How will Iran respond if the US leaves nuclear agreement?

While the nuclear deal in its current form has created a more aggressive Iran, scrapping it entirely comes with serious risks.
Sunday 01/04/2018
Iranians cross the road in Sadeqyeh Square in Tehran. (AFP)
Caught in the middle. Iranians cross the road in Sadeqyeh Square in Tehran. (AFP)

US President Donald Trump’s hawkish foreign policy turn shows that his administration is more determined than ever to walk away from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.

After months of threatening to pull out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, signed between Iran and the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China, Russia and Germany, Trump announced he was replacing two high-level foreign policy officials. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is to be replaced by former CIA Director Mike Pompeo and national security adviser H.R. McMaster is to be replaced by former US Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, a fiery voice who advocated war with Iran.

High-ranking officials in Washington warned that the Iran nuclear agreement could be on its way out. Republican Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that if the White House and European leaders could not agree to enact harsher sanctions against Iran, the United States may unilaterally pull out of the agreement.

If Corker’s prediction proves true, what options would the Iranians have?

Iran’s dilemma in such an event would be an economic crisis, which could lead to social unrest. If worst comes to worst, Tehran could see mass protests re-emerge, with the public calling for the ruling religious establishment to step down. Iran would then likely be forced to turn to Russia and China for assistance.

Recent reports stated Iran is already looking in their direction, seeking to strengthen ties with the two major powers. Alaeddin Boroujerdi, head of Iranian parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, recently said that because “Americans are pushing for harder policies towards the Islamic Republic of Iran… we need to strengthen our view towards the East, especially China and Russia.”

Anticipating the United States pulling out of the accord, Iran could start expanding its enrichment capabilities, using centrifuges that are far more efficient than those available in 2006.

With the United States out of the agreement and unable to activate the “snapback” provision of UN Security Council Resolution 2231, Iran could take this step with little risk of facing wide-ranging sanctions. If the United Nations tries to impose new sanctions, Russia and China would be there to veto the resolution. Few, if any, European countries would impose unilateral sanctions on Iran at a cost to their economic interests.

However, there is a worse scenario still: The United States’ move against the Iran accord could embolden an already aggressive Tehran, leading it to increase its destabilising tactics through its ties to terror groups.

The clerical regime in Tehran sponsors a range of extremist groups, giving it the ability to conduct terrorist attacks inside and outside the region. Tehran’s support for terrorist groups in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere is itself a threat to the United States and its allies in the Middle East. If the regime in Tehran ramps up its destabilising efforts, this could exacerbate existing conflicts in the region and lead to new ones outside of Syria and Yemen.

For a region already on edge, this would be catastrophic, potentially opening a Pandora’s box of all-out war.

There is another Iranian reaction that is equally probable: That the regime in Tehran does nothing while escalating its fiery rhetoric and threatening to wipe out Israel. These empty words, which the world has long grown accustomed to, would change nothing on the ground but risk adding to a tense atmosphere in the region.

Iran has a range of platforms through which it can disseminate its message. In addition to at least 55 TV stations broadcasting programmes in numerous languages, Iran has more than 200 radio stations and hundreds of websites and printed newspapers that support its objectives at home and abroad.

Even if it escalates its rhetoric, however, Tehran may well end up accepting new US terms, which would include restricting its interference in neighbouring countries and curtailing its development of ballistic missiles. Such a scenario might sound farfetched but there is a precedent in Iran for such policy shifts.

In 1988, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini agreed to a ceasefire with Iraq in a strategic departure from his previous stance that Iran should continue the war until Iraq’s defeat. Khomeini’s decision ended the 8-year war between the two countries and helped the Iranian regime stabilise the country, which had suffered from an economic crisis caused by the sustained conflict.

Even though the former supreme leader compared the strategic policy shift to “drinking from the poisoned chalice,” the precedent could help current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei justify any policy shift in the future.

Between the probable and the unthinkable, there are many scenarios to consider and, since any mishandling of the Iranian nuclear file could threaten the security of the entire region, it is critical that officials think through all possibilities with care.

While the nuclear deal in its current form has created a more aggressive Iran, scrapping it entirely comes with serious risks. The US president was certainly right to call for restrictions to “fix” the Iran nuclear deal and give international nuclear inspectors more access to Iran’s activities. However, in dealing with the Iranian threat, Trump needs to tread carefully, ensuring Iran’s nuclear ambitions are contained without compromising the security and stability of US allies in the region.