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Debate in Iran: Is nuclear deal worth keeping without US?

shift in thought

The nuclear deal was sold to Iranians as offering a peace dividend and paving the way for greater openness. But the returns have been minimal, and how hard Tehran will work to keep the deal alive with Europeans and without the United States remains to be seen.

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Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov invites his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, to have a seat during their meeting in Moscow, May 14, 2018.

Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

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President Trump’s decision to withdraw unilaterally from the landmark 2015 Iran nuclear deal last week sparked fireworks in Tehran.

Hard-line Iranian lawmakers – who always opposed the deal anyway because of the limits it imposed on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for easing sanctions – clustered around the dais in parliament and torched copies of a US flag and the text of the deal as they chanted “Death to America!”

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Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, made clear that Mr. Trump’s decision was, in his view, further proof that the US could never be trusted to keep its word.

But Iran has not yet ratcheted up its uranium enrichment, nor dusted off mothballed centrifuges, nor kicked out United Nations inspectors. Instead, Iran has launched a diplomatic offensive to save the deal, calling on the other parties to provide guarantees within two months that will keep the deal alive.

Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was in Beijing over the weekend and in Moscow Monday, lobbying to save the deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). He meets Tuesday with European foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, and British, French, and German foreign ministers who are to present proposals.

Mr. Zarif tweeted that he held “good and substantive” meetings in Beijing and Moscow, and “will soon determine” how the remaining parties will “guarantee Iran’s benefits … and preserve this unique diplomatic achievement.”

So does this flurry of diplomacy indicate that Iran considers the nuclear deal worth keeping, even without the United States?

The answer depends upon whom you ask in Tehran, and on what guarantees are possible from the European Union, Russia, and China. To what degree are they willing to oppose the White House’s stated aim of re-imposing sanctions on Iran – making them even more painful for Iran than Obama-era measures – to force Iran to negotiate a more comprehensive deal that includes limits on ballistic missiles and support of proxy forces in the region?

Wedge between US, Europe

European leaders are grating noisily at the US bid to impose secondary sanctions against their companies to compel their citizens to stop doing billions of dollars of business with Iran.

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But inside Iran, the effort to preserve the nuclear deal without the US is requiring a recalculated weighing of economic, political, ideological, and military benefits every bit as complex, and controversial for hardliners, as the original deal itself.

“From the perspective of the leadership in Tehran, Iran and Europe against the US is a much better scenario than the US and Europe against Iran,” says Ali Vaez, the director of the Iran Project at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.

“Diminished dividends are better than deprivation, but there is a tipping point beyond which sustaining the deal becomes politically impossible,” says Mr. Vaez.

“The extreme isolation of 2011-2012 was Iran’s ‘never again’ moment,” he says. “The leadership learned that US sanctions are [only] as effective as they enjoy the support of other countries. Tehran will do everything in its power to drive a wedge between the US and the rest of the international community.”

European leaders agree with the assessments of the UN’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which has certified 10 times that Iran is in compliance with the deal. It was required to fill the core of a heavy-water power reactor with concrete; reduce its stockpile of enriched uranium by 98 percent; dismantle nearly 15,000 centrifuges; and accept the most intrusive inspections regime ever negotiated.

Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire of France – whose Airbus stands to lose $19 billion in sales under secondary sanctions – said Europe should not accept the US as the “world’s economic policeman” and called on fellow Europeans to resist.

“Do we want to be vassals who obey decisions taken by the United States while clinging to the hem of their trousers?” he asked.

Chinese State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, right, meets Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the Diaoyutai state guesthouse in Beijing, Sunday, May 13, 2018.
Thomas Peter/AP

Ms. Mogherini, speaking late last week, said “bullying, systematically destroying and dismantling everything that is already in place, is the mood of our times.” After speaking with President Hassan Rouhani, she said: “We are determined to keep this deal in place.”

Still, John Bolton, the hawkish US national security adviser, said Sunday that even allies would be targeted if they did not comply. “Europeans are going to face the effect of US sanctions,” he said.

And while Europe wrestles with the US over sanctions, Iranian leaders are grappling with their own political issue with Europe, as part of a Western alliance that imposed EU sanctions right alongside the US during the Obama presidency.

Ayatollah Khamenei set the tone when he spoke the day after the withdrawal decision by Trump, whom he said had uttered “indecent” words and told 10 lies during his speech.

European countries had to provide “enough guarantees,” or “keeping the nuclear deal with them would not make any sense,” Khamenei said.

“I do not trust the Europeans either. Do not trust them!” he said. “If you want to continue with them, demand practical guarantees, otherwise they will act the same way the Americans did.”

Hard-liners: Rouhani was duped

Hard-liners have pounced on Trump’s decision as proof that the centrist Mr. Rouhani – who banked on the economic fruit of the nuclear deal to rejuvenate Iran’s stagnant economy and to fulfill his promise to reengage positively with the West on Iran’s terms – had been duped by Iran’s decades-long foes.

The powerful chairman of the Assembly of Experts, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, for example, issued a statement calling upon Rouhani to “come out in honesty and frankness and express apology to the nation over the damage the JCPOA has done to the country.”

Ayatollah Jannati dismissed chances that Europe would stand up to the US, charging instead that Europe had “never spared any measure in countering the Islamic Republic,” and that “superficial differences” with the US now amounted to no more than a “division of labor” to harm Iran.

The country’s immediate path is likely to follow the cautious lead of Rouhani, who said Iran would speak with “friends and allies” before returning to “industrial [uranium] enrichment without any limitations.”

“The new development will open new avenues for Iran’s regional diplomacy,” says Kayhan Barzegar, head of the Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies in Tehran. A foreign policy based on the JCPOA will now focus on “dialogue with European powers to keep their channel of interactions open.”

Still, skepticism of Europe’s role is echoed among opponents of the deal in Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

“There is little hope that diplomacy could create any breakthrough,” said Brig. Gen. Hossein Salami, the IRGC deputy commander. “We have made progress whenever we have confronted the enemies.… Europe will never give up submission to US policies. The new pressure is an economic war on Iran.”

Ordinary Iranians know the result – an economy already battered by decades of mismanagement, on top of the damage done by previous sanctions, and the fact that the Trump administration did little to enable Iran to bank and do business with the West, as required by the JCPOA and practiced to a degree by the Obama team.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, right, and his German counterpart, Heiko Maas, take a stroll in the park of Villa Borsig in Berlin, Monday, May 7, 2018. Before President Trump announced the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran, the two foreign ministers said they would hold on to the agreement, regardless.
Ralf Hirschberger/dpa/AP

Protests erupted and spread across 80 cities in Iran late last December over the poor state of the economy, mismanagement, corruption – and lack of a peace dividend from the nuclear deal. Rouhani said the economy needed “major surgery.”

Iran’s currency, the rial, has lost 25 percent of its value in recent weeks, with further drops expected.

“We can’t bear this one. My husband and I have been debating leaving Iran,” says Shima, a mother of two who teaches French in Tehran. “We have never been this close to a state of war. But in our case and with Trump’s decision, the dollar rate will crazily go up even further and that means our savings will sharply lose value. Our immigration plan will definitely be at risk.”

“I don’t know how Iran will proceed with the Europeans,” says Elaheh, a student of Persian literature at Azad University in Tehran. She says she was “never hopeful” about the nuclear deal, but says she already faced a “bleak prospect” because government inefficiency pushed up the jobless rate.

“The Europeans will not sacrifice the tremendous business and political interests they share with the US over the tiny ones they do with Iran,” she says.

An I-told-you-so tone

One reformist newspaper asked in its headline if Europe was “regaining authority.” Another said Trump’s “trampling all legal and international rules” was Iran’s “biggest winning card.”

But hard-line newspapers such as Kayhan adopted an I-told-you-so tone and said Iranian negotiators have been “duped” into believing Europe can make a difference.

“Both sides [the US and Europeans] are pursuing the same goal: To push Iran toward a new deal, to draw more concessions from Tehran in exchange for a bunch of empty promises,” Kayhan wrote in an editorial Sunday.

“Iranian hardliners could not have wished for a better ally than President Trump, who has done everything in his power to discredit Iranian proponents of better relations with the West,” says analyst Vaez of ICG.

“The promise of the JCPOA proved to be a colossal failure for Rouhani, but if he manages to extract a new chapter in Iran’s relations with Europe, he will go down in Iranian history as a successful leader,” says Vaez.

“The economy will inevitably suffer, but if the deal is preserved until the Trump administration is history, this period could be considered [only] a rough patch,” he says.