Remember in Back to the Future when Doc Brown needed to generate 1.21 gigawatts of electricity to power his time machine/DeLorean, and all he needed to achieve that was “a little plutonium”?
No big deal, right? Doc just stole some from the Libyans, who apparently had a surplus of it. Expectedly, though, they weren’t too happy about their missing stash, so they tracked Doc down, killed him, and sent Marty running back to 1955.
Oh sorry, *spoiler alert*.
No, people don’t like when you mess with their nuclear material, which the (real-life) Iranians can attest to.
In 2015, the US and several other countries struck the Iran Deal which did just that. The deal consists of a few key points.
- Iran was required to give up 97% of their uranium, reducing their stockpile from 10,000kg to 300kg.
- Iran is only allowed to enrich their uranium up to 3.67%. Weapons-grade uranium must be enriched to 90-95%.
- Iran was required to reduce their number of centrifuges (the machines used to enrich uranium) from around 20,000 to 5,000 for fissile material (material capable of sustaining a nuclear fission chain reaction). They were allowed another 1,000 centrifuges for research and development.
- To ensure compliance with the deal, Iran would be subject to inspections, with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) being allowed access to nuclear and military sites. However, Iran can challenge inspection requests. A challenge could buy Iran up to 24 days, which some argue would give them enough time to hide or undo any progress they’ve made against the terms of the deal.
- In exchange for all this, the UN would relieve crippling sanctions that had been placed upon Iran, giving the country a chance to revive its economy.
If Iran complies with the agreed upon terms, they would not be able to produce a nuclear bomb. In exchange for compliance, Iran would no longer be cut off from the world economy.
But why do we have a deal in the first place? This is a pretty dense topic, but there are a few things that help break it down.
Let’s start from the beginning-ish.
It’s a long story as to why, but Iran has had tense relationships with its neighbors in the Middle East, specifically Iraq, which it was at war with from 1980-1988, and Saudi Arabia (for more insight on that, see my post on the Syrian conflict).
Remember that one guy, Saddam Hussein? The one we found in a spider hole back when W. Bush was in office? Well, in 1979, he came to power as president of Iraq and promptly attacked Iran, citing border disputes as the primary motive. Iran was fresh out of a revolution, so it was pretty unstable at the time. However, Iran was able to maintain its borders and defenses throughout the course of the war, despite Iraq’s significant foreign aid. In 1988, a ceasefire was finally called by the UN, after about a million total lives had been lost – Iranians and Iraqis, soldiers and civilians.
Prior to the war, Iraq had begun developing a nuclear program, so in the 1980s, Iran began the revival of its own sleeping nuclear program from the 50s.
By 1995/1996, President Bill Clinton saw fit to curb Iran’s progress towards building up the program, so he re-upped sanctions against the country, with backing from the UN. Economic sanctions, as described by the Council on Foreign Relations, are “the withdrawal of customary trade and financial relations for foreign and security policy purposes. They may be comprehensive, prohibiting commercial activity with regard to an entire country, like the long-standing U.S. embargo of Cuba, or they may be targeted, blocking transactions of and with particular businesses, groups, or individuals.” In other words, countries would face penalties for trading with the Iranians, in effect punishing Iran for their nukes, isolating them from the world economy.
Long story short, these sanctions didn’t deter Iran from furthering its nuclear program, to the detriment of its own people, infrastructure, and national economy. At the time, the Iranian president, Ahmadinejad, was very reluctant to give up the nuclear program and he was very anti-Western powers. Vocally. He called the sanctions “…annoying flies, like a used tissue,” and he’s made bold assertions about the US government and leadership without a lot of evidence to support his claims. Basically, he felt that the US was trying to prevent Iran from reliving its former glory days – back when Iran was part of the Persian Empire.
But in 2015, now under the leadership of President Obama, negotiations took place and a deal was struck. The US would relieve the sanctions against Iran in exchange for compliance with the terms of the deal. Iran would benefit from better economic relations with the US and its allies, and Iran would effectively be unable to produce a nuclear warhead.
Jump to 2016…
Donald Trump is running for POTUS. The Iran Deal is one of his big talking points, as he called it “bad,” “disastrous,” and “rotten.” At the time, he didn’t really lay out too many reasons as to why he thought it was so “bad,” nor did he lay out an alternate plan or solution. To many, his disdain for the deal just seemed like part of his apparent crusade to criticize and undo anything his predecessor accomplished during his two terms as president. Also, whatever reasons he did offer up as to why it was “bad” were simply inaccurate.
Now, about three years after the deal was originally signed, President Trump has announced his decision to pull the US out of the deal. The US would be reinstating sanctions against Iran as punishment for them…complying with the deal?
The IAEA has reported that Iran has been acting within the scope of the deal. The other countries involved in the deal have confirmed this, as well. The leaders of said countries had advised Trump to stay in the deal, for several reasons, and French President Macron even came to Washington to speak to Trump about it. However, after a week’s-worth of bromancing and awkward photo ops, Macron felt that he had been unable to sway Trump’s decision.
But you know who wanted the deal done away with? Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel. Israel is in an interesting position, politically, in that it is supported by both the US and Russia. Furthermore, it’s no secret that Iran and Israel don’t like each other. They’re openly against each other.
Prior to Trump’s announcement, Netanyahu gave a Powerpoint presentation claiming that Israeli intelligence had “proof” that Iran had been cheating on the deal this whole time. Again – no other intelligence agencies, including the IAEA, have confirmed any of this information, and it is unclear how Israel obtained it. Also, it’s important to consider Israel’s inherent bias against Iran, and the fact that Netanyahu has historically been known to be an unreliable source for “proven” information.
Netanyahu claimed that the Iran Deal was defunct for the following reasons:
- It allowed for unlimited enrichment of nuclear materials when the deal expires in a few years.
- It failed to address the Iranian development of ballistic missiles.
- “It completely failed to address Iran’s secret nuclear bomb program and its advanced work on weaponization.”
Trump cited Israeli intelligence in his decision to pull out of the Iran deal.
There are a few things to be said for Trump and Netanyahu’s reasons as to why the deal is bad, though.
The first point is simply that parts of the deal expire after ten years. I wasn’t at the negotiating table with Iran when this expiration was agreed upon, but I would assume ten years was enough time to at least come to a better, longer-standing arrangement. Perhaps ten years is all Iran would agree to, initially. Perhaps the leaders wanted to give future leaders the opportunity to expand upon the deal. Perhaps they took it because, as John Oliver emphatically reminded us, “Zero is less than ten!” Without the deal in place, Iran would be able to expand their nuclear program right now, as opposed to ten years from now.
The second point about the ballistic missiles speaks more to the fact that the deal isn’t as robust as Netanyahu or Trump would like it to be. Again, something is better than nothing. Deals can always be renegotiated, but scrapping it altogether is simply unearthing any groundwork that’s already been laid.
Finally, the third point is based on Israeli intelligence that is not only unconfirmed by the IAEA, but it goes against the IAEA’s official reports. ‘Nuff said?
Ok, ok, ok…so what now?
The US will be imposing secondary sanctions on Iran. According to Atlantic Council, “Secondary sanctions put pressure on third parties to stop their activities with the sanctioned country by threatening to cut-off the third party’s access to the sanctioning country.” Basically, that means that other nations and businesses will be hesitant to do business with Iran, lest they face consequences with the US, the largest economy in the world.
While the other nations that entered into the deal with Iran are standing by it, the US sanctions could still affect the ways in which they do business with Iran. However, the Iranians might choose to continue to adhere to the terms of the deal because of the other nations. Time will tell how this will all play out.
One of the biggest (arguably) downsides to the US pulling out is that it doesn’t make us look great. It makes the US look inconsistent and unreliable as administrations change hands, which could deter nations from entering into agreements with us in the future. This is especially critical now, as the US is set to enter into similar negotiations with North Korea next month.
Essentially, what the US has done by pulling out is not uphold its end of the bargain, despite evidence and confirmations that Iran has. Also, this has created a situation that is far more volatile and up-in-the-air than what we had before. The worst part? It wasn’t necessary. If Trump was unhappy with the deal, he could have gone back to the negotiating table with Iran and the other nations involved while the existing one was still in place. He instead chose to completely disrupt a manageable arrangement. Understandably, Iranians are not happy about this decision, as there have been protests since Trump’s announcement.
Presumably, the US will now work to come up with a deal that is more suited to Trump’s liking, but there’s no telling when that could be. He’s already got his hands full with several other major issues – again, North Korean talks begin next month – but the situation he’s created in Iran is not one that should be left on the back burner for long.
Best and worst case scenarios?
Best case – the Iranians stick to the terms of the deal, despite the fact that they don’t have too much incentive to do so anymore. Trump would also like a better deal in place in the future, but the things he’s looking for might be hard to negotiate. He’s looking for a longer-term or non-expiring deal and for the Iranians to stop cheating. Remember, though, evidence that they’ve been cheating all along is highly questionable and unverified by the international community.
And worst? The Iranians abandon the terms of the deal completely and the US continues to negatively impact the Iranian economy and international relations with sanctions, thereby creating another pressure-cooker within an already unstable region.
We shall see.