CPSD - Commentary

Iran Nuclear Deal: The Trump Administration and its Geostrategic Decision

In a reckless move on 8th May 2018, American President Donald Trump announced the United States of America’s withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Deal. This particular move is well in line with the series of undiplomatic and knee jerk policies that have characterized the Trump presidency. This policy decision however, will have long lasting effects on the Middle East – a region already rife with political instability, foreign intervention and conflict. The withdrawal from the nuclear deal will inadvertently affect Pakistan due to its border with Iran. Therefore, there needs to be urgent action from Pakistan as well as the international community to condemn this decision in the strongest possible terms.

This particular move by President Trump is even more alarming since the Trump administration does not require Congress to ratify the decision of withdrawing from the deal. The nuclear deal was not negotiated with Congress support but was in fact an executive agreement negotiated by Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama. President Trump’s ascendancy to office gives him the authority to withdraw from this agreement as an executive decision by an American president can be unilaterally rescinded

In a bid to set himself apart from Obama, Trump promised to pull out of the agreements that the US entered during Obama’s tenure. Trump has already withdrawn the US out of the Paris Climate Accord and has now announced the termination of the Iran Nuclear Deal that was signed by the two countries in 2015. The basic terms of the deal included the lifting of economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for the abandonment of its nuclear program. The end of this deal will result in the re-imposition of US sanctions, leading to a further deterioration in the already volatile relations between the two countries. It has also demonstrated how any escalation of tensions in the Middle East could exacerbate the already volatile situation in the region. The news of the US pulling out of the nuclear deal was subsequently followed by Israel attacking Iranian military infrastructure in Syria with a retaliatory response from Iran. Israel was always a vocal critic of the deal and the abandonment of the agreement meant the Israeli administration was emboldened to pursue a confrontation with Iran as the two countries support opposing proxies in the Syrian civil war. If the deal is fully disbanded, it will have major geostrategic consequences for the region.

The history of relations between Iran and the US demonstrates that while they have never been directly at war – the US has long used money as a weapon to curb Iranian influence in the Middle East. Imposing unilateral sanctions for an extended period destabilized the Iranian economy which cultivated a general animosity towards the United States. Started by Jimmy Carter in 1979 as a bid to help free the American hostages who were taken during the Iranian revolution, the sanctions were perhaps the most important characteristic of the US-Iran relationship. In 2002 as Iran pursued a nuclear program, worldwide sanctions destroyed the Iranian economy by devaluing its currency and increasing inflation and unemployment. These problems were only alleviated once President Obama signed a pact in 2015 providing sanctions relief in exchange for Iranian guarantees to abandon their nuclear-enrichment program. The deal was called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and it included major countries such as the US, UK, France, China, Germany and Russia. Iran had to forego uranium enrichment and the construction of heavy water reactors in exchange for the right to trade freely in international markets primarily to sell Iranian oil. Trump’s decision to withdraw from the deal will not only increase anti American sentiment in Iran, it will also leave the nuclear program unconstrained further destabilizing the region. Trump’s decision has been criticized unanimously by the international community, with most strategists claiming that the decision devalued the process of democracy and diplomacy. Other countries such as the France and UK have urged Washington to rethink its decision, while China has reiterated its commitment to maintaining economic relations with Iran. Trump’s move has brought in an array of reactions, with some even claiming that this move has the potential to start a war. Thus, it is important to follow the developments on this deal and it is the responsibility of the international community to deescalate the situation and open the door to negotiations again.

Pakistan shares a border with Iran and the relations between the two countries have experienced a positive shift in recent times with the current Pakistani Chief of Army Staff’s visit to Tehran. Both the countries have mutually agreed to strengthen their commercial and trade ties. However, with the threat of US sanctions looming at large, Pakistan’s Foreign Office released the following statement: “Arbitrarily rescinding such agreements will undermine confidence in the value of dialogue and diplomacy in the conduct of international relations and the peaceful resolution of disputes,” the Foreign Office further stated that it “hoped the deal would not be scrapped altogether.”

The nuclear deal has had long term effects on the economic ties between Iran and Pakistan. Iran is also a major player in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and due to Iran neighboring Gwadar, it provides important trade routes and brings the countries one step closer to reviving the silk route trade. Iran is connected to Gwadar by road and a freight rail connection between Pakistan and Iran via Balochistan has also been restored. Furthermore, improved bilateral relations with Iran will also give Pakistan a chance to improve its foreign diplomatic standing. The Middle East is now characterized by a stand-off between Iran and Saudi Arabia and Pakistan has remained on positive diplomatic terms with both the countries. This is an aspect that is important for Pakistan to maintain in order to protect its sovereignty in a region that is always on the brink of war. An Iranian nuclear program will inevitably lead to an arms race in the Middle East; Pakistan’s geographic proximity to the region therefore makes it important for Pakistan to prevent such a situation. Pakistan needs to diplomatically engage all major nuclear powers in the region such as China, Russia and Turkey to ensure the situation is not further aggravated.

It is evident that President Trump’s move will negatively affect Pakistan- Iran bilateral relations thus, Pakistan needs to employ effective political and diplomatic tactics to prevent further Western interference in West Asia. The FO’s statement has made its stance clear and now it needs to ensure that the other countries do not withdraw from JCPOA. The Pakistan-Iran gas pipeline project is one of several projects that both neighbours can negotiate to resolve Pakistan’s energy woes – a move also supported by the Chinese who have offered to partake in the construction of the actual pipeline. Thus, Pakistan needs to shift its focus towards China while also diplomatically urging the US to uphold its commitment to this international agreement. The sanctions on Iran will have far-reaching geostrategic consequences and Pakistan certainly cannot afford to have another nuclear power bordering its territory. A constructive way forward would be to support the European Union and other countries’ efforts who recognize the potential of the deal, while ensuring that economic sanctions do not cripple the Iranian economy.