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Commentary | 17 November 2017

From an Isolated Iran to an Isolated US

Image of Hans Blix

Hans Blix |Former Foreign Minister and Director-General Emeritus of the IAEA

Iran JCPOA Nuclear Arms Control United Nations United States Global Security

For years, suspicions were raised over the size of Iran’s extensive nuclear energy program and whether this suggested nuclear weapon intentions along with its peaceful use of nuclear energy. As a result, Iran was subject to economic sanctions and isolation from the international community.

Long running diplomatic negotiations between Iran and the E3+3 (the EU, UK, France, Germany, US, Russia and China) led to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a package deal designed to build confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme and which, in turn, would lead to the lifting of sanctions.

In its unanimous resolution of 20 July 2015, the UN Security Council endorsed the JCPOA and affirmed that full implementation would contribute to international peace and security. It stressed that UN members were obligated under Article 25 of the Charter to accept and carry out the decision.

Two years later the Trump administration is now intent on destroying the JCPOA to the consternation of other state parties. Given that Iran has been implementing its portion of the deal in good faith and has the support of the international community, the US is now the one that is isolated.

Why is the US now changing its position? Some have suggested that the Trump administration is driven by a desire to destroy the achievements of the previous Obama administration. This is a plausible but only a partial explanation. The other argument is that Iran might abide by the JCPOA for ten years but would then rush to build a nuclear weapon. This is tenuous. Iran has accepted permanent legal commitments not to acquire nuclear weapons under the JCPOA as well as under the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT). There is also nothing to suggest that only legal shackles of the JCPOA are preventing it from developing a nuclear weapons capability. The IAEA has never come across evidence of any diversion of nuclear material towards a nuclear weapons programme. And who knows what the world will look like ten years from now? Perhaps the US will seek Iran as an ally in 2027?

Today, scores of American JCPOA critics are faced with the difficulty of condemning an Iran which seems to be respecting and fulfilling its obligations under the JCPOA. Instead of criticizing Iran for failing to fulfil the provisions of the JCPOA, they claim that Iran is ignoring the ‘spirit’ of the deal; that it is supporting terrorist activities; and that it should limit its missile development program. Others, rightly, comment that the US is free to pursue such issues. However these are outside the legal commitments of the nuclear deal and should not be allowed to derail it. Indeed, Iran could have a stronger basis for complaints against the United States because of American efforts to thwart the lifting of sanctions promised in the JCPOA and decreed by the UN Security Council.

Criticism over Iranian interventionism and terrorist activities needs to be specific but also seen and understood within the context of the actions of other states. Does Iranian conduct differ from the widespread practice of states in the region – as well as the US – to support various groups fighting the Assad government? Does it differ from the activities of outside states supporting dissidents, and terrorist activities, in the South and East of Iran? Such activities include assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists as well as introducing the highly sophisticated ‘Stuxnet’ computer virus into Iranian centrifuges, rendering large numbers inoperable.

I join the increasing number of commentators who believe that American concerns over Iran’s nuclear weapons intentions may – as before the invasion of Iraq in 2003 – be more of a marketing ploy than a real worry. What is to be sold this time is not war, perhaps not even a desired but implausible toppling of a defiant theocratic regime. The motivation is more likely to be a wish to deny Iran a boost in economic development and political power that could result from the lifting of sanctions. There is little doubt that US friends in Israel and some Arab states worry about such a development more than alleged nuclear weapon intentions or Iranian military capacities growing from its present modest levels. There is also little doubt that the US ambition to hinder Iran is underpinned by the influence of Israel’s Prime Minister and his supporters in the US.

What are the consequences that might flow from US breaches of the decision that the UN Security Council adopted with US support?

One would be the damage to US credibility as a party to international agreements or legally binding UN decisions. Would North Korea dare to take any actions or make any commitments in return for commitments offered by the current US administration, perhaps in a UN framework?

Another casualty would be to the authority and credibility of the United Nations. In his recent speech before the UN General Assembly, president Trump made a point of praising the UN’s potential whilst also demanding its reform. If he genuinely sees potential in the UN, why take action to damage it? Although the US remains the world’s sole military superpower in a multipolar world it is important to operate as a reliable partner to states whose votes are needed for action by the Security Council.

A further consequence would be damage to US-European relations. The lone US departure from the Paris climate accord and its exit from the almost complete EU-US free trade area agreement caused a rift in relations. If the US were to go it alone on the JCPOA this would further widen the split with Europe. The same would be true if attempts were made to use issues outside the nuclear deal – such as conventional missile development – for the backdoor introduction of new economic sanctions.

Some in the US seem to think that Europe will eventually join in, or fall in line with, whatever course that the US chooses.  In my view, they are wrong. Europe should and – I believe – will point the way to its friend and partner: firmly, fully and in good faith implement the deal that the UN Security Council endorsed and mandated for all to respect.


The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.