President Trump and the US Congress dealing with the JCPOA on Iran’s nuclear activities

On October 13, 2017, Donald Trump took the unprecedented decision to stop certifying  Iran’s compliance with the Joint Comprehensive plan of action (JCPOA).He also did not certify that suspension of sanctions ” is appropriate and proportionate to measures taken by Iran with respect to terminating its illicit nuclear program and vital to U.S. national security interests”. In reality, the international body institutionally competent for certification of compliance, the IAEA, had already ascertained  8 times that Teheran was abiding by the deal. To justify his decision president Trump originally indicated that Iran was not in compliance with ” the spirit” of the deal. He, however, stopped short, of reimposing the sanctions which had been removed by the JCPOA agreement and he delegated the decision on this matter to Congress. It is now up to Congress to decide whether to reimpose nuclear sanctions and try to rewrite the deal. In spite of the fact that the clock is ticking, Congress does not seem eager to handle this  “hot potato”. Other vital issues are presently on this year’s end agenda.

Despite the fact that a bipartisan mood contrary to Iran’activities prevails in the chambers, there is still no consensus on how to handle the sanctions issue. Such hesitation is partly due to the fact that Iran, in spite of Trumps’s aggressive language and his endorsement of an emerging hostile anti-Iran coalition with  Israel and Saudi Arabia, has not fallen into the trap of disattending the JCPOA.

Congress is aware that a  repetition of the US  false claim on the existence of weapons of mass destruction prior to the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq would be disastrous for its international credibility. The almost total US  isolation on the sanction issue is an additional cause for hesitation: the European Union, allies in Nato, partners in the JCPOA negotiations, the P5 as well as the UN Secretary-General himself have unequivocally supported the integrity of the Iranian nuclear deal. The  Plan of Action is enshrined in a legally a binding UN Security Council Resolution. An attempt to revoke or modify UN Resolution 2231 would be vetoed by the UNSC. Even if the volume of  US trade with Iran is relatively modest, congressmen will have to ponder the negative economic consequences of a resumption of sanctions which would nullify advantages  for   US industry: in particular the prospect of a major sale to Iran of passenger aircraft by Boeing ( 16 billion Dollars).

For Europe, the survival of the JCPOA is a strategic issue. The  Plan of Action represents the culmination of 12 years of diplomacy facilitated by the EU, unanimously endorsed by UN Security Council,  a key element of the nuclear non-proliferation global architecture and crucial for the security of the region. Its successful implementation continues to ensure that Iran’s nuclear programme remains exclusively peaceful.

Before the establishment of sanctions in 2006, Europe was Iran’s first trade partner. It now ranks fifth. The recuperation of its lost primacy is an additional reason for Brussels to strongly support the JCPOA.  Shortly after  Trump’s decertification announcement, the highest EU authority, the EU Council,endorsed a statement of the EU foreign ministers indicating the EU considers President Trump’s decision “as being in the context of an internal US process”  also adding that “the EU is committed to the continued full and effective implementation of all parts of the JCPOA”. Iran has stated that it could envisage a survival of the deal even without  US participation; the same approach has been indicated by the EU, by Russia and China. In fact, as long as UNSC Resolution 2231  stands, implementing the JCPOA remains an obligation for all UN member states including the US which, by abandoning its commitment, would be violating the law.

Based on the above assumptions, it would seem that the survival and the integrity of the JCPOA is assured even in the case of a US withdrawal. However, the US has openly mentioned the possible use of secondary sanctions to torpedo the deal by preventing even non-US persons and companies from doing business with Iran.During a visit to Saudi Arabia, Secretary of State Tillerson was quite explicit when he warned that” those who conduct business with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, any of their entities — European companies or other companies around the globe — really do so at great risk”. Even if it only refers to business with the Guards, this warning will be taken seriously by all EU companies wishing to deal with Iran for fear of jeopardizing their relations with the US. In fact the Guards directly or indirectly control various sectors of the Iranian economy and, as indicated by the New York Times “European companies would have little choice but to comply since they would not want to risk being shut out of the $19 trillion American market in favor of Iran’s $400 billion one”.

It is a fact that even now, EU companies encounter major difficulties in carrying out the agreed industrial cooperation projects with Iran for fear of possible future US retaliation. In the case of Italy, Iran’s biggest EU trade partner today according to Eurostat, a large part of the projects agreed upon during the first euphoric months following the JCPOA signing ( up to 30 billion Euro)are presently frozen: the situation is not dissimilar for other EU members. Non-EU countries, less prone to US extraterritorial pressures, are ready to grab those contracts.

To prevent such scenarios, action by individual states is insufficient: it necessitates political and financial backing by European institutions. A trilateral team of senior European diplomats from France, Germany and the UK recently made joint high-level demarches in Washington in support of the JCPOA. Because this support enjoys total consensus in Europe,  and because in the sphere of trade the competence belongs exclusively to the European Community, it behoves the EU Council, Commission and Parliament to pursue with the US, the common objective of preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power. This can realistically be attained only through the survival and the integrity of the JCPOA in all its aspects.

Ambassador Carlo Trezza – Senior Adviser for Disarmament and Non-proliferation at  the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI) in Rome