US – Iran Brinkmanship Threatens Regional Stability & Nuclear Order

Published in Korea Times on 29th January, 2020

The Iran nuclear deal, formally called Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA) appears headed for an untimely demise as both US and Iran engage in competing strategies of ‘maximum pressure’ and ‘maximum resistance’ respectively. After protracted negotiations between the P-5, Germany, EU and Iran, the JCPOA was concluded in July 2015 and unanimously endorsed by the UN Security Council. Iran ended its uranium enrichment programme and accepted an intrusive verification regime implemented by the IAEA; in return, sanctions relief for Iran commenced four years ago on 17 January 2016.

President Trump had been critical of the JCPOA from the outset, not because Iran was cheating on its obligations but because JCPOA did not constrain Iran’s missile programme or its involvement in regional conflicts. In May 2018, US unilaterally withdrew from the JCPOA and as part of ‘maximum pressure’ strategy, imposed enhanced economic sanctions in the expectation that this would bring the Iranian regime back to the negotiating table or better still, bring about a regime collapse. Trump’s decision has been criticised by all other JCPOA parties; Europeans (France, Germany, UK and EU) promised Iran that they would set up a mechanism to mitigate the effect of sanctions but the Instrument for Supporting Trade Exchanges (INSTEX) has remained ineffective.

For a year, Iran continued to abide by the JCPOA. Since May 2019, it has taken a number of graduated steps every two months, diluting its commitments. On 8th May last year, Iran announced that it would no longer observe the stockpile limits of 130 kgs of Low Enriched Uranium and 300 MT of heavy water. In July, the enrichment limit of 3.67% was exceeded; in September Iran resumed work on advanced centrifuges and in November, it commenced enrichment work at the underground facility at Fordaw. The last announcement came on 5th January discarding the limit on the number of centrifuges to be operated. However, Iran has reiterated each time that it is still party to the JCPOA and each of these steps can be reversed if the JCPOA promised sanctions relief is restored.

Simultaneously, a series of incidents have raised tensions between Iran, US and its regional allies. There have been unclaimed attacks on commercial vessels in the Persian Gulf area. A missile attack on Aramco’s Abqaiq-Khurais facilities last September was claimed by the Houthis in Yemen though US and Saudi Arabia blame Iran for it. A US contractor was killed in end-December by an Iran backed Iraqi militia Kataib Hezbollah. US retaliated on 29th with air strikes killing two dozen Iraqi militia sparking anti-US protests in Baghdad and Tehran, with the protestors outside the US embassy reviving eerie memories of the 1979 siege. The killing of Maj Gen Qassim Soleimani (commander of the Quds force of the IRGC) and Kataib commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in a US drone attack on 3 January significantly escalated tensions. Iran retaliated with missile strikes at two US bases in Iraq from where the drones had operated though there were no casualties reported, pausing the escalation cycle.

Iranian messaging has been at three levels – to its people that it will resist US pressures, to the Europeans that they need to make good on their assurances because Iran will not wait indefinitely, and to the US that new negotiations will not take place under sanctions pressure.

Amid reports that US officials had threatened European automobile sector with 25% tariffs, on 14 January France, Germany and UK invoked Article 36 (Dispute Resolution Mechanism) of JCPOA. This provides a finite time for resolution after which the matter goes to the UN Security Council leading to a snapback of sanctions. Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif called the European step a ‘strategic mistake’, reminding that Iran had invoked the mechanism in May 2018 when US unilaterally withdrew from JCPOA. On 20 January, he cautioned that if JCPOA issue came to the UNSC, Iran could consider quitting the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Iran is a party to the NPT and has maintained that it is not seeking nuclear weapons and considers them un-Islamic and ‘haram’. The NPT is described as the cornerstone of the nuclear non proliferation order and all but four countries (India, Israel, Pakistan and North Korea which quit in 2003) are parties. The five-yearly review conference of the NPT is scheduled for April-May this year. P-5 countries have traditionally worked together to preserve their privileged status as nuclear-weapon-states in the NPT. Iran’s latest warning is a reminder that the nuclear non-proliferation order is shaky, partly because the P-5 have failed to deliver on their promises on nuclear disarmament, partly because US, Russia and China have ambitious nuclear modernisation programmes to make them more usable, and finally, because Trump’s policy of unilaterally discarding internationally negotiated instruments will create a backlash.

President Macron (France) and PM Abe (Japan) have attempted mediation but failed. Russia and China are happy to see growing trans-Atlantic differences. The continuing US-Iran brinkmanship not only destabilises West Asia but also jeopardises the nuclear non-proliferation order.

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