International nuclear pact with Iran could collapse in 2020, analysts say

Tensions between the United States and Iran are rising because of a spike of attacks on military bases in Iraq that host US troops.
Sunday 22/12/2019
Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Political Affairs Abbas Araghchi (C-R) and German Secretary-General of the European External Action Service Helga Maria Schmid (C-L) attend a meeting of the Joint Commission on Iran’s nuclear programme in Vienna, December 6.      (AFP)
Deadlock. Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Political Affairs Abbas Araghchi (C-R) and German Secretary-General of the European External Action Service Helga Maria Schmid (C-L) attend a meeting of the Joint Commission on Iran’s nuclear programme in Vien

ISTANBUL - Following several severe blows in 2019, the landmark agreement between world powers and Iran to prevent the development of nuclear weapons by Tehran could collapse in the new year, analysts said.

The recent prisoner exchange between the United States and Iran sparked hopes of a rapprochement. Iranian President Hassan Rohani said, during a 2-day visit to Japan, that Iran would “not turn down any negotiation and agreement that serve our interests,” a December 20 statement from the Iranian presidency said.

However, chances for a last-minute resolution of the confrontation appear slim. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed serious concerns to Rohani about Iran scaling back its commitments to the 2015 nuclear deal and urged him to refrain from steps that undermine the agreement, Reuters reported. Rohani said Iran’s reduction of its commitments were “based on the deal itself,” Iran’s presidency said.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), hailed as a diplomatic breakthrough when it was signed four years ago, has been on a downward spiral since US President Donald Trump withdrew his country from the pact in 2018. This year, the Trump administration stepped up a “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran to force Tehran to accept stricter limits on its nuclear programme, threatening sanctions against countries that buy Iranian oil.

Iran responded with attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf and oil installations in Saudi Arabia by its own forces or by proxies and with a series of violations of JCPOA rules, including resuming uranium enrichment at its underground Fordow plant. Caught in the middle, European co-signatories of the accord failed to secure economic benefits for Tehran to offset the effect of US sanctions.

European envoys used a meeting of the remaining parties to the accord — China, France, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom — with Iranian officials in December to warn that their countries could trigger a mechanism that might lead to a return of UN sanctions against Tehran. Such a step would probably be the end of the JCPOA. A decision is expected in January, reports stated.

The European powers — called the E3 — and Iran also clashed over the Iranian ballistic missile programme, with the E3 charging that Iran tested a nuclear-capable ballistic missile, which Iran denies.

“Things are likely to escalate in the new year,” Ali Fathollah-Nejad, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Centre, said by telephone. “Both Iran and the Europeans could reach the end of the line soon.

“There is no indication that Iran will change its strategy. It will stick to the reduction of its commitments under the JCPOA without calculating the consequences properly. Sooner or later the Europeans will trigger the Dispute Resolution Mechanism under the JCPOA, with possible European or UN sanctions following.”

The Trump administration is not showing any inclination to end its “maximum pressure” strategy. Trump, fighting for re-election next November, is unlikely to end sanctions unless Iran gives in to his demands. Tehran has seen oil exports drop to around 400,000 barrels per day (bpd) from 2.5 million bpd before Trump’s sanctions programme started and is facing domestic unrest but has been digging in its heels.

Tensions between the United States and Iran are also rising because of attacks on military bases in Iraq that host US troops. Washington blames Iran-backed Shia paramilitary groups. A US source recently told Agence France-Presse that pro-Iran factions in Iraq were considered a more significant threat to US troops than the Islamic State. Washington has told Baghdad to protect US interests in the country while mulling the deployment of 5,000-7,000 additional troops to the region.

Consequences of those developments might not be limited to the nuclear pact itself. Tehran could also decide to abandon the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), under which Iran has vowed to pursue a nuclear programme for civilian purposes only and to accept international inspections of its nuclear sites.

“Iran could leave the JCPOA and the NPT as well,” Fathollah-Nejad said. “We could have a veritable nuclear crisis on our hands with a possible military confrontation.”

Farhang Jahanpour, a British academic of Iranian descent and a commentator on Iranian affairs, said prospects for survival of the JCPOA in 2020 were dim.

“It is clear that the Trump administration’s policy of ‘maximum pressure’ has failed to persuade Iran to take part in new talks,” Jahanpour said by e-mail. “On the contrary, it has led to a dangerous situation in the [Arabian] Gulf, which has included attacks on tankers and on Saudi oil installations. It has weakened President Hassan Rohani and his Foreign Minister [Mohammad] Javad Zarif, who were the best hopes for a rapprochement with the West, and has greatly strengthened and emboldened the hardliners.”

Jahanpour said victories by Iranian hardliners in parliamentary elections in February and presidential elections in 2021 would “seal the fate of the JCPOA.”

Japan’s mediation offered “a glimmer of hope,” Jahanpour said. Abe, who has a close relationship with Trump, said Japan arranged the Rohani visit because it wanted to play a greater role in resolving the nuclear impasse between Tehran and Washington.

The visit comes after Trump sounded optimistic with regards to the recent prisoner swap.

“Thank you to Iran on a very fair negotiation,” the US president tweeted. “See, we can make a deal together!”