19 Nov The End of Trump’s Campaign to Nuclearize Iran
[Hadi Dadmehr is a PhD candidate in Public International law at the National University of Iran (SBU). Hadi was Head of the Department of Law at the University of Zabol, Iran, for 6 years. You can find him on Twitter @HadiDadmehr.]
Donald Trump, the 45th U.S. president, repeatedly claimed during his campaign rallies that the first call he would receive after winning the election would be from Iran’s leaders begging him to make a deal (see here, here, here and here). Bragging about the crippling sanctions that have brought Iran to its knees, he argued that the Iranian government will soon return to nuclear talks. Thanks to Trump’s maximum pressure campaign, however, the biggest challenge facing the next President is not how to get Iran back to nuclear talks, but how to discourage Iran from rapidly rebuilding its nuclear stockpile by rapid dismantling of US sanctions. Trump’s presidential legacy made it evident that Iran won’t renegotiate with the U.S. empty-handed. As will be discussed, even if Trump himself were re-elected, he had no choice but to call Iran, finding a diplomatic way out of his self-made crisis or in a worst-case scenario learn to live with a nuclear-armed Iran.
Since the U.S. imposed economy-crushing sanctions in 2018, Iran’s financial markets have been in a free fall. Sanctions have brought significant hardship to Iranian daily life in recent years. Iran’s leaders, who initially even thanked U.S. for imposing sanctions which helped the country cutting ties of dependence with the outside world, now publicly blame sanctions as a form of economic terrorism and international crime against humanity (see here, here and here). Foreign minister Javad Zarif confirmed in a recent talk with Fareed Zakaria that Iran’s currency is down more than 50 percent this year. Iran’s legal team has also filed a lawsuit against the U.S. in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) requesting to issue provisional measures for sanctions relief. As a response to Iran’s request to the international community, the United Nations, ICJ, human rights bodies, human rights experts, and world leaders have called for waiving U.S. sanctions against the country with the highest mortality rate from COVID-19 in the Middle East.
Three year after the strongest sanctions in history were imposed on Iran, it seems unclear whether U.S maximum pressure campaign has a clear strategy. While for Iran’s opposition groups regime change is an ideal outcome, Trump has argued that the real objective of U.S. sanctions is a diplomatic agreement. Therefore, it would be more plausible to consider U.S. sanctions a part of a broader strategy to generate pressure on Iran to sign a comprehensive deal which addresses the full range of Iran’s activities including proliferation of ballistic missiles and so-called support of terrorism across the Middle East (here).
From the scholarly perspective, two of the primary approaches by which sanctions may exert pressure against the target states are as follows: bottom-up and top-down. In the bottom-up pressure approach, the U.S. president may hope that sanctions provoke the Iranian people to hit the streets and force their government to change its policies. A particularly salient example which indicates U.S. confidence in the efficacy of this approach was Trump’s quick embrace of the Iranian anti-government protests in December 2019 and January 2020.
However, as I have discussed briefly elsewhere, people’s resentment caused by sanctions has a limited impact on changing the behavior of certain governments. In this regard, the Islamic Republic has witnessed all varieties of large-scale protests during the last 40 years, but has still managed to rebound owing to its overwhelming capabilities in dealing with protests. The author has no tendency to overestimate the continuing resilience of the Iranian government. The regime’s resiliency seems to be an irrefutable fact, testified to even by the U.S. officials. In reality, therefore, any hopes for significant changes in Iran’s external policies through bottom-up pressure seems simply futile. If nothing else, sanctions imposed on North Korea, which put over 10 million of North Koreans in need of humanitarian assistance, have made it evident that even extreme levels of public hardship are unlikely to create change if the government forcefully restricts civil and political liberties and prohibits all organized opposition.
Things would be different, however, if the sanctioning state disregarded people as a contributing factor to policy making. Applying a top-down approach, the ultimate goal of sanctions would be creating change in the state’s behavior, regardless of what will happen to the people. From this perspective, U.S. sanctions should be understood as a policy to put direct pressure on the Iranian leaders to renegotiate a deal constraining both Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missiles activities. Indeed, as part of U.S. 12 prerequisites for a new Iran deal, Trump and Pompeo have also urged Iran to stop exerting its influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Afghanistan (see here and here).
It is not clear whether one should regard these unrealistic expectations as a way to get Iran back to the negotiating table. The U.S. demands sound fairly insurmountable and are extremely unlikely to be achieved in the foreseeable future by sanctions regimes. Since its inception in 1979, the Islamic Republic has always supported anti-American and anti-Israel movements in the region and sanctions simply won’t change that policy. Unlike Trump’s statement, JCPOA was not supposed to moderate Iran’s external behavior in the Middle East. The 20 years of nuclear talks has demonstrated emphatically that negotiating a comprehensive deal to restrain Iran’s foreign policy is much harder than it looks.
In this regard, a pertinent historical example would be Iran’s reaction to the U.S. growing demands when the former reformist Iranian president, Mohammad Khatami, suspended all uranium enrichment activities of Iran in 2003. Apparently Iran’s full cooperation with IAEA, made U.S. and its allies to increase pressure over Iran’s activates in Middle East. Years Later, Iran’s leader said: “It became clear that the problems will not be solved by retreating; we found out there is no hope at all that the western countries cooperate with us even if we suspend our enrichment activities.”
In stark contrast to Khatami’s policy of confidence building, Iran’s subsequent president popularized slogans such as “Nuclear Energy is our Absolute Right” and “UN Resolutions are Trash Papers”. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad also deliberately attempted to apply maximum pressure on Israel by promulgating unsound mottos like “the Holocaust is a Fiction” and “Israel Must be Wiped out of the Map”. Accordingly, Iran reduced the level of cooperation with IAEA to the lowest permitted by NPT standards. Nothing stopped Iran from pursuing the nuclear plan – neither 11 legal resolutions passed by the IAEA nor six binding resolutions under Chapter VII of the UN Charter in the Security Council. From a negligible two centrifuges in 2003, Iran’s centrifuges soared to approximately 20,000 in 2013. The government also enhanced the level of uranium enrichment from two percent to 20 percent (see my paper here, pp. 41-47, for a detailed historical explanation). Finally, the JCPOA brought an end both to the Iran’s aggressive nuclear policy and to the growing sanctions of international community.
It remains to be seen how the U.S. and Iran will address the current challenge, but with Iran’s ongoing efforts to strengthen its nuclear capability, on the one hand, and the U.S. refusing to lift its sanctions, on the other, there will be equal opportunity for both diplomacy and war. That being said, the first question concerning diplomacy is whether Iran will participate in nuclear talks to make a new deal or at least to amend the previous one. While Iranian leaders have strongly insisted that no dialogue is possible over a new deal (see here and here), no one should be surprised if Iran starts renegotiating with President Biden. Iran is by no means in a position to withstand the U.S. sanctions for another four years and its “neither talks nor war” policy may change If the JCPOA serves as a foundation for the subsequent nuclear talks.
However, the point needs to be emphasized that Iran’s preparation for successful nuclear talks with the U.S. already began on May 28, 2019. One year after the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA, Iran’s Supreme National Security Council issued a statement announcing that the country will no longer be bound by certain limits set in the Plan. In fact, to drive a hard bargain, Iran found no alternative but to revive its enriched uranium reservoirs. Before July 2015, Iran had a large stockpile of enriched uranium and almost 20,000 centrifuges, enough to build 10 nuclear bombs (see here). Thanks to Trump’s unilateralism, Iran pursued a five-step policy to gradually reduce its obligations under the JCPOA. According to an IAEA board report, since July 2019 Iran has been enriching uranium up to 4.5% U-235. The Agency also verified that Iran’s total enriched uranium stockpile had exceeded 300 kg of UF6 enriched up to 3.67% U-235. Finally, in January 2020, Iran discarded all of its operational limitations in the JCPOA.
As a result, Iran’s nuclear program has no longer faces any operational restrictions, including enrichment capacity, percentage of enrichment, amount of enriched material, and research and development. In its last report, IAEA confirmed that Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium continues to increase and now stands at more than 12 times above the limit set in a 2015 nuclear agreement (here and here). Just a few days ago, Iran’s Parliament put forward a bill on “Strategic Action for Lifting Sanctions” that required the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran to produce at least 120 kg of 20%-enriched uranium annually inside the country. Sanctions, which were an effective tool to dissuade Iran from pursuing its nuclear program, have now reached a peak. Unless the incoming Biden administration reinforces the diplomatic track, the next phase may be a continuing race between US growing sanctions and Iran’s growing uranium enrichment.
Though hardly a certainty, this could push the U.S. and Iran on the brink of war. Shooting down a U.S. drone in Persian Gulf and launching an official pre-announced attack on two U.S. military bases in Iraq, Iran has already sent signals about its willingness to risk a war with the U.S. While enjoying vast military superiority over Iran, U.S. power remains limited if it acts unilaterally. Given the broad international opposition to Trump’s policy toward Iran (see for instance here), it is highly unlikely that a full-fledged war is possible. If for no other reason, the estoppel doctrine and the principle of clean hands would bar the U.S. to build an international coalition based on Iran’s nuclear defiance. On the other hand, a limited strike is particularly favorable to Iran’s nuclear plan From this perspective, any illegal attacks on Iran’s uranium enrichment facility in order to protect U.S. vital interests (here) permits Iran to exercise its right under Article X(1) of NPT to leave the treaty. If Iran considers the attacks as an extraordinary event against its supreme interest and quit the NPT, any transparency that the international community now enjoys regarding Iran’s nuclear programs would be lost (see here and here). Thus, it is important to note again that the U.S.’s hasty recourse to the last option on the table (a limited strike) could plausibly trigger Iran’s last option too: NPT withdrawal, reevaluation of nuclear doctrine, and following North Korea’s path to develop nuclear weapons as a guarantee for survival in a world of uncertainty. It is hoped that Biden’s election will put an end to the U.S. campaign to nuclearize Iran, and bring both the countries back to a peaceful settlement.