Last week, President Donald Trump announced that he was withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal, putting an end to the signature foreign policy achievement of his predecessor, President Barack Obama.
President Trump framed his decision as the fulfillment of a campaign promise and relied on his deal making skills to dissolve what he describes as an extremely “flawed agreement.” He predicts his tough line with Iran would strengthen his hand as he prepared to meet North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, to begin negotiating the surrender of his nuclear arsenal.
Critics of the decision to withdraw from JCPOA say the highly anticipated and widely telegraphed decision has left the United States isolated from its Western allies, sowing uncertainty before a risky nuclear negotiation with North Korea.
Civics Lesson: Terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)
The JCPOA, which was signed in July 2015 and went into effect the following January, imposes restrictions on Iran’s civilian nuclear enrichment program. The so-called P5+1—that is, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and United States) and Germany—negotiated the agreement with Iran over a period of nearly two years. During this period, the Obama administration said its intent was to set back Iran’s nuclear program so that if Iran were to sprint toward producing enough fissile material for a weapon—an indicator known as “breakout time”—it would take at least a year, up from just a few weeks. To extend that breakout time, the agreement requires that uranium enrichment at Fordow and Natanz be restricted and a heavy-water reactor, at Arak, have its core rendered inoperable, as the P5+1 countries feared that its plutonium byproduct could have been re-processed into weapons-grade material. The accord imposes limits on the numbers and types of centrifuges Iran can operate, as well as the size of its caches of enriched uranium. The JCPOA also aims to guard against the possibility that Iran could develop nuclear arms in secret at undeclared sites.
In an interview with The New Yorker, Mark Fitzpatrick, the executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies office in Washington, says, “re-imposing sanctions on Iran will create the greatest division between Europe and the U.S. since the Iraq War.”
“Only this time it will be worse, since not a single European state sides with the U.S. on this matter. Beyond Europe, American credibility worldwide will go down the tubes.”
“Who will ever want to strike a deal with a country that, without cause, pulls out of a deal that everyone else knows has been working well? America will be seen as stupid, arrogant, and bullying. Pity the poor U.S. diplomats who have to explain this illogical decision to their host countries.”
Trump’s announcement has received strong criticism from European leaders and politicians. Leaders urged the United States not to hinder other parties from fully implementing the deal. European Council President Donald Tusk expressed his disapproval of the decision, saying the withdrawal “will meet a united European approach.”
Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, was “particularly worried” by the announcement of new sanctions, emphasizing that the lifting of nuclear related sanctions is “an essential part of the agreement.”
While this break could possibly hinder the U.S.’s relationship with its allies, some claim it could also potentially benefit Russia. Michael McFaul, a former U.S. Ambassador to Russia, mentioned to CNN that the decision is “playing into Putin’s hand.”
McFaul firmly questioned this move:
For Putin, it means that the U.S. is on the outside—and Putin is still on the inside. Why are we isolating ourselves when we need other countries to cooperate with on issues like North Korea?
As Huffington Post pointed out, Trump’s withdrawal may help progress two chief goals of Russian President Vladimir Putin: splintering the U.S.-led alliance of democratic powers that currently dominates global affairs and fortifying Russia’s alternative network, which includes Iran and its partners across the Middle East.
Another growing concern has to do with the economy aspect of the deal—which could potentially have far-reaching consequences for oil—playing in favor of countries such as Saudi Arabia and Russia.
Saudi Arabia said it will help meet world oil demand if new Iran sanctions create shortfalls, but analysts say it will do so only in conjunction with Russia, and the world may have to get used to higher prices as a result. The timing of the announcement of sanctions coincides with steadily rising oil prices that are now at their highest level since November 2014. The Iran situation could mean that oil moves closer to $80 per barrel than the $60s to $70s expected by analysts this year.