Trump and the JCPOA: Threat and Looming Action

7 March 2018 Lindsay Hughes, Research Analyst, Indian Ocean Research Programme


President Donald Trump was vociferous in announcing, during the course of his election campaign, that he would revoke the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – the nuclear agreement with Iran – that was negotiated by then-President Obama. Trump called it ‘the worst deal ever negotiated’. He is, surprisingly, generally correct in that assessment. It was a poorly negotiated agreement, one that hints at the desperation of the Obama Administration to leave a legacy, any legacy, as a product of its foreign policy for posterity. The JCPOA has merely postponed the difficult choices that needed to be made, leaving it to succeeding administrations and leaders to resolve. It is this situation that Trump is now forced to face up to and to resolve.


Some of the terms of the JCPOA, as agreed to by the Obama Administration are clearly untenable in the Saudi and Israeli perspectives. Secretary of State John Kerry, for instance, agreed to permit Iran to retain over five thousand centrifuges in order to enrich uranium and to develop advanced carbon-fibre centrifuges, to construct a plutonium-producing reactor and to submit to a weak inspections regime. The Obama Administration also lifted the terrorism-focussed sanctions that had been placed on Iran and excluded Tehran’s missile programme from the terms of the JCPOA, thus leaving Iran free to continue its missile development. More worryingly, the Administration secretly paid Iran a ransom of US$400 million to exchange four American citizens imprisoned in Iran for seven Iranians imprisoned in the US and to remove fourteen other Iranians from an INTERPOL wanted list. (See here and here, for instance.) Even more so, it was reported that the Obama Administration blocked an FBI investigation into the trafficking of illegal drugs by Hezbollah into the United States, effectively making the President an accessory to an illegal enterprise that was directed against his own country.

In January this year, Trump signed a waiver extending the JCPOA, although he explicitly stated that it would be the last time he would do so unless Iran agreed to re-negotiate some of the terms of the deal. Trump linked Iran’s missile programme and the expiration date, the so-called sunset clause, of the agreement, so that, in his words, ‘Iran never even comes close to possessing a nuclear weapon.’ Trump also offered an explanation as to why he had decided to sign off on the agreement, saying:

Today, I am waiving the application of certain nuclear sanctions, but only in order to secure our European allies’ agreement to fix the terrible flaws of the Iran nuclear deal. This is a last chance. In the absence of such an agreement, the United States will not again waive sanctions in order to stay in the Iran nuclear deal. And, if at any time, I judge that such an agreement is not within reach, I will withdraw from the deal immediately.

Trump stipulated that four conditions be met for the United States to remain a signatory to the agreement. They included increased and closer inspections of Iran’s nuclear processing facilities, ensuring that Iran terminate any activities that could lead to it developing a nuclear weapon, that the expiration dates be made open-ended instead of expiring after a decade (as is currently the case), and that the US Congress pass a Bill unilaterally incorporating the Iranian missile programme into the nuclear agreement. As Trump put it: ‘The legislation must explicitly state in United States law – for the first time – that long-range missile and nuclear weapons programmes are inseparable, and that Iran’s development and testing of missiles should be subject to severe sanctions.’

Underscoring the importance placed by Trump on re-negotiating the JCPOA, Vice-President Mike Pence, at the annual policy conference of pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, vowed that the US would withdraw from the nuclear deal forged between Iran and six world powers in the coming months unless lawmakers moved to fix the agreement.

Despite Trump’s efforts to work with his European co-signatories of the JCPOA, however, the Europeans have refused to re-negotiate the terms of the agreement. Trump, in retaliation, has said that he would withdraw unilaterally from the JCPOA if he determined that step to be warranted.

Adding to the uncertainty surrounding the entire enterprise, Iran now threatens to withdraw from the JCPOA itself. Speaking at Chatham House in London, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Political Affairs, Abbas Araghchi, remarked that if major Western and other banks, companies and business entities continue to refuse to conduct business with Iran due to the uncertainty cast over the entire situation by Trump’s negative statements, ‘We cannot remain in a deal that has no benefits for us.’

Assuming that that is no idle threat from the Deputy Foreign Minister and, given Trump’s precedent of holding to his word – witness his bombing of Syria without seeking Russia’s agreement on that matter – it would appear that the JCPOA is in a very uncertain situation. If it collapses altogether, the Iranian theocracy would have little compunction in going ahead fully with its nuclear ambitions. That would be a red line for Trump. He would likely take an increasingly hard line against Iran, one that could potentially lead to bloodshed. That course of action would have major ramifications for Iran, the region and beyond.

It would also be an outcome that nobody desires. It is to be hoped, therefore, that the Europeans can be prevailed upon to work with the United States to persuade Iran to renegotiate at least some of the terms of the current JCPOA, no matter how distasteful that may be for them, to prevent the greater tragedy.

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