(Note: This article first appeared in January 19, 2016 edition of The Chronicle Herald. Find it here.)
Ironically, the Iran nuclear agreement may fail for reasons unrelated to the procurement of nuclear weapons or fissile material.
On Jan. 16 the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) verified Iran had implemented the measures under Annex V of the agreement and had begun to apply the Additional Protocol, a more comprehensive procedure for further inspections of nuclear facilities.
In response, executive orders have revoked five rounds of U.S. sanctions and United Nations and European Union resolutions have rolled back restrictions on trade and travel. Conventional wisdom would suggest the deal is playing out as planned.
The U.S. Treasury has issued a new, seemingly unrelated round of economic sanctions in response to Iran’s Oct. 10 and Nov. 21 ballistic missile tests. The executive action targets 11 individuals and entities found responsible for supplying or supporting Iran’s ballistic missile program.
It’s no accident these developments followed immediately after the release of four American nationals held captive by the Islamic Republic.
Iran is strictly barred from testing ballistic missiles in accordance with paragraph 9 of UN Security Council Resolution 1929. Following the tests, both Hillary Clinton and the Republican congressional caucus have called for additional unilateral sanctions against Iran.
Tehran officials deny their medium-range Emad missile-launch defied UN regulations, saying it was never designed to be capable of carrying nuclear weapons.
According to a confidential report by the Security Council’s panel of experts, the Emad missile, a variation of the Shahab-3, is fully capable of delivering a nuclear warhead.
The Iran deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), lifts all sanctions imposed on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for heavy restrictions on its enrichment infrastructure and stringent inspections by the UN’s nuclear watchdog.
Framed as a “political agreement”, the JCPOA is not a signed treaty and does not have force of law. This makes the JCPOA — an agreement closely tied to nuclear proliferation and international security— nothing more than a handshake deal at the mercy of the parties’ whims.
It remains to be seen whether the Obama administration’s landmark foreign policy achievement will come to fruition. The agreement was forged out of political convenience and can be broken the same way.
Iran perceives the new round of sanctions as a violation of the spirit of the agreement and as lacking legitimacy. If Iran responds by resuming enrichment of weapons-grade uranium, the entire diplomatic effort will fall through as UN sanctions snap back.
Before this happens, the claimant would have to refer the accusation to the joint commission, a dispute resolution body mandated with notifying the Security Council in cases of noncompliance within 30 days of a matter arising. The Security Council then has an additional 30 days to pass a resolution on the issue.
By the time the dust settles, Iran would have likely reaped a substantial economic injection from temporary access to foreign markets.
The fundamental difference in interpretation lies in the fact that the UNSC, composed of five of the seven JCPOA signatories, views development of Iran’s missile program as a basic element of the deal. From Iran’s perspective, they’re not connected.
Iran perceives the U.S. as failing to honour the obligation to keep sanctions withdrawn. The Iranian elite have a convenient opportunity to score domestic political sympathy by framing the narrative as American non-compliance.
Tehran has the option of reneging on its commitments in light of the new sanctions. The question is whether Iran has worthwhile motivation after the Rial booms and the Middle East is awash with Iranian oil.