A little over a year after Donald Trump’s ascent to the presidency of the United States of America, relations between Washington and Tehran have reverted to the tense, mistrustful and antagonistic patterns of the past. For many, the signing of the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” (JCPOA) on Iran’s nuclear programme in July 2015 portended a new era of openness with the West. In the wake of Donald Trump’s move to the White House, those prospects have faded. Describing Iran as a threat, “a corrupt dictatorship” and a “state that protects terrorism”, Donald Trump has threatened to tear up the nuclear deal, totally destroying the chief diplomatic achievement of his predecessor, Barak Obama. On May 8, Trump announced his decision to withdraw the Uniter States from the JCPOA, and reinstate nuclear sanctions on Iran “at the highest level”. Although largely expected, this decision opens a new period of deep uncertainty and potential risk of conflict.
That matters are regressing was made very clear at the United Nations’ General Assembly meeting in New York in September 2017. Trump’s incendiary address to the Assembly was followed a few days later by one from Iran’s President Rouhani, himself just elected for a second term. The difference in words, the tone and the gestures made, showed a defiant Trump and a calm Rouhani. As tersely summarised in a tweet circulating at the time, “Trump sounded like Ahmadinejad and Rouhani sounded like Obama”, a reference to former Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and to Trump’s predecessor.
The situation has only become tenser since then. President Trump has repeatedly threatened that he will not “certify” to Congress that Iran is respecting the nuclear agreement. Tehran notes that it is the International Atomic Energy Agency alone that has the authority to certify whether or not the agreement has been respected, and so far the IAEA has found Iran to have complied with all its obligations. According to Tehran, the American president’s threats are “evidence that the United States is not a reliable negotiating partner”, a point Rouhani has repeatedly made.
America’s European allies have also waded in. The European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Policy, Federica Mogherini, has reiterated that the JCPOA “is not a bilateral agreement … and it is not up to any single country to terminate it.” Together with Iran, the agreement was signed by Russia, China, the so-called E3 group (France, Great Britain and Germany), and the EU. Europe is a partner in this agreement since the European signatories (the so-called E3 group) have proposed that a number of sanctions should be imposed on Iran so as to “save” the nuclear agreement. This would mean targeting Tehran’s missile programme and its destabilising role in the Middle East, thereby sending the White House a message stating that Europeans are not submissive. Yet such a strategy is opposed by Italy and Austria, countries convinced that new sanctions would do nothing to tone down Trump’s hostility and would damage, perhaps irreparably, the trust established with Iran, which is being “punished” in spite of the fact that it is respecting the commitments entered into with the JCPOA. Furthermore, it is necessary to add that such an outcome would only strengthen those in Iran who continue to oppose the agreement, i.e. the regime’s most extremist representatives. The fact remains that EU foreign ministers who met a few days ago in Luxembourg did not come to a unanimous agreement. On Thursday and Friday, a number of European daily newspapers published a letter signed by 500 MPs from France, Germany and Great Britain, asking the United States Congress to stop all attempts to withdraw from the JCPOA.
But what would happen if the United States were to decide to withdraw from the deal? President Rouhani has, on a number of occasions, said that Iran “will not be the first country to violate the agreement”, but, “would respond decisively and with determination should it be violated by anyone else.” A great deal depends precisely on the European powers. “For as long as the other signatories respect the agreement and Iran can continue to export oil and enjoy the benefits deriving from the agreement, Tehran will not withdraw from it,” observed Ali Akbar Dareini, an Iranian journalist who was the head of the AP news agency in Tehran for 17 years and the author of a monumental three-volume publication on the Iranian nuclear programme, entitled Legitimate Deterrence. Dareini, however, added “if Europe too were to join the United States in adding more sanctions, to the extent of depriving Iran of all benefits arising from the agreement,” then Tehran will no longer feel bound by it (these quotes are from a book recently published in Italy: L’Iran al tempo di Trump).
It bears repeating that the JCPOA has imposed drastic restrictions on all Iran’s nuclear activities, greatly postponing the moment at which Tehran might hypothetically be capable of creating a nuclear weapon, should it wish too. However, according to Dareini, Iran would not rush to build an atomic weapon even if the agreement were terminated. He argues that this has never been Tehran’s intention, “unless it suffered a military attack.” Even before the agreement was signed, Iran’s strategy was rather what Dareini describes as “legitimate deterrence”: achieving breakout capability, or the capability to build a nuclear weapon, without crossing that threshold. This strategy would see Iran develop a latent nuclear capability as a “credible deterrent” without, however, violating its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (which Iran has essentially never violated).
It is, however, certain that having recently re-emerged from years of isolation and sanctions, Iranians are “preparing for new dark time” according to widespread sentiment. In Iran, the nuclear deal, which was a geopolitical earthquake in the Middle East, gave rise to enormous expectations. These included the shared hope that its international isolation was over and that, with sanctions removed, the economy would flourish, and the more relaxed international atmosphere would also favour greater internal openness. Such expectations were probably slightly excessive. Sanctions have effectively been removed and oil trade has resumed (hydrocarbons are the Iranian state’s main source of income), but Iranian banks remain excluded from the American financial system. This is also a serious deterrent for European banks that risk being penalised by the United States if they work with Tehran. There has been a certain degree of revival, but Iranians have not experienced the changes they expected, while the simple threat of destroying the agreement has led many potential investors to assume a “wait and see” attitude.
There is tangible disappointment and, although it is a rare oasis of stability in the region, Iran feels surrounded. The war in Syria is an ever-present challenge. Iran claims it is the only country that has put boots on the ground to stop ISIS and prevent its militias from reaching Baghdad. Between 2,000 and 2,500 Iranians and Afghans have been killed in this effort, a group that Iran honours as “defenders of the homeland”, who fought “to prevent the terrorists of Daesh [ISIS] from entering.” This is not at all a remote possibility, given the terrorist attacks last June on the Iranian parliament and on Imam Khomeini’s mausoleum.
In the meantime, ordinary Iranians are worried about daily matters. The fall of the value of the rial, inflation, the lack of investment and jobs, are all made worse by growing international tension. It is inevitable that one should think back to the crowds protesting in the streets of many Iranian cities at the end of December, especially in the provinces. These protests took both commentators and the Islamic Republic’s authorities by surprise, involving mainly society’s lower classes, workers and the small impoverished middle class. The protests were a wake up call, revealing the deep anger ordinary Iranians feel about the lack of job prospects, inequality and elite privileges. From Tehran’s perspective, one year of Trump’s presidency has caused problems for the supporters of both domestic and international openness.
An Iranian woman walks past a mural on the wall of the former US embassy in the Iranian capital Tehran on May 8, 2018. Credit: Atta Kenare / AFP
Translated by Francesca Simmons