By Javier Solana, distinguished fellow at the Brookings Institution, former EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy and Secretary-General of NATO
MADRID – It is unfortunate that so few international agreements have been reached in recent years. During a period when great-power competition has generally trumped cooperation, two significant exceptions – the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate agreement – offer hope that formalized, multilateral responses to global challenges are still possible.
But now Donald Trump is threatening to renege on both agreements, and his election as President of the United States has revealed their fragility. If the US withdraws from, or fails to comply with, either deal, it will strike a heavy blow to a global-governance system that relies on multilateral agreements to resolve international problems.
To see what is at stake, consider the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action between Iran and the E3/EU3+3 (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany and the European Union). The JCPOA’s first anniversary coincided with Trump’s inauguration, so it is worth recalling how it came about – and what could happen if it falls apart.
Europeans first made contact with Iran about the issue back in 2003, when they negotiated with then-Secretary of the Iranian National Security Council, Hassan Rouhani. Both sides even reached an agreement in 2004; but it did not last long. In 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s election as President of Iran marked a turning point. While the negotiations officially continued, scant progress was made. Meanwhile, Iran’s nuclear program advanced rapidly, even as its people suffered under heavy economic sanctions.
Rouhani won Iran’s presidential election in 2013. When he had negotiated with European diplomats in 2003, Iran had a modest nuclear program, and could enrich uranium only with great difficulty. Ten years later, it had installed thousands of centrifuges. Fortunately, tireless diplomatic efforts during the two years following Rouhani’s election culminated in the JCPOA.
Of course, there were vocal critics in the US who did not welcome the agreement, or the prospect of negotiating with Iran at all. And other countries in the Middle East feared that the agreement would alter the regional balance of power and damage their own interests. Opponents of the deal offered three main reasons for rejecting it: Iran could never be trusted to fulfill its commitments; the agreement would unacceptably elevate Iran’s regional status; and Iran did not deserve the time of day.
In the year since the JCPOA was implemented, has Iran fulfilled its commitments? The International Atomic Energy Agency says that it has. Iran has allowed the IAEA to inspect every site that the agency has requested to see – including those from which it was barred before the agreement – and has granted inspectors access to its electronic systems and chain of enrichment.