On May 8, President Donald Trump decided to unilaterally withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal labeling it as “decaying and rotten”. Right from the early days of his campaign, Donald Trump has not shown much sympathy for this agreement, which the preceding Obama administration negotiated and crafted along with other states to prevent an Iranian nuclear bomb. The recent high frequency visits of European officials (Macron, Merkel, Johnson) to the White House were the latest sign of the growing international nervousness and efforts to change the President’s mind. Indeed, the decision to pull out from the Iran nuclear deal deeply worries many policymakers and experts.
Why do so many worry? In a nutshell, rescinding the Iran nuclear deal and re-enacting economic sanctions will weaken those factions in Iran that have a material stake in non-proliferation and—until now—the political clout to ensure the country’s compliance with its part of the deal. To prevent the comeback of hardliners to nuclear decision-making and thereby risk the resumption of the nuclear program and more aggressive regional policies, the international community should continue to support those political forces in Iran’s authoritarian regime that can and want to implement the country’s non-proliferation obligations. Drawing on my work on authoritarian politics and nuclear proliferation, I more fully discuss this scenario in the remainder of this post. Before, however, I would like to briefly chronicle the events before the conclusion of the Iran nuclear deal and review its contents.
Iran’s History of (Non-)Compliance with Nuclear Non-Proliferation Norms
Following relevant hints and information, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) discovered a secret nuclear program in Iran in 2002. The country, a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), did not declare a series of nuclear material, activities, and facilities as it ought to have done; among them was its uranium enrichment program, which could serve both civilian and military ends. For over a decade of intense international scrutiny of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, a key challenge for the IAEA was to clarify the purpose and scope of the nuclear program and establish whether the country fully complied with its obligations. The election of Mahmud Ahmadinejad to the country’s Presidency in 2005 led to novel provocations by the Iranian side (e.g. installation of new centrifuges for enrichment, underground enrichment facilities) and triggered a series of international economic sanctions by the international community.
To end the nuclear stand-off and bring the country back into compliance with its non-proliferation obligations, the Obama administration—along with the other permanent members of the Security Council (United Kingdom, France, China, and Russia) as well as Germany—began negotiations with Iran in 2013. Eventually, the parties signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015, commonly referred to as the “Iran nuclear deal”. In essence, the agreement obliges Iran to considerably limit its enrichment activities and plutonium production—two possible routes to the bomb—and subject all its nuclear activities to an extended, and indeed unprecedented, verification mandate of the IAEA. Upon IAEA confirmation of Iran’s compliance, economic sanctions have been gradually lifted. So far, the Agency has found the country to be in compliance. The deal’s tit-for-tat logic works.
Authoritarian Politics and Nuclear Proliferation
To better understand the consequences of renouncing the deal, it is important to ask why Iran complies now. The answer lies in the dynamics of authoritarian politics. Unlike democracies, authoritarian states often lack the institutionalized checks and balances that moderate states’ foreign policies and thus facilitate treaty compliance. Nevertheless, claiming that all authoritarian regimes are devoid of limits on the exercise of political power would be wrong. Rather than formal institutions, it is the distribution of power among authoritarian elites that serves as checks and balances. Yet, the balance of power among authoritarian elites is fragile as each faction constantly tries to amass more power at the expense of others. Hence, to keep their seat at the table and shape policies, factions need to be resourceful enough to check the power of others. The revenue generated from economic activities is one of the most important sources for factions’ political power within dictatorships. Factions that depend on foreign sources of income, for example, will invest in reliable and open commercial relations with other states to trade goods and services. Depending on their political say, they will try to avoid costly and confrontational foreign policies, such as building nuclear weapons, because these engender international economic sanctions, which would minimize their income and political say within the authoritarian elite—and ultimately lead to their (physical and often violent) removal from power.
Iran cooperated with the IAEA from late 2003 until early 2005, suspending even its ambiguous uranium enrichment program when moderate factions occupied government positions. Most notably, the then-President Khatami and the chairman of Iran’s nuclear decision-making body, the Supreme National Security Council, Hassan Rouhani tried to avoid economic sanctions that would cut off important trade relations, isolate Iran, and ultimately weaken their faction’s position within the regime. Very soon, and especially after the failure to strike an agreement with European powers on the nuclear issue, their policies met the staunch resistance of the conservative establishment, including Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and hardliners that preferred an Iranian nuclear option. Once the hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad assumed the presidential office, he radically reverted his predecessor’s policies. Not only did Iran resume uranium enrichment, it also expanded it, violating central commitments once again and obstructing cooperation with the IAEA. As a response, the UN Security Council and many states, among them the United States, adopted a series of economic sanctions. With limited revenues from trade and being out of office, the position of reformist and moderate factions in the authoritarian power game severely deteriorated. Hardliners around the then-President Ahmadinejad prosecuted and arrested reformist and moderate clerics and policymakers, prevented their candidates from running for office, manipulated the elections, and violently suppressed dissenting voices.
With the economy deteriorating, domestic violence rising, and foreign policy becoming more aggressive, the ensuing rifts and tensions among Iran’s elite and student mass protests (Green Movement of 2009) endangered the influence and position of the conservative establishment around Supreme Leader Khamenei. Ultimately, this led to Khamenei’s public disapproval of Ahmadinejad and the piecewise removal of hardliners from government. With the election of Hassan Rouhani to the Presidency of the Islamic Republic in 2013, pro-trade factions assumed office again and quickly negotiated the nuclear deal with the United States and other powers. By gradually lifting sanctions, the deal ensures Iranian compliance as it provides the current factions with the necessary economic resources to sustain and expand their domestic power position against domestic rivals with a stake in nuclear proliferation.
Donald Trump’s decision is extremely risky. In Iran, it might damage pro-compliance factions and thus bring back hardliners with aggressive foreign policy stances and dubious nuclear ambitions. Internationally, revoking the deal undermines global institutions that help to curb the spread of nuclear weapons since one’s party compliance with this deal, which has been verified by national intelligence and international organizations, is not acknowledged. Will cancelling a functioning agreement encourage other states to stick to their non-proliferation obligations? Unfortunately, it seems that the prospects for nuclear non-proliferation are significantly worsened by Donald Trump’s decision—both in the troubled Middle East and well beyond.