US exit from Iran Deal likely to kill accord, accelerate Tehran’s nuclear programme

European businesses will not risk violating the reinstated US sanctions.
Friday 18/05/2018
An Iran Air pilot takes a picture at the arrival of his company’s new Airbus plane at Mehrabad airport in Tehran, last year. (AP)
Tougher days ahead. An Iran Air pilot takes a picture at the arrival of his company’s new Airbus plane at Mehrabad airport in Tehran, last year. (AP)

WASHINGTON - The US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement is likely to kill the accord despite efforts to sustain it and will prompt Iran to accelerate its nuclear programme, a panel of American experts has predicted.

Although Iranian and European leaders are trying to salvage the agreement that opened Iran to foreign investment and trade in exchange for restrictions on its nuclear programme, those efforts will fail because European businesses will not want to risk violating the reinstated US sanctions and losing access to American banks and consumer markets, the experts said at a discussion sponsored by the Brookings Institution, a leading US think-tank.

The US sanctions will penalise businesses, governments and individuals that do business with Iran.

“Virtually all major European banks and businesses will stay away” from Iran, said Robert Einhorn, who was an arms-control adviser to former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “For them, this is no choice at all.”

Einhorn noted that the large French energy company Total was planning to cancel a huge contract it signed in 2017 to develop Iranian gas fields unless it received a sanctions waiver from the United States.

European leaders along with their Russian and Chinese counterparts might convince Iran to abide by the agreement for a few months, but Iranian leaders will pull out as they see the economic benefits declining and come under pressure from hardliners in their country. “That will mean the collapse of the JCPOA,” Einhorn said, referring to the Iran deal by its official name, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Suzanne Maloney, who formerly advised the US State Department on Iran, said the accord would last no longer than a few more weeks. “This deal was intended to be an opening to the world, but it relied on the participation of the United States,” Maloney said. “What Iranians wanted they could only get through Washington, and that was a pathway to the resumption of their full international standing.”

The collapse of the nuclear agreement could generate turmoil inside Iran and further strain relations between the United States and its European allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). US President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal on May 8, saying the accord was flawed because it did not address issues such as Iran’s ballistic missile programme and the restrictions on uranium enrichment ended after 10 or 15 years.

“This will do very serious damage to NATO,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and White House adviser on the Middle East. “The essence of it is Europe and America agree on a common threat assessment. When there is no common threat assessment, the organisation continues to be a functioning organisation with a very nice cafeteria but it doesn’t really do anything.”

“NATO has already taken a sharp blow from Trump,” Riedel added. “Its ability to recover is going to be even weaker.”

The likely end of the agreement comes at a precarious time for Iran as citizens protest economic conditions and Iranian officials jockey to replace Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is 78.

“It’s an incredibly explosive time and we can’t predict how outside pressures are going to play into this,” Maloney said. She predicted that Iran will see itself with little choice but to resume the nuclear programme it was pursuing before the accord took effect in early 2016.

But the country will move cautiously and avoid taking dramatic steps with its nuclear programme that might arouse international concern. Iran will probably start by removing inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency from its nuclear facilities.

“They don’t want to be too provocative. They have a situation where Europe is alienated from the US. They don’t want to change that,” Einhorn said.

Although Trump has said he wants a more comprehensive deal with Iran that addresses issues that were not in the nuclear accord, that outcome is unlikely and probably not what the Trump administration wants.

“The real objective is not really a bigger, better deal,” Einhorn said. “The real objective is to put immense pressure on Iran, to weaken the regime, to deny it the resources it would need to pursue its regional policies and enhance its nuclear missile program. And another objective is regime change.”