Euronews speaks to an expert on nonproliferation and disarmament in the Middle East, Dina Esfandiary, about Trump's decision to leave the Iran nuclear deal.
Interview with Dina Esfandiary
After President Trump’s announcement that the US is pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal, can the accord be saved and on what terms?
It can be saved but it will be really difficult. The Iranians have already indicated that they are more than happy to stay in the deal, provided that Europe offers them enough to offset Trump’s decision. Europe has also indicated a willingness to do this. The problem is I don’t know if there is the political will in Europe to go far enough to offset the decision.
What needs to be done? The Europeans need to put in place their blocking regulations to isolate European companies from American sanctions. The problem is that this is something that’s never been done before, and it’s a pretty big and bold step, and I just don’t think there’s the political will in Europe to do that.
What role do Russia and China play now?
They obviously play a massive role. Iran engaged in these negotiations in order to pivot away from Russia and China. Both countries were already involved in Iran’s economy. They’ve always been there, they perhaps disengaged a little bit following UN sanctions in 2010, but at the end of the day they’ve been present in the Iranian market this entire time.
Iran appreciates that but is very suspicious of the Russians and Chinese, because the quality of the products aren’t as good, and because dealing with them is more difficult. Part of the reason they started negotiating with the others in the P5+1 was so that Iran could open up to the West, and to Europe in particular. So if it doesn’t get the dividends of the deal that it was promised, and it looks unlikely that it will, then Iran is going to pivot right back into Russia and China’s sphere of influence. And it’s already started doing that.
Many Iranian officials who have always expressed lack of comfort with dealing with the Russians and the Chinese have already come out and said, “well, you know what, these guys were around since before the Europeans, they stuck around even when the international community wanted to sanction us, and today they’re more than ready to step in and fill in the hole that European businesses are likely to leave.”
So Trump’s sanctions will inevitably affect companies in Russia and China that are dealing with the US, but at the end of the day, there is more political will in both of these countries to protect their own companies, to ignore the sanctions and to go ahead and do business with Iran.
Trump says the US is leaving the deal because it hasn’t stopped Iran from fuelling instability in the region and developing its ballistic missile programme. Will sanctions do this?
Of course they won’t. The nuclear deal is exactly that: it is a deal on Iran’s nuclear programme. It targeted only Iran’s nuclear programme because the negotiators at the time judged that there was no way they were going to be able to come to an agreement with Iran on all of the issues and all of Iran’s behaviour that poses a problem to the West. So their strategy was to deal with the most immediate issue, which was the nuclear issue and get it out of the way. And they did exactly that.
What’s more, it’s worked. Iran is implementing it; the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and even the US State Department have come out multiple times now and said Iran is implementing it. So this strategy of saying Iran’s behaviour in the region is bad and Iran is developing ballistic missiles so we have to scrap the nuclear deal makes zero sense.
Iran had said, right after it agreed to the nuclear deal, that it was willing to contemplate further engagement and discussions on other activities. That’s not to say that it was going to unilaterally withdraw itself from everywhere in the region, but at least it was willing to discuss it. Today, there is no Iranian official who will be able to turn around and say, “let’s go talk to the US about what we’re doing in the region.” There’s no reason for Iran to draw down what it’s doing in the region and there’s certainly no reason for Iran to draw down its research and development and its ballistic missile programme. So, actually what Trump has done, has made the situation significantly worse.
Trump says Iran wasn’t sticking to the agreement anyway. Couldn’t the same be said of the US?
Firstly, it’s important to say that that’s an absolute lie. Iran was sticking to the agreement. Iran had implemented everything that had been required of it. There were one or two instances of Iran going over its allowed stockpile of heavy water, and within four or five days of negotiations and diplomacy, Iran had shipped out whatever excess it had. These minor crises with the implementation of the deal were dealt with very, very fast, in the context of the deal. This is obviously no longer going to happen today.
The problem is, since the beginning of the deal, the US hadn’t [stuck to the agreement], particularly once the Trump administration came to power. Trump had fostered an environment of uncertainty, which had made it very difficult for European businesses, who are naturally risk-averse, to go back into the Iranian market the way that they wanted to, and as fast as they wanted too. They still needed a lot of clarification because the US had only suspended sanctions, not removed them like the Europeans had. So there was a lot of hesitation, which means that even before Trump decided to walk away from the deal, Iran was already not getting the benefits of the deal the way that it was promised.
What does Trump’s tough talk with countries like Iran and Syria mean for US denuclearisation negotiations with North Korea?
It’s pretty simple: put yourself in the shoes of a North Korean official. You’re sitting down and you’re watching what President Trump is doing with the Iran deal, watching what his foreign policy consists of, and watching him walk away from a number of international agreements and deals. Personally, if I were a North Korean official, I would say, “the only thing that’s ensuring my survival today is the fact that I have a nuclear arsenal, and that they want to talk to me about it. So sure, let’s sit down and have a chat about it.” But I’m never going to meaningfully discuss it and I’m never going to give up my nuclear arsenal, because the day that I do, I’m confronted with the type of behaviour that Iran has been confronted with; that is, increasing sanctions, increasing tough talk and so on. I think it doesn’t bode well.
Dina Esfandiary is a Centre for Science and Security Studies (CSSS) fellow in the War Studies Department at King’s College London and an Adjunct Fellow (non-resident) in the Centre for Strategic Studies’ Middle East Program.
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