Could Trump convince Boris Johnson to kill the Iran nuclear deal?
With the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union freshly behind him, the British prime minister has an unusual opportunity to continue his differentiation from standard EU politics. One move he might consider would put him in Donald Trump’s good graces. Trump pulled the United States out of the Iran nuclear accord, which he called a “horrible, one-sided deal,” but he never killed it outright. Instead, the U.S. president deferred to British, French, and German wishes that the U.S. not invoke the nuclear deal’s “snapback” clause, which would have permanently buried it. After leaving the EU, Johnson is more eager than ever to secure a favorable trade deal with Washington. Triggering the nuclear agreement’s “snapback” clause may be the perfect way to put Trump in a good mood for negotiations.
Iran has deliberately violated the nuclear deal as a means to protest Trump’s ever-harsher sanctions, but the effect has been to antagonize the European parties to the deal, or “E3.” On Jan. 14, the E3 announced they were invoking the accord’s dispute resolution process. This is a major departure for the Europeans, who have been extraordinarily protective of the agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Still, if the E3 act in concert, they could drag out the dispute resolution process indefinitely. However if Johnson refuses, the deal could be dead in as little as 30 days. In the months ahead, the JCPOA may be on borrowed time.
Despite long supporting the JCPOA, Johnson recently told BBC News, “If we’re going to get rid of it, let’s replace it and let’s replace it with the Trump deal.” Mr. Trump took immediate notice of Johnson’s comment, tweeting, “I agree!”
The E3 initiated the JCPOA’s dispute resolution process after Iran completed its step-by-step suspension of many of its nuclear commitments. Most recently, on Jan. 5, Tehran stated that it would no longer abide by any of the agreement’s uranium enrichment-related restrictions. To date, it has surpassed the JCPOA’s limits on the level of uranium enrichment; exceeded the cap on the amount of low enriched uranium it may stockpile; deployed and tested more centrifuges than allowed; accumulated more heavy water than permitted; and resumed enrichment at the underground Fordow facility.
To address this kind of non-compliance, the JCPOA included a three-step dispute resolution mechanism, where — by consensus — the first two steps can be extended indefinitely. However, a shortcut to terminating the deal requires just 30 days. Rather than wait out the dispute resolution process, any party to the JCPOA can send a matter of noncompliance to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), where a vote must be held within 30 days to preserve the deal, or all previous UN resolutions and sanctions would come back into effect. In diplomatic parlance, this became known as the JCPOA’s snapback mechanism.
After Trump withdrew the U.S. from the JCPOA in May 2018, it was not clear whether the U.S. retained the right to initiate snapback. Did Trump graciously defer to the E3, or did he simply have no choice?
There is now evidence the White House did have a choice. A legal opinion by the U.S. State Department reportedly found that despite having withdrawn, as an original JCPOA party and permanent member of the Security Council, Washington can trigger snapback simply by tabling a resolution about Iranian non-compliance and then vetoing the continuance of sanctions relief. Other countries might balk at the American interpretation, but a seat on the Security Council is a powerful thing. With or without the UK, Trump could decide to invoke the snapback mechanism in 2020.
Having Prime Minister Johnson pull the trigger would be far preferable from a diplomatic perspective. The French and Germans could not denounce Trump’s unilateralism, nor would Iran find it so easy to play the victim. So, is Johnson amenable to helping Trump terminate the deal? Certainly, his political thinking closely aligns with Trump’s. Leading the UK’s departure from the European Union, Johnson has made clear that he, too, shirks multilateral institutions in favor of national interests. High on his priority list is securing a trade deal with America, since the prospects of reaching one with the EU appear troubled.
Yet, Johnson also values his ties with France and Germany. Thus far, solidarity with Paris and Berlin has been his approach. As recently as 2018, the prime minister penned an entire column defending the JCPOA, insisting, “every available alternative is worse.” Going out on his own to end the deal at Trump’s behest would mark a major shift with costly ramifications for maintaining his EU relationships.
On the other hand, Iran’s malfeasance is growing — not only in the nuclear arena but the regional one as well. Its recent actions against UK citizens include the Jan. 8 downing of a civilian airliner, which killed three British nationals, the Jan. 11 arrest of the UK ambassador to Iran for being present at a vigil that turned into a protest, and Tehran’s seizing and holding of multiple British hostages. On Jan. 15, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani hinted that European soldiers may now be “in danger” because the E3 initiated the dispute resolution process.
Even so, Trump’s itchy Twitter finger may make it harder for Johnson to act.
Prior to the BBC interview where Johnson suggested replacing the JCPOA with a “Trump deal,” the president tweeted he “couldn’t care less” if Iran ever negotiates a new agreement. By showing contempt for diplomacy, Trump could risk UK support.
Iran, for its part, is betting on Europe to slow-roll the dispute resolution process as all JCPOA parties await the outcome of the U.S. presidential election in November. Whether or not Tehran realizes it, that may be a foolish bet. At any point in 2020, Mr. Trump or his growing ally Mr. Johnson could initiate a snapback.
Andrea Stricker is a research fellow at FDD focusing on nonproliferation, Iran, North Korea, and other security topics. She has written in-depth studies of strategic commodity trafficking and proliferation financing. Follow her on Twitter @StrickerNonpro
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