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Leaving the Iran Nuclear Deal: The Significance of Trump’s Decision for Japan

Suzuki Kazuto [Profile]


What are the reasons behind Donald Trump’s decision to quit the Iran nuclear deal, and what does the deal mean for Japan?

On May 8, 2018, US President Donald Trump announced he would pull the United States out of the nuclear deal with Iran, a decision carrying significant ramifications for the fate of the hard-won multilateral agreement. In 2002 the realization that Iran was working to build a nuclear bomb prompted rounds of frantic talks and the imposition of strict sanctions by the United Nations, United States, and European Union. In 2013, Hassan Rouhani became the Iranian president with his pledge to remove the sanctions, and after two years of talks an agreement in 2015was reached that effectively put the brakes on the country’s decade-long nuclear program. Under the deal Iran was subject to strict inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency, who verified whether the terms of the deal were being met. Although most observers believed the agreement was functioning well, Trump abandoned the deal and expressed his intention to impose on Iran “the highest level of economic sanctions.”

Two Opposing Views of the Iran Nuclear Deal

To understand Trump’s decision, it is important to recognize that there are two diametrically opposed schools of thought in the United States on the Iranian nuclear deal. Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama regarded the development of nuclear weapons by Iran as the single biggest threat for his effort of nuclear nonproliferation and chose to deal with it with a two-pronged stance. While aiming to limit Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons and imposing IAEA inspections to ensure certain “safeguards,” he also recognized Iran’s right to peaceful use of nuclear energy and did not push to include provisions barring Iran from actions permitted to other countries like missile development and weapons exports. In other words, President Obama dealt with Iran as a normal country.

President Trump, on the other hand, regards Iran as a hostile state and a major cause of instability in the Middle East. He sees the existing nuclear deal as highly unsatisfactory and aims not merely to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, but to completely dismantle its nuclear industry by enforcing a “zero enrichment” policy. He also aims to curb Iranian involvement in the conflicts in Syria and Yemen, and to put a stop to its missile development program. One way of understanding the president’s policy is to see it as a strategy of using the highest level of economic sanctions to strip Iran of its strength as a regional power.

Obama’s policy approach promised to deliver both political and economic benefits and was supported by other leading powers, including European allies as well as China and Russia. Under the agreement Iran would be allowed back into the international community and could resume oil exports, while at the same time other nations would gain access to its markets of some 80 million people. This is not to say, however, that the picture was altogether rosy. From the viewpoint of the United States and Europe, Iran’s involvement in the conflicts in Syria and Yemen was an undesirable development. Not only did Western powers staunchly refuse to recognize the legitimacy of Syria’s Assad regime, there was a risk of further heightened tensions with Saudi Arabia, which is fighting the Houthis armed movement in Yemen. The United States also regarded Iran’s missile program with disapproval for the risk it posed not only to Israel but to the overall balance of power in the Middle East, a point that caused further deterioration in the already antagonistic relations that had existed since 1979.

However, Trump’s treatment of Iran as an enemy state runs counter to the interests of European powers that have developed beneficial economic relations with Iran as well as China’s intentions of incorporating the country into its One Belt, One Road initiative. Russia also laments the hardline stance against a fellow strategic ally of the Assad regime in Syria. The agreement to stop Iran developing nuclear weapons—the largest common factor uniting Europe, China, and Russia—was functioning well up to Trump pulling out, and if the deal collapses now these countries will have to accept serious economic and strategic losses. There is also a risk that the deal’s failure will result in Iran developing nuclear weapons—something that no country wants to see happen.

The North Korea Effect

Trump has had plenty of opportunities to abandon the deal when deadlines for extending sanctions relief came up last October and again in January this year. This raises the question of why he has waited until now. One reason is that the president has finally appointed a team of trusted confidants to key positions to carry forward his own policies and strategy ideas. Until recently, many in the administration were strongly opposed to the idea of abandoning the deal and insisted that problems should be resolved by diplomatic means. This included former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, former presidential advisor Herbert McMaster, and Secretary of Defense James Mattis. However, looking to surround himself with like-minded advisors Trump replaced Tillerson with former CIA director Mike Pompeo and McMaster with John Bolton, both  well-known hawks. The president now has a team in place that makes it easier for him to push ahead with his ideas, and this is undoubtedly played a part in the timing.

Even more influential, though, is the dialogue with North Korea that has developed at such a dramatic pace since the beginning of this year. Until as recently as the end of 2017 North Korea was displaying open defiance and belligerence to the United States. It carried out its sixth nuclear test last September and was believed to be close to completing an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the mainland United States. Tensions between the two countries were at an all-time high.

However, the Trump administration with cooperation from China was able to tighten sanctions through the UN Security Council. By imposing a ban on imports of coal, iron ore, and oil it succeeded in forcing North Korea to the negotiating table. This diplomatic success with regard to its applying maximum pressure on the Kim Jong-un regime has worked to embolden the administration.

In truth, North Korea too has worked strategically to create the mood for dialogue and has successfully maneuvered the United States into a more conciliatory position. But from the perspective of Trump and its backers, the situation is irrefutable proof that strong sanctions produce an advantageous position from which to bargain, making it more likely for recalcitrant states to swallow American demands. It is fair to say that the success with North Korea was an important factor in the administration’s decision to leave the nuclear deal with Iran.

  • [2018.07.09]

Born in 1970. Professor at Hokkaidō University. Earned his PhD from Sussex University in 2000. Specializes in international political economy. Became an associate professor at Hokkaidō University in 2008 and a full professor in April 2011. Was awarded a Suntory Prize for Social Sciences and Humanities (political sciences and economics category) in 2012 for his book Uchū kaihatsu to kokusai seiji (Space Development and International Politics). Served 2013–2015 on the UN Security Council’s Panel of Experts for sanctions on Iran. Follow him on Twitter at @ks_1013.

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