You can thank Russia for nuclear security in the Trump era

On the campaign trail, presidential candidate Donald Trump vowed to rescind the Iran nuclear deal once in office. But to the dismay of President-elect Donald Trump, the agreement is playing out exactly as planned.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) came into force in January. With the lifting of international sanctions, Tehran has a renewed spirit for enterprise, evidenced by their rapid global economic reintegration.

In September, the U.S. Treasury approved Boeing’s sale of 80 passenger jets to Iran’s national airline worth up to $25 billion. Earlier this month, French oil giant Total S.A. agreed to a gas development deal with Iran, who boasts the world’s largest natural gas reserves. French automaker PSA Peugot Citreon have come to terms to manufacture vehicles in Tehran. Today, Canada’s Bombardier Inc. are in talks with Iran Air, looking to compete with Boeing for additional contracts to replace Iran’s aging civil aviation fleet.

Perhaps more important to Trump’s incoming foreign policy team is Russia, who’ve sold their S-300 anti-aircraft missile system to the Islamic Republic’s Air Defense Force. The Kremlin has a billion-dollar energy deal to build offshore drilling rigs in the Persian Gulf. As a part of their nascent 5-year strategic cooperation agreement, they’ve formed a Joint Economic Commission to work toward free trade and energy partnership.

With a Republican Congress and Trump in the White House, all signs point to a toughened strategy of resolve with Iran. And as the world broods over the potential security implications, many are amiss in their assessment of Russia’s role as a key attenuating force.

If President Trump wants to maintain cool heads between Washington and the Kremlin, this will require his acquiescence to Russian demands on Iran, who is lining up to be a strong potential defense and energy partner.

On Monday, Trump spoke with Putin and agreed to a joint effort to combat international terrorism and end the conflict in Syria. Trump has announced he will withdraw support for the Syrian rebel groups once gaining office, in a move sympathetic to the Kremlin-backed Bashar al-Assad regime. If he truly wants to cooperate on mutual ground with Putin on Syria, Trump will have to concede his hardline stance on Iran.

Mr. Trump knows how to negotiate, and renegotiate, trade agreements but he doesn’t know the more complicated world of international politics. Now is the time for him to stop blowing smoke and start doubling back on hyperbolic campaign promises.

Speaking to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee 2016 Policy Conference in March, Trump promised to scrap the deal and “hold Iran totally accountable” for their links to designated terrorist organizations. Israel has rallied behind Trump’s calls for renegotiating but one should hope that Trump’s sensibilities for business and security ought to have greater effect on his policy.

During the first presidential debate, Trump was pressed on what strategy could substitute the JCPOA. He couldn’t answer. There is simply no viable alternative short of regional instability and severed relations with major global powers. Trump does not want to invade Iran. Neither does he want to ruin his opportunity for a detente with Russia, and an expedient end to the crisis in Syria.

Even if he does intend to throw out the deal he likely won’t be able to get away with it on his own. The JCPOA was negotiated and framed as a political agreement between Iran, Germany, and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. This doesn’t leave room for Trump to unilaterally reimpose sanctions without being subject to a potential veto by other signatories like Russia or France, who have clear material interests in keeping the deal alive.

The largely ignored player in this discussion is Russia. This is because even if the reasons for keeping trade channels open with Iran are insufficient, keeping diplomatic ties with Moscow is too strategically compelling with respect to Syria and regional security interests. The imminent threat of Putin’s veto wouldn’t help either.

The picture will become more clear as Trump announces his foreign policy team in the coming weeks. Unfortunately, any attempt to wrap your head around a coherent Trump foreign policy doctrine is difficult until then.

Though suffice it to say, we can expect a moderate Trump foreign policy with respect to Iran.

It’s becoming redundant to say that we can’t trust Donald Trump’s campaign promises. They are ignorant to the complex realities of international security, and ripe with the hyperbole of a seasoned politician. The greatest trick Trump played was convincing us he wasn’t one.

You can thank Russia for nuclear security in the Trump era

How to kill a nuclear arms deal

(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.

How to kill a nuclear arms deal