The announcement by President Trump on 30 July, expressing his willingness to hold a summit with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, with ‘no preconditions’, to find some new model of US-Iran nuclear deal, indicates yet another flip-flop in US foreign policy. It is unlikely to be taken too seriously, however, particularly after a flurry of threatening Twitter exchanges between the two leaders. That is compounded by the US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPoA) of 2015 (commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal), even at the cost of the US falling out with its allies and strategic partners, which have critical trade relations with Iran.
Can any Future US–Iran Nuclear Deal Succeed?
Under the JCPoA the United States and its allies agreed to reduce the sanctions against Iran in exchange for the Islamic Republic giving up the means to make nuclear weapons. That aim remains unchanged; President Trump maintains that Iran cannot be allowed to become a nuclear power. In Washington, the Republican Party was not happy with many of the JCPoA clauses and, in 2016, made it an election issue. As President, Trump delivered a campaign promise by walking away from it.
For the US, the objective of a non-nuclear armed Iran has still not changed. President Trump, duly supported by Israel, has managed to raise the temperature against Iran, using rhetoric, provocative speeches and tweets, renewed sanctions and attempts to curtail Iranian oil exports. It has not worked; it has not stopped Iran’s efforts. The US knows that it cannot up the ante beyond the economic, diplomatic and information warfare domains because, while the White House may be ready for a summit with Tehran, it will struggle to find a workable replacement for the existing arrangement. Any new agreement will need to be devoid of the risk of failure, while still holding to the original objectives expressed in the JCPoA. The Trump Administration may eventually find that the original deal was actually not so bad as a means of achieving its strategic interests.
Additional Complexities, but Compromise is Possible
The situation is much more complex now because none of the US allies that signed the JCPoA in 2015 have walked out of it so far. That also raises doubts as to the reliability and credibility of the US in continuing to seek a signed commitment. It is something that may also have repercussions for the denuclearisation of North Korea, which may think twice before submitting to complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation.
The emergence of a “pro-Iran” lobby, which includes Russia, Turkey, Qatar and China, in opposition to the “anti-Iran” lobby made up of the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia and some of the Gulf states, is another major change in the international environment. It could encourage Iran to speed up its nuclear ambitions, if it were to feel pushed against the wall.
Pressuring Iran is made more difficult by the great strategic significance that it enjoys due to its geographical location and oil exports. If Iran weathers the sanctions against it and gains nuclear weapons, it will encourage other states, like Saudi Arabia, to follow suit, creating further instability in the region. An ill-defined meeting with Iran is not likely to yield much, in such an environment.
Compromises are still possible, though, because the US allies are still honouring the JCPoA – so far – and because of the apparent inclination of President Trump to talk to Iran. If, however, the US were to try to strike a US-centric deal with Iran in isolation, it is doubtful that such an arrangement would be acceptable to the other parties. Having two concurrent deals (the 2015 JCPoA and some new arrangement with the US), would cause a great deal of confusion and may not lead to any workable solution.
Impact on India: Is an Iran CAATSA Waiver Possible after S-400 Missile Deal?
As a strategic partner of India, the US is aware that India has deep-rooted historic, cultural and oil-centric relations with Iran. Iran has advanced to become the second-largest supplier of crude oil to India and energy security is a core interest for India. Connectivity with the Central Asian republics and the Iranian port of Chabahar are further strategic compulsions for India. The US has understood India’s need to acquire S-400 surface-to-air missiles, based on India’s regional threat perceptions. It has agreed to grant a waiver to New Delhi under the Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), for its purchase of the Russian-made missiles. A similar waiver or understanding from the US on the other Indian critical strategic issues relating to Iran, particularly energy security, may be a fair possibility.
The US sanctions against Iran may continue, but Washington might have to consider a CAATSA waiver, or some other modification, to make it more flexible in the face of fast-changing strategic and economic global dynamics. On the issue of Iran and Russia, the US cannot afford to put the European Union, China, Russia and other strategic partners all under sanctions and expect to make “America Great”. A rigid CAATSA may lead from “America First” to “America Alone”, hence the need for modifications to suit the changing geopolitical environment.