World Agenda StudioThe critical status of Iran nuclear deal

August 02, 2019

With President Donald Trump's May 2018 decision to withdraw the United States from the Iran nuclear agreement, the pact is falling apart. Iran responded by threatening to accelerate its nuclear program in violation of the 2015 accord. Tensions between the two countries are rising.

Three specialists on the Middle East discussed the status of Iran, its confrontation with the United States and Japan's role as a mediator at The Genron NPO's World Agenda Studio in Tokyo on Aug. 2.

The panelists were Koichiro Tanaka, a professor at Keio University's Graduate School; Kazuto Suzuki, a professor at Hokkaido University; and Ikuya Kozuka, chief researcher in the policy research department, the defense research office of the National Institute for Defense Studies.

Yasushi Kudo, president of The Genron NPO and moderator of the discussion, kicked off the debate by asking why U.S. President Trump is so tough on Iran.

Keio University's Tanaka cited "hostility toward Iran" as a fundamental reason. For Trump, who had wanted to dismantle much of predecessor President Barack Obama's legacy, the 2015 nuclear deal was an easy target. The objective of the agreement, known as the Joint Plan of Action (JCPOA), signed by the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council -- China, France, Russia, Britain and the United States -- and Germany, was to keep Iran at least a year (known as "breakout time") from developing enough fissile material to construct a nuclear bomb.

Is the Trump administration going too far by imposing "maximum pressure," and threatening Iran's survival as a sovereign state, Kudo asked.

Tanaka responded, saying "President Trump appears to be happy only if he can create an Instagram-worthy stage, where Iran's leaders submit, saying 'we will obey you.'" However, "Trump's Iranian hard-liner advisers are happy to let him take tougher actions against the Islamic Republic," he added.

Suzuki, who served as a member of the U.N. Security Council panel of experts on Iran from 2013 to 2015, said the key is how much influence Iran's regional ambitions have. In his view, Obama failed to take Iran's anti-Israel dominance in the Middle East into consideration in the nuclear deal, which focused only on nuclear power. The accord did not work to weaken either Iran's regional ambitions or halt its development of ballistic missiles capable of reaching Israel. That is the reason Trump called the nuclear agreement a "disaster" and decided to withdraw, Suzuki said.

Trump's Middle East policies "chaotic"

Kozuka said for Trump, a businessman, the deal is everything and he weighs making deals in his foreign policy. "I think Mr. Trump's aim was to bring Iran back to the negotiating table by imposing maximum pressure," he said.

Kozuka said there is friction inside the administration. Referring to a memo from the latest leak of confidential cables from Britain's ambassador to the United States, which called the Trump administration's Middle East policy "incoherent and chaotic," Kozuka said, "While President Trump wants to have a deal, hard-liners like National Security Adviser John Bolton do not. This is why the administration's Middle East policy appears incoherent."

Nuclear deal won't collapse

Then what will happen if the nuclear agreement with Iran collapses?
Is Iran on the path to becoming a nuclear power?

Tanaka said that will not happen. "Everything operates within the framework of the nuclear agreement," he said. "Even if part of its (Iran's) activities has exceeded the limit, the deal won't collapse."

Why then did the United States decide to pull out of the pact, denying the current nuclear agreement?

Tanaka pointed out that the nuclear deal was "insufficient" in that it failed to address Iran's ballistic missile program and uranium enrichment. The United States is worried that Iran could possess nuclear weapons after "the breakout time is over."

Suzuki said Iran will not be able to secretly develop a nuclear weapon, with inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), of which Iran is a member, becoming far stricter. Israel, however, remains skeptical about Iran's moves.

Still skeptical

Talking from the perspective of international security, Kozuka explained the 2015 JCPOA was intended to set back Iran's nuclear program by at least a year. Still, he said the framework is not sufficient to stabilize the Middle East, since within this framework Iran has tested a midrange ballistic missile and supported terrorists. Iran has broken the 3.67 percent restrictions of uranium enrichment and could build a nuclear weapon.
"I suppose that the assessment of Britain, Germany, France and Japan is different from that of the Trump administration," Kozuka said.

U.S.-Iran confrontation

Kudo asked about the intent of Iran's actions in the Middle East.

Suzuki said Iran has confronted the United States since the foundation of the Islamic Republic in 1979.

Within the region, Iran has to confront Israel, which represents the United States, and Saudi Arabia, which imports a large amount of arms from the United States. The United States wants a regime change in Iran. Thus the two countries engage in conflicts.

On the other hand, Kozuka said the U.S.-Iran conflict is not as fierce as the media reports. Trump's hard line is part of a Trump-style gesture to bring Iran back to renegotiations. After all, a war with Iran would be costly and could lose Trump support in the 2020 U.S. presidential election, Kozuka analyzed.

Iran does not want war, either, with no possibility of winning even though accidental collisions in the Persian Gulf would take place, he added.

Kudo asked Suzuki, who specializes in economic sanctions, about the impact of sanctions on Iran.

Over the years, international sanctions have taken a serious toll on Iran's economy and people's lives. Iranian people "are used to" sanctions, if not the latest "overt" ones, Suzuki said. With a huge domestic market of 8 million people, the Iranian economy will not collapse soon because of the sanctions.

Asked if the Iranian people blame their government for declining livelihoods, Suzuki said no. "Iranians see it as a result of economic sanctions. Their anger is directed at President Trump, not their leaders." Accordingly, sanctions are not building a momentum that could possibly bring down the regime.

Tanaka agreed that the Trump administration has the wrong idea. "Trump and his advisers think the (Iranian) government will be overturned with just a push, but the reality is quite different," he said.

As to why anti-establishment movements do not take place in Iran, Suzuki cited the "Arab Spring" as a main reason.

"True, Iranians do not like the current system and want to change it. But countries that toppled their governments had to face chaos and a worse situation than before their so-called revolutions," he said. "(Iranians are aware) toppling the government won't automatically mean a better life. They do not take action because the future they picture is worse than the present."

Kudo asked about the prospects of Japan's participation in the U.S.-led coalition to safeguard strategic waters near the Strait of Hormuz.

Will Japan join the coalition?

Kozuka sees Japan's participation as unlikely because it involves a military presence.

The U.S.-proposed coalition aims to "deter Iran's aggressive moves," Kozuka said.

"It would be difficult for Japan to join when the proposed coalition appears very likely to involve military pressure. This is why the Abe administration is indecisive."
He added that no realistic effect can be expected even if Japan dispatches vessels for the naval mission.

Suzuki said Japan has a role to play. As a U.S. ally that also has a good relationship with Iran, Japan could be in a unique position to mediate between Tehran and Washington.
By grasping the Trump administration's change in its policies toward Iran, Tokyo could be a proxy for dialogue. "Japan can provide what is beneficial for both countries," he said.

Lifting oil embargo, a key

To ease escalating tensions between the United States and Iran, Tanaka suggested curbing Washington's actions.

But with Washington showing no sign of changing its tough stance, he said the countries could provide a proxy where Iran can "breathe and save face."
The bottom line is to "(lift sanctions) and allow Iran to export crude oil."
"To realize this, each country has to show it will import crude oil from Iran, even if this angers the United States."

Looking back on Abe's visit to Iran in June, Tanaka said Abe could have done more.
"Since he visited Tehran right after seeing Trump, he should have said something like, "Look! Washington has promised to purchase Iranian crude oil," Tanaka said. "He lost a great opportunity."

Tanaka said it is too early to give up on direct talks between Washington and Tehran. Referring to the summits between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, none of which yielded any results, he said, "Foreign policy is a process, not an all-or-nothing bet by imposing maximum pressure."

Japan should continue conversations with Iran and show by its behavior that it is seriously concerned, he pointed out.

Suzuki agreed. "Dialogue will possibly continue," he said, quoting Iran's supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as saying he can talk with Abe, while he could not possibly talk with Trump.


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