Strategic stupidity

Published: May 15, 2018
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The writer is a former ambassador of Pakistan. The views expressed here are his own

The writer is a former ambassador of Pakistan. The views expressed here are his own

Among President Donald Trump’s several controversial decisions, rejection of the Iran nuclear deal may prove to be the worst of all. Not only will it further destabilise the region, endanger America’s allies but also harm the US itself. It is a major blunder that amounts to strategic stupidity.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or the Iran nuclear deal, signed in 2015 between the US, Iran, the UK, France, Russia, China and Germany, aimed at curbing Iran’s nuclear programme while lifting sanctions on Iran, was and remains the best possible mechanism to satisfy the interests of all parties concerned. However, rejecting the deal without any alternative arrangement in place, harms the interests of all signatories, as well as of the broader international community, in particular the Middle East.

Trump’s justification is that this “worst deal ever” would allow Iran to continue enriching uranium and over time reach the brink of a nuclear breakout. Moreover, he maintains that the deal lifts sanctions on Iran, while not addressing Iran’s “malign” behaviour of allegedly supporting terrorism and developing ballistic missiles that threaten US allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia. Worse, his administration seeks regime change in Iran.

But the fact is that the Iran deal was not meant to address Iran’s policies in the region or its missile developments. Its purpose has been to contain Iran’s nuclear programme in return for lifting sanctions which would enable economic development in that country. From the Western perspective, this arrangement would in time generate more “responsible” behaviour by Tehran and encourage it to cooperate with the West.

In the nuclear domain, the gains have been significant for the West. In 2012, Iran had an estimated 11,500 centrifuges for nuclear fuel enrichment and nearly seven tons of low enriched uranium. These, the US had estimated, could have risen to nearly 20,000 centrifuges and eight tons of uranium. But as a result of the deal, Iran agreed to dismantle two-thirds of its uranium centrifuges, its entire plutonium facility and relinquished about 97% per cent of its uranium stockpile. It also agreed to stringent verification measures with IAEA inspectors given unprecedented powers to monitor Iran’s nuclear facilities in perpetuity. This would enable detection of any Iranian attempt to develop a nuclear bomb. The IAEA has, since the agreement, verified that Iran is abiding by its commitments as has also been done by US and other intelligence agencies. These substantial gains for the West can now be under threat if Iran decides to pull out of the deal on the grounds that the US has reneged on the agreement. It may even withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Not surprisingly, therefore, the other signatories have expressed their intention to honour the arrangement and called upon Iran to continue with its compliance. Even before Trump’s decision, the UK, France, Germany and the EU had pleaded with the US not to scuttle the deal, fearing not only Iran’s reaction in the nuclear field but also for their own business interests in Iran that have flourished with the easing of sanctions but may once again face restrictions with Trump’s intention to impose the “most stringent sanctions regime on Iran”.

For their part, Russia and China have also criticised Trump’s decision and expressed their intention to fulfill their part of the bargain. They, too, have business interests in Iran which they do not want to be jeopardised by Trump’s decision.

While President Hassan Rowhani has expressed the intention of abiding by the deal as long as the other signatories fulfill their commitments, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has reiterated his position of not trusting America and has asked his government to obtain guarantees from the European powers before agreeing to continue with the deal. But due to US pressure, the Europeans may not be able to give such guarantees.

In such an event, the US has no Plan B. It has already tried with Israel to derail the programme through espionage and sabotage, including use of cyber weapons. Wide-ranging sanctions have also been used, both unilateral and through the UN. None of these tactics succeeded and are unlikely to do so in future. Moreover, now that there is a split on the issue, it is impossible for Washington to get another UN sanctions regime, an option that would undoubtedly be vetoed by Russia and China.

The military option against Iran is also unrealistic as was determined by the US itself in Obama’s time which was a key reason for negotiating the Iran deal in the first place. The danger, of course, is that an unhinged person like Trump, goaded on by the Israelis and Saudis, may actually take military action which would, far from destroying Iran’s nuclear capabilities which are well protected, unleash yet another regional conflict. Skirmishes between Iranian and Israeli forces have already started in Syria. In this scenario, Israelis and the Saudis would become even more vulnerable than they are now.

For America itself, reneging on the Iran deal has put its credibility in doubt. North Korea, which is about to start negotiations on its nuclear programme with the US, will now be much more skeptical about any possible agreement with Trump. At the same time, Trump’s already uneasy relationship with Western allies, will be tested even more severely. In short, Trump’s decision has hurt his own country without any other viable option.

For Pakistan, the gravest danger is a fallout from the deteriorating US-Iran-Saudi relationship. Given the delicate balance in our relations with Riyadh and Tehran, it will become even more problematic to remain neutral. This would especially be the case if there is a US attack against Iran, which would also create a domestic backlash. Due to American sanctions, Pakistan-Iran cooperation, including the gas pipeline deal, may also be affected. Accordingly, we need to work with like-minded countries to ensure against complete breakdown of the Iran deal and also ensure that despite the US position, Iran’s security and territorial integrity are respected.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 15th, 2018.

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