By Mahmood Monshipouri

Tillerson’s Exit and future of Iran Nuclear Deal

March 17, 2018

SAN FRANCISCO - Could the departure of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson from the U.S. Department of State deliver a coup de grace to the Iran nuclear deal? One potential consequence of Tillerson’s ouster is that President Trump would likely pave the way for abandoning the Iran nuclear deal—otherwise known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

The nomination of Mike Pompeo, who is currently serving as the CIA Director and is also known as an Iran hawk, as Secretary of State is harbinger of bad news for the deal.  Referring to the Iran nuclear deal, Pompeo has repeatedly said that he intends to “roll back this disastrous deal.”  This in turn raises the risk of a possible military confrontation with Iran as the May 12, 2018, deadline draws ever closer for the possible re-imposition of U.S. sanctions.  If by this date, the U.S. officials cannot reach an agreement with their EU counterparts, the Trump administration is threatening to abrogate the Iran deal.

At issue are Iran’s ballistic missile arsenal and other provisions (such as Sunset clauses) that expire in the next fifteen years.  The consequences of unraveling this agreement are profound and unsettling, aggravating further conflicts and tensions in an already volatile and unpredictable region.  The threat of proliferation can no longer be underestimated, as it is quite reasonable to be skeptical of the similar deal with North Korea. Why any nation conducting diplomacy would regard even settled arms agreements or anti-proliferation treaties, at least at this stage, becomes highly problematic.

Many in the Pentagon, such as U.S. Central Command Chief General Joseph Votel, have told the Senate Armed Services Committee that they shared the views of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joe Dunford that invalidating the deal would be a detriment to U.S. national security.  This perspective reflects the degree to which casting further uncertainty over the fate of agreement, which was so carefully and painstakingly negotiated under the five-plus-one talks, is far more perilous than the current administration in Washington assumes.

Further threats to undermine the JCPOA could plunge the region into a new round of proliferation activities harmful to the entire region.  To be sure, Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical rivalry with Iran and its push toward producing nuclear energy—albeit driven almost entirely by economic concerns—will assume a dramatically different turn, as Riyadh will most likely move toward keeping a nuclear weapons option open.  It is important to remember that the Saudis funded the development of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.  It is also worth noting that if Washington goes through with several similar nuclear deals with Morocco, Turkey, and Egypt, in which all these countries have already made it clear that they seek nuclear energy deals without forfeiting their enrichment rights, the precedents set will be consequential.  Most rational actors on the political scene in Washington, and other capitals of the U.S. Western allies—not to mention Russia and China—agree that further negotiations over the original JCPOA is a better route than military confrontation with Iran.  Many European countries are already contemplating ways to protect their companies and banks from renewed U.S. sanctions.

Meanwhile, U.S. international standing hangs in balance.  At stake here is not only credibility of U.S. policy around arms control or nuclear disarmament, but what is more troubling is the fundamental undermining of the established propriety of U.S. treaties and policies. If it becomes the case, over the long term, that the United States is simply a nation that swings wildly from one policy to another without adhering to an established set of fundamental priorities, the consequences to the reputation of not only the United States, but the larger system of Western institutions will be very severe. The potential for a broader disintegration of international law is the worst possible outcome for anyone concerned with preventing war, protecting human rights, promoting non-proliferation, and enhancing the regional security of the Middle East.

Mahmood Monshipouri, PhD, teaches Middle Eastern Politics at the San Francisco State University and the University of California at Berkeley.

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