Nuclear diplomacy: US abandons Iran deal while making history with North Korea summit

On 8 May, President Trump fulfilled another of his campaign promises by pulling out of the historic Iran nuclear deal. Formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), it was signed by Iran, the US, the UK, France, Germany, China and Russia in July 2015 after more than a decade of negotiations. Iran had agreed to curb its nuclear activities in return for international sanctions being lifted.

Above: Angela Kane on Iran deal

Describing the accord as ‘defective at its core’, President Trump said he would re-impose economic sanctions. The US Treasury clarified that the sanctions would be subject to a wind-down period.

Sir Simon Gass, who served as UK Ambassador to Iran from 2009–2011 and led the UK team at the JCPOA negotiations, believes Trump’s views on the deal are ill-founded.

‘There is an element of truth in the fact that the deal is not the last word on the nuclear file,’ he tells Global Insight.

‘It’s true that at some point there would have to be a further negotiation with Iran to consider what the future of its nuclear programme would be. But that’s an issue which frankly doesn’t start to pinch until probably 2028 or a bit before, so there’s a lot of time to deal with that.’

‘The other complaints about what’s in the deal I just don’t think are well-considered,’ says Gass. ‘It’s a good deal, which has done what it set out to do: Iran has made some very large down payments in terms of its obligations by removing the core of the Arak nuclear reactor, by stripping out the vast quantity of the 19,000 centrifuges, by shipping out a stockpile of enriched uranium and accepting an inspection regime – a move which is completely unprecedented.’

Gass says critics of the deal miss the point. ‘There was no chance of negotiating a grand bargain deal with Iran which would have dealt with the nuclear issue, foreign policy and anything else besides,’ he says. ‘That was never a possibility. The deal we did is a good deal within its terms and it’s definitely worth preserving.’

“Although I think there will be a substantial effect from the US secondary sanctions, I don’t think it will entirely have the freezing effect that we were seeing before 2015

Sir Simon Gass, UK Ambassador to Iran, 2009-2011

Angela Kane, who served as UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs from 2012–2015, says Trump’s decision to renege on the deal has already had a detrimental impact inside Iran. She and Gass were part of a non-governmental European delegation that visited Washington DC in January with the aim of urging key figures on Capitol Hill to dissuade President Trump from pulling out of the deal. ‘The damage is two-fold; what’s going to happen inside Iran – the reaction of the reactionaries, the presidential guard, the very conservative leadership in Iran versus President Hassan Rouhani, who had been very much in favour of the deal and negotiated it – and the effect on the economy in Iran,’ she says. ‘[The Iranian people] haven’t seen the benefits of this deal because everyone has been hanging back. But now with the additional sanctions I think the danger is that there’s really going to be a backlash politically in Iran.’

Kane, now Senior Fellow at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, says America’s withdrawal will have far-reaching consequences for transatlantic relations. ‘If the US says they will slap sanctions on any company that trades with Iran, that means that any bank, any arrangement that goes through a bank that has relations with the US dollar and with the US, they’re going to be sanctioned,’ she says. ‘That’s a risk, I think, that countries and companies don’t really want to take. The effect is also going to be felt worldwide as Iran has not been able to invest in a major way in the new oil fields or in upgrading its current oil production.’

Although Gass says the deal’s collapse may exacerbate an already polarised political situation in the Middle East, he doesn’t think US sanctions will exclude Iran from the global economy altogether. ‘These are US sanctions unilaterally imposed, clearly without the support of other countries,’ he says. ‘I think what that means is that although big international companies may be deterred from doing business with Iran, there will be more individual, smaller traders and entities who will seek to continue to trade with Iran, including I expect purchasing Iranian oil. The US may find it harder than they did up until 2015 to really bring those companies to account through secondary sanctions. Although I think there will be a substantial effect from the US secondary sanctions, I don’t think it will entirely have the freezing effect that we were seeing before 2015.’

It’s unclear what sort of deal, if any, might replace the Iran accord, but the US withdrawal comes at a tense time in international nuclear relations as North Korea dismantles its only known nuclear test site. After much public deliberation, an historic summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un took place on 12 June. Justice Michael Kirby, Co-Chair of the IBA’s Human Rights Institute, who chaired the landmark United Nations Commission of Inquiry that identified clear evidence of gross human rights violations in North Korea in 2014, says the intense focus on nuclear issues has detracted from the grave human rights concerns raised by his report.

‘In so far as it has been suggested that the choice facing North Korea is agreement on denuclearisation or a devastating military retaliation by the United States, that also is not acceptable from a human rights point of view,’ he says. ‘Human beings are at the centre of this. In any “deal” between nation states, there must be proportionality and respect for compliance with the Charter of the United Nations.' And he adds: ‘There cannot be peace and security on the Korean Peninsula without radical changes in the situation of human rights abuses in that country.’