By walking away from the Joint Cooperative Plan of Action (JCPOA) the US becomes the first signatory to violate the multilateral agreement. President Trump cites “defectiveness at its core” as justification for going back on the deal. According to the Trump Administration, Iran has failed to comply with the deal and continued to pursue military nuclear capabilities, as well as persisting with “malign behaviour” in Syria. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), responsible for monitoring Iran’s program, would disagree with the first assessment, and it remains unclear how the latter clause is relevant to the JCPOA.
Regardless, the decision has been made to re-impose US sanctions on Iran. Hardest-hit will likely be Iran’s oil exports which, following the 2015 deal, jumped to 2.6 million barrels a day. Crude has begun to rally at the news of a restriction to market supply. Others noteworthy parties that stand to lose include the aircraft manufacturers Boeing and Airbus, the move has disrupted deals worth $40bn and $19bn respectively. Whilst the focus is currently on the economic repercussions of Trump’s decision, the detrimental effect of this move is considerably more nuanced than suggested. Two repercussions, in particular, merit further discussion. First the self-inflicted reputational damage reflects a concerning trend in US policy, and secondly, the effect on Iranian politics as the rug is pulled out from under Rouhani.
This latest move is part of a disconcerting trend being set by the Trump Administration with regards to multilateral agreements. Multilateral agreements are an integral part of the international system. They provide guarantees of cooperation and set the ‘rules of the game’ for actors to abide by. Without these agreements, the international system would be bordering on anarchy. The same can be said for when these agreements exist, but certain actors choose not to uphold their end of the deal. This undermines the foundations of a liberal international system. This most recent development demonstrates how multilateral agreements become hollow guarantees if signatories cannot be certain that they are dealing with a reliable partner. Serving further credence to this trend is the Administration’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord last fall and concerns among their Canadian counterparts that the US is set to leave NAFTA.
This has a detrimental effect on confidence in the political system if agreements, a guarantee of reliability and stability, are being dismissed at such an unprecedented rate. This isolationist action will yield only a damaged reputation for the US as an unpredictable international partner. What value is a bilateral agreement with the US if it has a history of walking away from them as soon as the administration changes?
Retreat from Leadership
Further to this point, where the US steps aside, China and Russia are likely to step in. Given their position relative to the US, in Syria as well as economically, Russia and Iran may find themselves drawing even closer together than they already are. It goes without saying that this is something the Trump administration is aware of; therefore, one can assume that the strategic importance of having a proxy in the region is worth the opportunity cost for the US and its allies.
Arguably the most significant effect of this move is the fallout it will have for President Rouhani in Iran. A moderate, relative to his domestic opposition, he has staked his presidential legacy on improving a decades-long fissure with the West. The landmark nuclear deal was the centrepiece of his diplomatic efforts. Trump’s threats to tear up the accord long before he assumed the presidency have somewhat ensured the international community remained wary of doing business with Iran since the deal was signed, and this latest move is the nail in the
coffin, for Western business interest in Iran at the least.
It remains to be seen how well the European allies will deal with this move and how long they will uphold the agreement for, however, without its most significant partner, its effectiveness is seriously jeopardised. Whilst the supreme leader Khamenei, following the January protests, professes to be set on national prosperity and unity, this unravelling of the deal could see a reactionary effect in Iran’s domestic politics, which inevitably has a great effect on the international community. Amongst domestic pressure from the hard-line clergy and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, it cannot be ruled out that Iran may witness a conservative resurgence similar to that witnessed in Russia with the return of Putin in 2012.
Increased isolationism and conservatism are detrimental to the wider international community on a number of levels and should be avoided at all costs. Therefore, there is also the opportunity for Iran to come out on top in this crisis: by continuing to fulfil their obligations of the deal, Iran can benefit from US isolationism and prove itself as a reliable international partner. This is the optimal policy decision if the Ayatollah is as set on national prosperity as he claims.
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