The lack of consensus amongst key stakeholders in the nuclear non-proliferation regime has been an underlying factor in the discord that surrounds sanctions on Iran.
By Pulkit Mohan
The global perception of Iran’s nuclear programme has been dominantly framed by the discourse emerging from Washington. About a year ago, the United States pulled out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that had been a landmark deal between Iran and the United States, as well as other major powers such as the United Kingdom, Russia, France, Germany and China. The withdrawal of the United States was a key tenet of President Trump’s campaign promises, and his approach to Iran during his term has reflected this deeply. Although, the US is not the only signatory to the JCPOA and its withdrawal did not signal the demise of the accord as a whole, the withdrawal and the subsequent barrage of sanctions has slowly but surely, chipped away the strength of the accord with the rest of the stakeholders struggling to articulate a viable alternative. The Trump Administration’s withdrawal has put the accord in jeopardy, has effectively crippled the relative stability in Iran, both economic and political and also severely weakened the nuclear non-proliferation regime.
Following the US withdrawal, sanctions have been the defining factor in comprehending the dialogue between Iran and the US. A series of primary and secondary sanctions have not only impacted Iran, but the US withdrawal itself is likely have a longer term impact on the nuclear non-proliferation regime. The US has asserted its stance on Iran’s nuclear ambitions as a security threat to the international community and has also pinned the rising instability in the region to Tehran’s military activities. The use of sanctions as a bargaining chip is meant to shape Iran’s fuller conformity with the IAEA commitments. The concern that Iran’s uranium enrichment programme could be used to build a nuclear weapons arsenal has been instrumental in pushing forth the withdrawal and subsequent sanctions. The rhetoric emerging from the administration, whether it is National Security Advisor John Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo or President Trump himself, is to compel Iran to a point where compliance with the US demands is the only avenue left.
On the other hand, there is little evidence to suggest that Iran has not complied with the IAEA regulations and sanctions have endangered this compliance, reifying the concern amongst supporters of non-proliferation. In situations where Iran has been in (minor) breach of the parameters, there has been intense international pressure to ensure compliance. The US has, nonetheless, stood firm on its posture that Iran’s ambition is to eventually weaponise its nuclear capabilities. The US government’s position is also strengthened by Iran’s political and military activities such as extending support to groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah. In this instance, Iran has been largely unsuccessful in pacifying Western concerns regarding its dealings; Tehran has not been able to offer any satisfactory explanations on its engagements in the region.
When Washington announced that it would be withdrawing from the accord, the other signatories were caught in the crosshairs of the conflict. The other signatories were apprehensive of the US withdrawal from the very beginning and have struggled to articulate an endpoint to the emerging situation. There have been several attempts by the European nations to salvage the accord, but the sanctions have left little to be rescued. The lack of consensus amongst key stakeholders in the nuclear non-proliferation regime on how to restrict nuclear weapons programmes from developing in other states has been an underlying factor in the discord that surrounds sanctions on Iran.
The recent developments and statements have not only further jeopardised the accord, but have had direct implications on the stability of the nuclear non-proliferation regime. Tensions increased immensely when the US deployed B-52 bombers and an aircraft carrier in the region over a “threat” discovered by US intelligence agencies. The attack on oil tankers near the Persian Gulf further fueled the tensions between the countries with the US claiming that Iran was behind the attack. With the animosity higher than ever, Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, suggested that Iran was in a position to walk away from the nuclear deal, in light of constant sanctions and profound influence over the failure of the Iranian economy, from Washington. Although Tehran has not exited the deal, there is a significant desire to regain control over its economy and the manner in which it is able to trade with the rest of the global community. It is clear from the response emerging from Tehran suggests that sanctions have had little impact as a detriment in pursuing its nuclear ambitions. The Iran government announced that it would take systematic steps to resume production on its nuclear plants and develop a programme to move away from the obligations of the nuclear accord. According to the Iran government, the steps taken are necessary to squeeze European leaders into a tight spot and force them to map out a plan to salvage the accord where Iran can benefit or they would be forced to face the consequences of a dynamic shift in Iran’s military and nuclear strategy. Rouhani’s declarations were met with more sanctions from the Trump Administration on its industrial metals sector.
The implications of Washington’s reactions stretch beyond the desire for a nuclear weapon-free Iran and have had adverse effects on its geopolitics in the region and more importantly, the economic stability of the country. Primary sanctions have squeezed Iran into a very tight spot and secondary sanctions have left trade with major powers in a state of disarray. In order to strengthen the current nuclear non-proliferation regime, it is essential to employ a diverse set of tools that would include both punitive measures and incentives for NPT-challenging countries like Iran. The case for continued use of sanctions to increase accountability has not worked well; it has reaped more problems than solutions. Without more astute deliberation which involves a fruitful dialogue between all stakeholders, complications are likely to prevail. It is crucial to articulate the pros and cons of continued sanctions and it appears that cons outweigh the pros. A unilateral effort to prevent Iran’s nuclear weapons programme has been more destabilising. In fact, the Trump Administration must take the lead in initiating a broader conversation involving all the key stakeholders to work out a more sustainable solution to Iran’s nuclear programme as well as its other military engagements in the region.