Implications of Withdrawal From Iran Nuclear Deal By Jun Kwon and Sung Jang
Earlier this week Donald Trump declared that the United States was withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal. This effectively undid arguably the most important Obama foreign policy achievement.
American withdrawal from the JCPOA has been a core promise of Donald Trump’s campaign, stating that the JCPOA had “weak limits” on Iranian nuclear activity. While Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA may upset Iran, the geopolitical reverberations will definitely be felt beyond the Middle East, including American allies in the region, America’s European allies, and North Korea.
Why Donald Trump Withdrew from JCPOA
Donald Trump’s motivation to withdraw from the JCPOA and place economic sanctions back on Iran is a realist means to curb Iranian power in the region. The existence of provisions that would allow for the re-imposing of sanctions if Iran was found to be within 12 months of producing a nuclear weapons was not sufficient for Donald Trump’s security concerns for the region.
Furthermore, while Trump’s European allies were content with the “sunset provisions” that would freeze Iran’s ability to produce nuclear fuel for civilian usage for 15 years, President Trump’s may be concerned this was not a permanent ban on the production of nuclear materials.
Aside from Mr. Trump’s personal interpretations of the deal, it is likely that Israel and Saudi Arabia played a role in influencing the American withdrawal from the deal. While Israel and Saudi Arabia have hostile relations, they both fear the growth of Iranian influence and power in the region, as Iran funds Hezbollah, which U.S. has designated as a terrorist group (that has recently gained traction in Lebanon).
Iran is also a Shi’a republic, religiously opposed to the Sunni Saudi kingdom. Aside from easing the security concerns of American allies in the Middle East, pulling out of the Iran deal would place sanctions back onto Iran, curbing Russia’s influence as well in the Middle East.
From a structural standpoint, it is also possible that American withdrawal from the JCPOA helps maintain American influence within the region. As Gulf States and Israel rely on the United States for protection, leaving the JCPOA and reigniting tensions within the region would force these states to continue asking for American presence and protection in the region.
Consequences of American Withdrawal from JCPOA
The first immediate consequence is that Iran will be able to more freely pursue a nuclear weapons program now that there is no standard or treaty which the West can hold Iran to. Whether Iran will actually restart a nuclear program aimed at producing weapons remains to be seen. However, it now appears clear that Iran is likely to resume its nuclear programs as hinted by its supreme leader.
Secondly, this greatly alienates the United States from its European allies. Trump’s presidency has already caused America’s European allies much distress such as the withdrawal from COP21. Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA, and re-imposing of sanctions is a stark contrast to European leaders who have advocated for more globalization and economic integration as a means to maintain peace and security guarantees.
Thirdly, this American withdrawal from the JCPOA will greatly undermine American prestige abroad, especially in the context of the U.S.-China power struggle. As the U.S. pulled out of COP21, and flaunted the possibility of a trade war with its allies, China has received much praise in taking up the mantle of leading globalization, economic integration and diplomacy. As a result, American soft power has declined ever since the start of Trump’s administration and will likely decline even further as a result of this withdrawal.
Impact on U.S./North Korea Relations
The biggest consequence of American withdrawal from the JCPOA lies in the denuclearization of North Korea. North Korea sees its nuclear weapons as inseparable from its survival without any security guarantees from the United States. While America has preferred a Complete Verifiable Irreversible Dismantlement (CVID) approach to North Korea, this has not worked as North Korea preferred a step-by-step approach where each act of dismantlement is met by an action of de-escalation along with rewards from the United States.
The North Korean preferred method is similar to the JCPOA. In fact, the Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA has gone in the opposite direction. Based on what Donald Trump has said about the “sunset provisions,” it is very likely that under him, nothing less than a Permanent Verifiable Irreversible Dismantlement deal with North Korea will be accepted. North Korea’s interpretations of such actions will make negotiations for the denuclearization of North Korea much harder as North Korea has witnessed the United States essentially reneging on a security guarantee over the matter of nuclear weapons.
North Korea would also take this case of reneging much more seriously than Iran as the stakes involved for striking a deal with the United States is a lot higher for North Korea. Iran’s goals for striking a deal with the United States is to lift sanctions for economic need. However, for North Korea (especially Kim Jong Un), a deal with the United States involves issues of regime survival, and legitimacy on top of economics. Iran’s regime survival is a lot more secure than North Korea should they not have nuclear weapons, whereas North Korea is locked in a struggle for legitimacy with South Korea in which it risks collapse by absorption.
The threat from the United States is more visibly felt and is directed towards North Korea than Iran, as there are 23,000 American troops on the border between the Koreas. Moreover, following the tradition of his father and grandfather, Kim Jong Un needs economic sanctions lifted to legitimize his rule back home as his “byungjin” political ideology is based around economic growth.
While the death of the JCPOA may be a huge inconvenience for Iran, the consequences of such actions are much greater. Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA signifies that the American approach to foreign policy is solidly realist, a break from the midway approach of liberalism mixed with realism that the United States had taken for the last thirty years.
Any security deals that the United States wishes to negotiate in the years to come under the administration of Donald Trump will be much more difficult as allied states will now be alienated whereas adversarial ones will have less reason to trust the United States in its ability to uphold its contractual obligations.
Jun Kwon is Chair of International Studies and Assistant Professor of Government at Utica College. Sung Jang is a government student at Utica College.