Trump’s Effective Withdrawal from the JCPOA and the 123 Agreement Negotiations with Saudi Arabia

President Trump’s decision to not extend the waiver on US sanctions on Iran, officially not a US withdrawal but in effect one, means the United States is no longer in compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran’s nuclear activities reached with Iran, the United States, the Permanent 5 members of the UN Security Council, Germany and the European Union.

I would like to discuss this in greater depth, but for now I limit myself to a few quick points. Trump’s decision is little, if at all, motivated by concerns regarding nuclear weapons proliferation. The JCPOA is a solid nonproliferation agreement, and the International Atomic Energy Agency continues to assess that Iran is in compliant with its current obligations under the JCPOA. One outstanding issue between the IAEA and Iran is verification of its past nuclear activities, but one could argue that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his recent widely criticised address on Iran’s nuclear programme, has made a signal advance on that front. It mostly focused on Iran past nuclear activities.

One interesting thing to note here is how, despite the very strong emphasis that has been placed on the proliferation of “weapons of mass destruction” since the 1990-91 Gulf War in US foreign policy discourse, just how relatively low a priority nonproliferation has really been. Trump’s decision on the JCPOA sanctions waiver is a graphical example of this, but it has been of a pattern that predates him.

One point worth bearing in mind is that Iran’s missile programme is more advanced than North Korea’s missile programme was when Pyongyang embarked upon ICBM development. I say this because it would appear that North Korea made the decision to develop an ICBM in 2011-2012, when it did not even have a test of the ill fated Musudan MRBM under its belt and whose space launch vehicles were based on Scud derived engines. I seek leave to discuss this in more depth in subsequent posts.

Another point is that Iran might well stay in the JCPOA with the other parties to the agreement, all of which have reaffirmed their support for the agreement, however the reimposition of US sanctions on Iran, especially financial sanctions, and secondary sanctions on financial institutions dealing with Iranian banks acts as a disincentive for Iran to stay in the deal, especially when it is the United States that forms the main security threat to Tehran. A main concern for many in Washington is that effective withdrawal from the JCPOA would leave the United States diplomatically isolated, a sentiment that would only grow should the EU and Iran stay committed to the agreement. That concern, to no small degree, is what motivated the Obama administration to sign the agreement in the first place. Even then nonproliferation was not necessarily the policy priority, although of course the agreement is a very good nonproliferation accord. To say that nonproliferation was not the overriding objective does not necessarily preclude the agreement from being a good nonproliferation agreement worthy of our support. The first point is a point of analysis, the second a normative consideration.

One further observation, again to be explored in further detail in future, is that Trump’s Iran policy has been consistently hostile and is motivated by a desire to create instability in order to create stability. Iran’s problem is not that the JCPOA is a bad nonproliferation agreement, but rather that Tehran does not accept US regional hegemony nor US preferences regarding the regional system of order. Acceding to US preferences is “stability” and if reaching “stability” requires stoking instability, in the literal sense, then so be it. Trump would not be the first US President to create instability in order to create stability.

There are undoubted domestic political factors at work here as well. Trump must be seen to be adhering to his campaign promises at a time when, like Obama, he is dedicated to governing contra to the persona projected in the campaign. For Obama it was “Change We Can Believe In,” for Trump it’s his rhetoric about supporting working class Americans whom he is kicking in the teeth. An action such as, effectively, withdrawing from the JCPOA is, partly, designed to demonstrate to Trump’s working class supporters that the Trump administration is an administration of its word when, in reality, it is anything but. Similarly JCPOA withdrawal is another attention grabbing moment that veils the vicious class war Trump is waging against some of his voter base.

Finally, the big point that I make here concerns the prospect for a cascade of virtual, if not overt, nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. I am sceptical of cascade theory, namely that nuclear proliferation by one state would trigger a cascade of proliferation, or that the development of a nuclear energy programme by one state would trigger a cascade of virtual, if not overt, nuclear proliferation. A good article was recently published in the journal International Security that critiques cascade theory to telling effect. However, whilst we are focused on the JCPOA one little matter is slipping under the radar and not attracting anywhere near the same attention, but is highly relevant I would argue.

Under the United States Atomic Energy Act Washington can sign nuclear energy and nuclear technology cooperation agreements with other states, however when doing so the US must sign an agreement on nuclear cooperation that stipulates the nonproliferation safeguards to be put into place to prevent the diversion of nuclear materials or technologies to a nuclear weapon programme. These agreements are known as “123 agreements” after Section 123 of the Atomic Energy Act which mandates them. What is not so well known is that the Trump administration is currently negotiating a 123 agreement with Saudi Arabia. Both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, currently fighting a proxy war against Iran in Yemen, have ambitious nuclear energy programmes. The US has previously signed a 123 agreement with the UAE that sets stringent safeguard standards, known as “the gold standard,” and it precludes the UAE from enriching uranium or reprocessing plutonium. However, Saudi Arabia would like to negotiate something less than the gold standard and the Trump administration might agree to this, even to the extent of not precluding uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing, Saudi goals, which would be a major reversal of US policy.

The 123 “gold standard” agreement reached with the UAE includes a provision allowing the UAE to seek an amendment of the agreement should Washington sign a more relaxed 123 agreement with another regional state. The 123 agreement with Egypt is up for renewal in 2021.

It should be stressed that we do not really know what is being negotiated with Saudi Arabia, although the matter should soon come to congress which, one would think, likely will oppose a 123 agreement that goes so far as to give the green light for Saudi enrichment and reprocessing. However, the signing of a 123 agreement that accommodates the preferences of Saudi Arabia, on top of the reimposition of US sanctions on Iran despite being it being in compliance with the JCPOA, might be too much for Tehran to bare.

Under such circumstances it is possible to imagine a number of hostile states in the Middle East with virtual, if nor overt, nuclear weapons programmes made possible by a cascading proliferation of front end and back end nuclear fuel cycle technologies. What Israel would make of this, and what it might do in response is another matter for consideration.

The North Korean nuclear crisis is one thing, but this is another matter entirely. History, which always depends upon a future, might record that the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear crisis was but a trifling compared to that of the Middle East. To add another layer of grim possibility, we might recall that Iran has always been the official rationale offered for European Ballistic Missile Defence.