The closing of the Iran deal in 2015 gave the international community a glimmer of hope, says Michal Onderco, university lecturer in International Relations and an expert on Iran’s nuclear programme. The fact that Trump is pulling out can have far-reaching consequences. “If you’re in Pyongyang, it just goes to show how much the word of the US is worth.

Michal Onderco is Assistant Professor International Relations at the Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences (ESSB). He specialises in geopolitics, foreign policy and non-proliferation, having obtained his doctorate based on research into the influence of Iran’s nuclear programme on the foreign policy of India, Brazil and South Africa.

Was it a good deal?

“Critics think the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as it is officially known, is too limited in scope. They think it only focuses on Iran’s nuclear programme, ignoring the other problems for which the country is responsible. For example, think of its aggressive foreign policy, its support of various terrorist groups and its supply of ballistic missiles, which is considered a major problem in the region. In that respect, it is indeed a bad deal.

“However, it can be considered to be a great success as regards the very specific and long-standing concern about Iran’s nuclear ambitions. By imposing sanctions and also by means of, for example, Stuxnet, the virus that damaged the country’s nuclear infrastructure, various countries have tried to stop Iran for nearly ten years now, but all to no avail. This was, however, achieved in 2015 when the JCPOA was signed, prohibiting Iran from producing any nuclear weapons for the duration of the deal (fifteen years).”

Do we know this for a fact?

“With deals such as this one, most of the time is spent negotiating the inspections: which facilities are open to inspection so that you can check whether someone actually complies with the rules. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is allowed to visit all the facilities. You can’t hide uranium as you would a pack of sugar; you would always leave behind radioactive traces. Moreover, Iran is still subjected to close scrutiny by the secret services of, for example, the US and Israel. These services have also said that Iran is not working on a nuclear weapon.”

If so, why has the United States pulled out?

“Iran is still a bad ass in the region. In exchange for freezing its nuclear programme, all kinds of previously imposed sanctions have been lifted. I think that what’s bothering Trump the most is the fact that billions of dollars in Iranian frozen assets have been released and can now be invested in all kinds of dubious causes, such as supporting Assad in Syria.”

Does he have a point?

“Iran has always done this, also before the deal on the nuclear programme. So the answer is no.”

What are the implications of the US withdrawal?

“The consequences will first be felt by European companies that have been doing business in Iran over the past few years. This was not possible before since both the US and Europe had imposed sanctions on business dealings with Iran. However, last year Total (to name but one example) closed an oil drilling deal. Since Total is a French company, and Europe allowed it, this was in principle not a problem. However, the US, where the company is also active, did not. This also applies to Airbus, which suddenly received an order for two hundred airplanes after the agreement was signed.

“Companies such as these will face a great deal of uncertainty. The US might exempt them from the sanctions. However, the US could also decide to enforce them. As one of the more severe sanctions, the US Treasury could prevent companies from signing deals in dollars, in which case a large company might just as well pack it in.”

Last week, Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, twittered “with friends like that who needs enemies.” Unusually strong language, but what does this mean for the relationship between the US and Europe?

“The US and Europe have been allies at least since WWII. What Trump is actually saying now is that he doesn’t care what the US’s European friends think. That’s quite something. It’s certainly true that every ten years or so, the relationship has suffered a crisis, such as about the Soviet missiles in the eighties, the Yugoslav Wars in the nineties and in 2003 following the Iraq War. And there’s always someone who claims that this is the end of the transatlantic Alliance. A new development is that European leaders have never before argued so firmly for European independence, also militarily speaking.”


Is that a good thing?

“Perhaps. However, many Europeans are not yet ready for this. Not for more far-reaching European integration and not for a serious investment in foreign security. Think about it. Take the Netherlands, which currently spends far less on defence than the NATO guideline of 2 per cent of GDP. This would have to come at the expense of, for example, social security and care for the elderly. Can you imagine the discussions this would provoke?”

Iran now says that it is sticking to the deal, even without the US. Does this mean that there is no reason for panic for the time being?

“Iran will demand that the EU abide by the agreements. This would not be a problem, were it not for the question of whether Europe can make good on its promises (i.e. more investments, more economic co-operation) now that the US has pulled out; even if you disregard the new US sanctions, it’s not easy to do business in Iran and a European company will not (under)take this lightly.”

What if Iran pulls out anyway?

“There are many tense relations in the Middle East, even if you take Israel out of the equation. Firstly, there is the long-running struggle for leadership in the region between Saudi Arabia and Iran. They support armed militia that are diametrically opposed to each other. If Iran builds a nuclear weapon again, Saudi Arabia will simply follow suit.

“Secondly, with a nuclear arsenal, Iran will be able to take an even more aggressive stance in armed conflicts in its surrounding countries. It has less to fear from retaliation.

“Thirdly, the balance of power in the Middle East will shift if it appears that the United States, which traditionally has more or less policed the region, no longer has the situation under control. The countries in the region will look more towards other countries, such as Russia.”

Image credit: Bas van der Schot

What are the implications of pulling out of the Iran deal for the situation in North Korea, where Trump is scheduled to hold talks shortly?

“For North Korea, this is a reason to be sceptical about any promises being made.”

Are you optimistic about the attempt to decrease the number of nuclear weapons?

“I’m not very hopeful, but it would be a good thing. There is much debate regarding where things are going with global non-proliferation. The fact that the US is pulling out of the Iran deal is not a good sign. There is renewed interest in nuclear weapons.

“For countries such as North Korea, a nuclear arsenal is the ultimate insurance policy. Gadaffi gave up his nuclear programme and was ousted a few years later. The Ukraine got rid of its nuclear weapons and was then invaded by Russia. If you listen very carefully, North Korea is talking about banning nuclear weapons, i.e. everyone gets rid of them and we all live happily ever after as one big happy family. However, North Korea will never unilaterally surrender its nuclear weapons.”

What is the biggest nuclear threat at this point?

“If I had to make an educated guess, there will be an apparently minor crisis that leads to an unforeseen exchange of nuclear bombs. This year, the Able Archer Exercise celebrates its 35th anniversary. This was a multi-day American military exercise that the Russians considered to be the start of an intercontinental missile attack. They really thought at the time that the world was about to end. But that is not likely to happen because intercommunication has much improved. Moreover, neither the interests of NATO or Russia would be served by it. However, if something is actually going to happen, then that is what it would be.”