Author : Kabir Taneja

Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on May 03, 2018
Iran nuclear deal mushrooms into a crisis again

The visit of Emmanuel Macron, the young and charismatic president of France to Washington D.C. as president Donald Trump’s first state guest has from the word go a major point of infraction and confusion between France and the US to deal with. The P5+1 nuclear deal (known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) with Iran was seen as a diplomatic coup between Tehran and Western powers in 2015, avoiding an armed conflict over the former’s nuclear program.

Since then, the White House itself has gone through an upheaval. Macron’s trip has been, expectedly, a swing ride with the Frenchman visibly finding the entire process to meet with Trump both amusing and bemusing. The meetings have been called everything from a “lovefest” to America’s tryst with Europe’s now most powerful leader. However, perhaps the biggest baggage that both the presidents have to work on is the future of the Iran nuclear deal, a topic close to the French hearts but one full of disdain and rebuttal in the hearts at Mar-a-Lago.

President Trump has made no qualms in publicly deriding the agreement, a major legacy of the Obama administration, both initially as a Republican candidate and now as the controversial leader of the free world. It is fair to say that it is questionable whether Trump, not known for having the patience for reading, even understands the full gambit of details that were painstakingly negotiated by Iran and the West in Vienna. However, the destruction of this “bad deal” was a campaign promise, and seems like, whether it makes sense or not, Trump will look to achieve it. The recent changes in his advisory circle, the induction of pro-war John Bolton as the new National Security Advisor and former CIA chief Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State has now made the prospects of checks and balances towards Trump’s whimsical approach to leadership an even lower bar than earlier.

Macron meanwhile finds himself as a mediator between Washington and Tehran, with both Iranian president Hassan Rouhani and foreign minister Javad Zarif rejecting any ‘new’ deal, and threatening restarting uranium enrichment “in a much more advanced way” if the US pulls out (Rouhani, however, has agreed to advanced talks with Macron). The implications of a failure of the current agreement could be catastrophic for the Middle East and have not just regional but global consequences. To begin with, it remains to be seen whether Macron indeed has the global heft to convince the Iranian regime to pander towards Trump’s inconsistencies and deriding jibes towards the Rouhani government. The return of the “regime change crew”, as Vali Nasr, a former senior advisor on Iran at the State Department aptly puts it, is on route to disturb a very delicate balance. With Saudi Arabia and Iran already fighting a proxy war in Yemen, jostling for influence in the Syrian civil war and the Qatar crisis, Riyadh has pulled back no punches on the fact that if Iran sets on a path towards nuclear armament again, Saudi Arabia will walk down the same road. It is universally accepted that the Saudis will be able to attain nuclear weapons relatively quickly due to the nature of their relationship with Pakistan.

The implications of a failure of the current agreement could be catastrophic for the Middle East and have not just regional but global consequences


However, as many complications as an American withdrawal from JCPOA will create, a loss of the agreement will also put the Rouhani government in a very fragile position. The success of the deal came at significant domestic political duress and pushback for the Rouhani government, specifically from the Ayatollah who eventually relented considering the economic condition of the country. The sanctions against Iran had succeeded to bring Tehran to the negotiation table, and the success of the negotiations were seen as a way to pacify an increasingly restive, young and proud population opting to be part of the global economic growth story instead of keeping their own potentials captive to the complicated yet old-guard politics of the US – Iran status quo.

The global perception of Iran in many public discourse quarters remains that of a derelict nation, similar to North Korea, thanks to the country’s inclusion in the ‘Axis of Evil’ branding brought on by former US president George W Bush. These common perceptions regarding Iran are false.


There is a distinct possibility that Trump may believe that threatening Iran and quitting the JCPOA could get him similar deliverables that he is getting in his engagements with North Korea, with an impending Trump – Kim Jong Un summit expected to take place within the next 100 days, reports have suggested that Pyongyang may look into “denuclearization” and a full stop on testing to showcase its seriousness. However, despite such contours, it is in fact on the whims and successes of the North Korean nuclear and missile program that the United States is being able to hold such a conference. The definition of “denuclearization” will depend on whose narrative of the same prevails, the US, which has recently indicated its disastrous policies towards Libya as a possible route that Washington D.C. takes with Pyongyang or Kim Jong Un’s definition, which in all likeliness, will only include a cap on future building of warheads and missile testing and not dismantling its existing, usable infrastructure.

Meanwhile, over the past 48 hrs, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a public presentation, flanked by a large screen and a collage of CDs (Computer Discs or CDs were silver spherical objects used to store computer data) as he unveiled to the world what he claimed was fresh information on Iran’s nuclear weapons ambition. Israel said that its intelligence apparatus had taken this data, in digital and print formats, out of Iran in a covert operation and shared the same with Western powers. Much of the presented information, however, analysts from a wide spectrum of interests believe was already available with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and only added further weight behind the reasons why the JCPOA was negotiated in the first place. This is being looked upon as pressure tactics employed by Israel to sway Trump’s thinking as he is to make a decision on American involvement in the Iran nuclear deal next week.

At the current crossroads, a French diplomatique effort to bridge the differences between Iran and the US may end up being as much a litmus test for Macron as one for Trump and Kim Jong Un with little possibilities of success.


Overall, the world in 2018 cannot afford a new, violent front in the Middle East over Iran. The proxy war between Tehran, Riyadh and Jerusalem is already a reality in the Syrian theatre with alleged Israeli airstrikes over the past few months regularly targeting Shiite militias backed by Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards. Pulling any existing plugs around this precarious geo-political balance due to ill-advised and poor understanding of both the JCPOA and the more complex than ever ground realities of the region will only descend regional and international peace into further duress, stress whose outcome remains largely unknown.

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Kabir Taneja

Kabir Taneja

Kabir Taneja is a Fellow with Strategic Studies programme. His research focuses on Indias relations with West Asia specifically looking at the domestic political dynamics ...

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Jonathan Phillips

Jonathan Phillips

Jonathan Phillips James E. Rogers Energy Access Project Duke University

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