Persia Digest has conducted an interview on the future of the Iran nuclear deal with Hussein Banai. He is Assistant Professor at the Department of International Studies, School of Global and International Studies in Indiana University. He is a specialist in relations between Iran and the United States. Banai is also the co-author of “Becoming Enemies: U.S.-Iran Relations and the Iran-Iraq War”.
Trump’s very harsh words at the UN General Assembly’s annual gathering in New York suggests that he very much intends to either scrap the whole deal or renegotiate it under new terms that would also involve aspects not directly related to Iran’s nuclear program. However, as already has been signaled by Iran and the EU, this would be a non-starter given those aspects (e.g. Iran’s missile program) were left out precisely to address Iran’s non-nuclear defensive capabilities. What all this means is that no one quite knows whether Trump actually cares about having a deal. A major objective of those who have shaped his views on JCPOA – Israeli PM Netanyahu and neoconservative hawks in DC – is to make Iran vulnerable to attack once again. Trump seems to be playing right into their hands.
It is certainly possible that some businesses would stay away given the uncertainty this will bring for their investments. But the EU could also devise a new way for those companies to bypass any restrictions from the US as long as their activities won’t have dual-use implications for Iran’s military position. For this reason, it would benefit Iran to remain compliant with key provisions of the JCPOA to satisfy the EU and have them act as its advocate vis-à-vis the US.
► Jervis on JCPOA: Trump's preferences change
► Reasons behind Trump’s attitude toward JCPOA
What would be the reaction of the other parties involved in the E3+3 discussions, especially the EU, to a possible withdrawal by the US? Will they remain in agreement with the US or with the nuclear deal? How will bilateral relations between the US and the EU be affected?
As I mentioned above, it is very much in the interest of the EU to maintain its end of the bargain with Iran and to encourage the US – privately and publicly – to (a) remain in the deal, and failing that, to (b) offer EU firms solid exemptions to continue doing business with Iran.
Should the US leave the deal, how will multilateral commitments be impacted and trusted in the future, especially those involving a superpower such as the US? Per say, how can North Korea be convinced to take part in nuclear negotiations for its program?
It would be very damaging for the US in the short-run to leave a major international agreement. I want to be clear that I don’t think the US will suffer from this in the long-run because the whole world understands – just as they seem to have done in the case of Ahmadinejad in Iran – that all this disruption and chicanery is limited to this administration alone. So, as long as Trump is in office the US will have to deal with the fact that its words and deeds are always in doubt. This is no doubt embarrassing and damaging to American commercial and political interests throughout the world, to say nothing of its costs to America’s example as a trustworthy leader in the West.
► Tirman on JCPOA: Trump's pattern of withdrawal
► Will international community bypass US
It is true that JCPOA was to solve an international impasse without necessarily improving Iran-US relations. Nevertheless, it had the potential to start talks on other issues the two countries face in their relations. Why was the JCPOA unsuccessful in this respect?
I think it was always going to be difficult for both sides to go beyond arms control issues after JCPOA. The reasons for this are very complex and multi-faceted. At the geopolitical level, the two countries simply have competing interests in the region. American military support and economic ties with major Arab countries and Israel in the region have always placed it in an awkward position in relation to Iran. Likewise, Iran’s doubling down of support for Shi’a groups and governments in the region, coupled with its harsh rhetoric against Israeli and American interests make it difficult for the two sides to move past their differences. At the political level, there are very powerful interests in both countries against this relationship. Hardliners in both countries have a great deal to lose if this relationship evolves to a more normalized phase. Therefore, there is every incentive for radical elements on both sides to maintain and ensure that the enmity continues.
Should the nuclear deal collapse it the US exits the accord, will it destroy any chances of improvement in relations between the two countries, or would this still remain a possibility? If so, what would be the requirements and challenges of achieving such an improvement?
It all depends on what Iran chooses to do. It is already forgotten, but the success of JCPOA was in large part due to Iran’s willingness to walk back its nuclear program and agree to limits. Similarly, by adhering to the terms of the deal Iran has now isolated the US as the bad-faith partner in the deal. As long as Iran continues to adhere to the terms of the deal, I don’t think the exit of the US is going to have an effect on what is already happening, which is the commercial opening of Iran to Western firms and a deepening of Iran-EU ties. Of course, US-Iran relations will suffer for the duration of the Trump presidency. The Obama presidency was a unique moment in US politics, the likes of which we are unlikely to witness again for a very long time. Even if Hillary Clinton had won, it was agreed by most experts that she would have been tougher on Iran and the relationship would likely have remained at a stalemate on other issues. So, the prospects for improvement in relations were always going to be grim.
However, should the US exit the deal it will certainly have consequences for how US allies in the region – especially Saudi Arabia and Israel – will do in singling out Iran for its actions, or perhaps even provoking it into a wider conflict. To me, this is the most important angle one has to watch in the coming months. Will the Israelis accuse Iran of a covert program and use it as a pretext to bomb Iran’s facilities (as they did Iraq’s and Syria’s programs in years past)? After all, unlike Obama, Netanyahu has a steadfast supporter in Trump who would no doubt back any attack by the Israelis on Iran. It is therefore incumbent on Iran to be vigilant in controlling its own hardline elements and ensure that no advantages are yielded to its regional rivals during the Trump presidency. This is the singular theme of US-Iran relations during the Trump presidency: no unforced errors.