Internally, President Rouhani is facing stiff opposition from hardliners. Nevertheless, they are waiting to see if E3, Russia, and China can save JCPOA. But no encouraging signs are visible, while Israel and Saudi Arabia are airing their own interests differently. In this whole scenario, Russia and China emerge as key players to keep tensions low in the Middle East.
With the unilateral action of the US everything has turned topsy-turvy. Amidst this scenario, India faces tough challenges: oil imports likely to become dearer, external private investments may shy away from Chabahar port project challenging India’s ability to execute the project in time and as a whole its relations with Iran likely to become dicey, warranting India to steer through carefully.