ODVV interview: The Trump policy with respect...
In July 2015, Iran and the major world powers came to a detailed and comprehensive agreement that put an end to years of controversy over Iran’s nuclear activities and was lauded as a landmark non-proliferation accord. The 159-page document came to be known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, stipulated certain restrictions on different aspects of Iran’s nuclear program and in return emancipated Iran from the shackles of international sanctions that had gripped its economy for decades.
The normalization of Iran’s relations with the international community was one of the by-products of the JCPOA, and the United Nation’s nuclear watchdog confirmed in consecutive reports that Iran was holding to it side of the bargain in good faith. Even so, in May 2018, the US President Donald Trump, who had on different occasion decried his predecessor’s signature foreign policy breakthrough as “the worst deal ever,” pulled the United States out of the Iran deal unilaterally. He reinstated the sanctions that were lifted as part of the UN-endorsed JCPOA, and targeted Iran with even broader sanctions.
A new report by the Human Rights Watch revealed that the broad nature of the US economic sanctions on Iran has restricted the Iranian people’s right to health and interfered with their access to humanitarian goods, food and education. The inability of Iranian banks and financial institutions to do transactions with their foreign counterparts, coupled with the reluctance of international banks to wire money to Iran and finance exports to the country have translated into a crippling shortage of life-saving medicine, medical equipment and foodstuff across Iran, and when such staples are available, they are extremely unaffordable and expensive.
When it was inked, the JCPOA was billed a huge diplomatic achievement. Even after President Trump repealed it, world leaders, diplomats, top-notch intellectuals and academicians were talking of the exigency of saving it. Ambassador of the European Union to the United States David O'Sullivan referred to the JCPOA as “the single most important working model of nuclear non-proliferation.” The Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the Iran deal was a “hard-won achievement of multilateralism” and a “viable agreement” Iran was sticking to. The Swiss President Alain Berset described the deal as a “big diplomatic victory for the world.” Now, the fate of the Iran deal is hanging in the balance and Iran has begun cutting back its nuclear commitments under the deal, hoping to elicit action from the European Union to save the moribund accord.
John F. Tierney is an American Democratic politician who was a member of the US House of Representative from Massachusetts from 1997 to 2015. He is an attorney and sat on the House Committee on Education and Labor. In 2016, he was appointed the executive director of the Council for a Livable World and the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.
In an interview with Organization for Defending Victims of Violence, Mr. Tierney responded to some questions about the survival of the Iran deal, the motives that triggered President Trump’s withdrawal, the US sanctions on Iran and the future of Iran-US relations. The following is the text of the interview
Q: President Donald Trump abrogated the Iran deal unilaterally with the aim of convincing the Islamic Republic to sign a new deal with the United States. More than a year after the US withdrawal, there are no indications that the Tehran authorities are willing to negotiate with the United States. Has President Trump’s Iran policy hit a dead end?
A: The Trump “policy” with respect to Iran has failed miserably and, unless there is a newfound willingness to engage Iran honestly with expectations on both sides for compromise, there is little expectation that the situation will improve any time soon. The Trump administration withdrew from a solid agreement that created reasonable assurances that Iran would not pursue a nuclear weapons program. The agreement had far-reaching verification and inspection provisions that exceeded any safeguards agreement in the world, and certainly set the ground work for potential negotiation of further matters left unaddressed at the time it was entered.
The Trump “policy” has raised international sympathies for Iran while painting the United States as a country unwilling to stand by its commitments. The imposition of sanctions under the “maximum pressure” campaign is supposed to change Iran’s behavior, not target and punish a country as an end in itself. Further, there is little left for the United States to sanction unilaterally, so it seems President Trump’s policy will not compel Iran to capitulate to the 12 demands Secretary of State Mike Pompeo outlined when President Trump first withdrew from the nuclear deal. The result is likely the exact opposite of what Mr. Trump alleges to have been seeking.
Q: When President Trump pulled the United States out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, none of the world countries, other than Israel and a few Arab states, welcomed the decision, and the international community was unanimous in believing that trampling the JCPOA would undermine international peace and security. Why did President Trump make a decision that almost all of the major US allies objected to?
A: I would not presume to understand the inner workings of the president’s mind. That said, he was clear during the 2016 campaign that he intended to withdraw from the agreement and he held to that promise. His distaste for the agreement seems rooted in his personal feelings about his predecessor in the Oval Office. He also surrounded himself with advisors like Ambassador John Bolton who have made a career out of destroying arms control and nonproliferation agreements. Of course, President Trump may truly believe that he is capable of negotiating a better deal with Iran, but he has yet to take any steps to demonstrate that capability.
Q: As you said, and as many observers have noted, President Trump de-certified the Iran nuclear deal in order to spoil the signature foreign policy achievement of his predecessor Barack Obama, and instead embark on cutting a new agreement with Iran, which he could call his own deal. Why was it so important for Trump to destroy the legacy of Obama?
A: Again, I would not presume to understand why President Trump carries so much animosity for his predecessor, but he is hardly the first President that presumed they could “get a better deal.” That is the long-term problem we need to address — getting partisan politics out of the hard work of reducing nuclear risks.
Q: Iran deal was upheld by the UN Security Council resolution 2231. Why couldn’t the other signatories of the accord take effective steps to safeguard it after the US withdrawal? Iran was verifiably complying with its side of the bargain, and expected to benefit from the economic dividends of the deal. Why didn’t everything go on smoothly?
A: For better or worse, the United States’ financial systems are at the heart of the sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear program. The Trump administration’s threats to impose retaliatory actions against countries dealing with Iran have had the effect of frightening others from acting for fear of being subjected to severe financial repercussions. While in normal situations one might not expect an ally or other party within a cooperative accord to wage such a campaign against co-signatories to an accord not violated by other participants, this is, of course, not a normal administration and these are not normal times.
Q: After withdrawing from the Iran deal, the Trump administration imposed hard-hitting economic sanctions on Iran. As attested by the UN Special Rapporteur Idriss Jazairy, Human Rights Watch and other international bodies, the sanctions have disrupted the livelihoods of ordinary citizens in Iran, including by making it impossible for them to access life-saving medicine and foodstuff. The US officials have said on several occasions that they support the Iranian people. What do think about the human cost of the US sanctions against Iran?
A: Regardless of stated intention, the imposition of this administration’s sanctions on Iran have adversely impacted the humanitarian situation there. The Trump administration is going well beyond the pre-JCPOA sanctions regime and is targeting the oil sector to increase the pressure on the Iranian economy writ large. It is becoming clear that President Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign has both failed to spur new negotiations and had the effect of diminishing positive views of the United States among Iranian citizens. If the Trump plan was to create hardship that would drive a wedge between the Iranian citizenry and the elite governing officials, that plan seems to be backfiring.
Q: JCPOA was only one of several international agreements and organizations which the US President Donald Trump rescinded or pulled out from. Why do you think the president has turned his back on multilateralism and the international commitments of the United States?
A: The President has precious little background in foreign policy and international security, but he made it clear that his vision for the nation was “America First.” It should not come as a surprise that he has shown little patience for multilateralism.
Q: What do you think the European Union will do to salvage the Iran deal? On one hand, they face the unrelenting pressure of Washington and want to comply with the US sanctions, and on the other hand, they want to provide Iran with incentives so that it does not further roll back its nuclear commitments. Do you think they will succeed in precluding the disintegration of the Iran deal?
A: The remaining parties to the JCPOA have all worked to protect and preserve the deal, but the pressure emanating from both Washington and Tehran is likely too much for the agreement to bear. Some could hope that President Macron’s overtures for a “middle way” might garner some success. This would, of course, require the Trump administration to soften its current position. The prospects for such a change in tactics are low.
Q: Considering the current stalemate and the mounting tensions, do you think there’s any chance for the Iran-US relations to be normalized with the two governments coming back to the negotiating table to address their differences?
A: Of course, it is possible. It is true that trust has been breached and the road ahead will not be easy, but we’ve traveled it before. After the Iranian Revolution, we went nearly 40 years with no improvement in the US-Iran relationship. Once Washington and Tehran decided that diplomacy was preferable to conflict over the Iranian nuclear program, we managed to create a multilateral nuclear agreement that was amenable to all parties. We are capable of doing it again.