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Is the Iran Nuclear Issue Resolved?

May 31 , 2016
  • Jin Liangxiang

    Senior Research Fellow, Shanghai Institute of Int'l Studies

The year 2015 witnessed intensive international efforts in dealing with the Iran nuclear issue, which finally resulted in the signing of JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Actions) on July 14. The world has reasons to feel relaxed since the deal finally defused the tensions between the U.S., a global power, and Iran, a regional power, which could have led to another military confrontation in the Middle East.

The deal certainly signifies the soft-landing of the Iran nuclear issue and the positive development of U.S.-Iran relations, which should reasonably advance in the direction of reconciliation and détente. Neither Iran nor the U.S. would like to pay the price of being hostile toward the other. The U.S. can no longer sustain its containment against Iran within the changing scenario defined as U.S. gradually losing its dominance in the Middle East region, while Iran does not want to pay the price of being isolated by the U.S. and the West at large. Therefore, keeping the nuclear dispute under control will be the choice of both the two countries.

However, signing the agreement and partly implementing the agreement by no means completely resolves the nuclear issue. On the contrary, judging by the low level of mutual confidence, the implementation of the nuclear deal will be bumpy into the future, and the nuclear issue will still have ups-and-downs.

Iran’s recent doubt about whether the U.S. will seriously remove the sanctions suggest that the nuclear issue even in the very recent short term will face serious challenges.

The effectiveness of U.S. unilateral financial sanctions on Iran since 2012 has depended not only on freezing Iran’s SWIFT code technically but also U.S. political pressure on other relevant actors. That’s the reason why some countries, which were much more independent, still had had significant business relations with Iran regardless of the technical restrictions, while others, particularly U.S. allies in Europe, had cut their economic relations with Iran.

Though the U.S. did unlock the SWIFT code on January 31, European countries still dared not to take advantage economic cooperation agreements signed with Iran after the nuclear deal. Just as Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, said on April 27, “on paper the United States allows foreign banks to deal with Iran, but in practice they create Iran phobia so no one does business with Iran.”

European countries’ hesitancy is based on simple reasons. They are not certain whether the U.S. will continue its engagement policy toward Iran, and particularly not certain whether the U.S. administration will get Congressional support for engaging Iran.

This has greatly frustrated the Iranian side. Hassan Rouhani’s government regards its cooperation with European countries as a crucial step to break through international isolation. Iran takes its relations with Europe as leverage to trigger America’s change of policy. To put it another way, European countries’ hesitation means Hassan Rouhani’s calculation could fail.

What’s more, on April 22, the U.S. High Court ruled that almost $2 billion in frozen Iranian assets must be turned over to American families of people killed in the 1983 bombing of a U.S. Marine Corps barracks in Beirut allegedly blamed on Iran.

By raising the issue of the 1983 bombing, those who oppose U.S.-Iran rapprochement have create new obstacles to sabotage the implementation of the deal.

The court ruling has aroused another round of intensive debate among Iranian politicians on whether Iran should continue to implement the deal. In early May, 103 Iranian members of parliament signed a petition asking for “reconsideration of voluntary measures and resumption of all activities within the NPT” if the U.S. takes no steps to change tack on Iran.

The potential change of policy after the U.S. presidential election could be another challenge to the implementation of the nuclear deal. Iranian scholars are seriously but reasonably concerned that the U.S. could change its policy toward Iran after the White House changes its master. Iranians believe that the progress in Iran nuclear issue greatly can be attributed to relatively objective knowledge of Barack Obama’s team about Iran as a nation and Iran’s political system. The change of president will likely bring change of policy, whether it will be Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. Neither of them has a positive perception of Iran.

It is not so likely that the U.S. new administration will directly renege on the nuclear agreement, but it is highly likely that the U.S. new government under pressure from conservatives will take measures to sabotage the implementation of the agreement. For instance, the U.S. could adopt new sanctions against Iran, targeting Iran’s human rights record and missile programs. That would create a tough challenge for Iran’s moderate government led by Hassan Rouhani. In that scenario, hopefully Rouhani will manage restraint, but it is also likely that Rouhani would respond to domestic pressure to react. All these should not be good news for Iran nuclear issue.

In the longer term, the Iran nuclear issue will face even more challenges. The nuclear deal has tough controls on Iran’s nuclear activities. Some restrictions will last 10 years, some 15 years, and the others 20 years. As agreed, after these terms, Iran can again re-start processes including uranium enrichment, manufacturing heavy water and increasing and modernizing its centrifuges. While Iran regards these activities as under its sovereignty, the U.S. regards these as potential threat to its security.

All in all, the Iran nuclear issue will experience rainy and even stormy days whether in the short, medium or longer term. It is unlikely that the issue will spin out of control, but equally unlikely to be resolved smoothly. The international community should both be prepared to receive good news and to prepare to cope with bad news.

China contributed greatly to the success of the nuclear diplomacy. First, China has always been a strong supporter of a political solution of the issue. China’s President Xi Jinping has emphasized many times China’s support for the negotiation. China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi in particular delivered several important remarks to push forward the negotiations at crucial moments.

Second, China also assisted the diplomatic solution of the issue with a pragmatic spirit and technical support. According to a senior Chinese diplomat, it was China that initiated the proposal of modifying the Arak heavy water reactor to keep its capacity within a secure level. That was a tough question in negotiation. The U.S. stood for removing the reactor while Iran adhered to the principle of not eliminating facilities. And according a statement in October 2015, China is also one of the three in the committee in redesigning the reactor. The other two are Iran and the U.S. respectively.

China regards both the U.S. and Iran as important partners. China is making efforts in building a new type of major-country relations with the US while also carefully managing the China-Iran comprehensive strategic partnership. China will predictably work hard for peaceful management of the nuclear issue.

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