Trump’s Rejection of the JCPOA Poses a Major Threat


16 October 2017

President Trump has announced that he is no longer willing to certify Iran’s compliance with the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreed to by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus the European Union (EU), Germany and Iran in July 2015. That agreement was unanimously endorsed by the Security Council in Resolution 2231`on 20 July 2015.

Trump’s speech announcing the decision was notable for its mendacity and marked a new low in the standards of what passes for diplomacy in 21st Century America. The certification of Iran’s compliance was not part of the JCPOA but rather reflected separate legislation passed by the US Congress, the Iran Nuclear Agreement Act of 2015.

Under that legislation the President was required to certify to the Congress Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA every 90 days. If he fails to so certify, the Congress has 60 days to review the legislation and decide how to react. There are a number of options, including the re-imposition of sanctions (on top of those already in place). That would put the US in breach of the terms of the JCPOA, although that does not seem a matter of major concern to the Americans.

That Trump has failed to certify Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA should have come as no surprise. Even before he was elected he was critical of the agreement, calling it “the worst deal ever” among other criticisms. After his election he gave no indication other than that he was likely to refuse certification at a time that suited his domestic or foreign agenda.

In the speech refusing certification Trump was unable to point to any specific breach of the JCPOA, instead making a series of allegations and accusing Iran of breaching “the spirit” of the agreement. The notion of “spirit” has no basis in international law and is clearly a made up justification.

Trump’s speech exemplifies the hubris that characterizes US foreign policy. The JCPOA provided for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to carry out inspections of Iranian facilities. This is what they have done, and have eight times since the agreement was signed certified that Iran was compliant with the agreement. This has not stopped the US’s UN ambassador Nikki Haley from claiming otherwise, although she, like the rest of the US establishment, have singularly failed to produce a shred of evidence to support their allegations.

The IAEA were not alone in their view as to Iran’s compliance. Acknowledgements have also come from US Secretary of State Tillerson, Defence Secretary Mattis, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Dunford. The EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Federica Mogherini, has made similar confirmatory statements, as have the Foreign Ministers of Russia, China and Germany. Even Australia’s Foreign Minister Bishop, in a rare departure of solidarity with the US expressed her government’s disagreement with Trump’s decision saying, “Australia was disappointed”.

Why then did Trump refuse certification, and more importantly what are the possible consequences?

The most plausible explanation is that Trump has capitulated yet again to the Israel lobby and their neocon supporters in the US. It is significant that apart from Saudi Arabia, a long time foe of Iran, the only political leader to applaud Trump’s speech was Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu. Netanyahu had been similar delighted by Trump’s bizarre speech to the UN General Assembly in September when he made a variety of threats against Iran, North Korea and others.

Israel’s leaders have long made outrageous claims about Iran whom it sees as the major threat to Israel’s own ambitions to expand its territory and to use military force to enforce its geopolitical goals. The Palestinians, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria are only some examples of Israel’s misconduct, all of which actions have had the support of the US.

Trump made a series of allegations against Iran in the course of his speech. He accused Iran, inter alia, of being a “dictatorship”; of being a threat to its neighbours; of being the main source of instability in the region; a violator of the civil rights of its citizens; and having been on the verge of collapse had it not been saved by the JCPOA. These allegations would be laughable were they not so pathetically untrue, and wildly misdirected.

Trump avoided any criticism of Israel, which apart from its serial offending against the sovereignty of its neighbours, is itself a nuclear power who refuses to sign the non-proliferation treaty (unlike Iran) and who refuses to allow IAEA inspection of its nuclear facilities.

He similarly failed to mention Saudi Arabia’s long time financial and military support for violent jihadism in the Middle East region and elsewhere, or even its current sustained attack upon Yemen. That military action, with US and UK military support, is creating a humanitarian disaster for one of the world’s poorest nations.

It would require a book to note and analyze all of the falsehoods in Trump’s speech, but one is worth noting. He claimed that the “sunset clauses” in the JCPOA meant that Iran would be free to resume its nuclear weapons program when the time limit expired. This is misleading on a number of levels.

Iran did not have a “nuclear weapons program” at the time of the signing of the JCPOA and had not had one for a number of years. Further, Iran has signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which commits it to not having nuclear weapons, irrespective of the existence or otherwise of the JCPOA. Iranian leaders have also made a number of statements to the effect that they oppose nuclear weapons on religious grounds. One of the ironies of Trump’s speech was that if the JCPOA were cancelled, Iran would be free to withdraw from the non-proliferation treaty and resume nuclear weapons research and development. Given the constant threats against Iran by Israel and the US one could understand why such an option might be attractive.

As noted above, both Mogherini and the German Foreign Minister Gabriel have spoken strongly in favour of Iran and the continuation of the JCPOA. Mogherini has also made the point that UN Security Council Resolution 2231 is the highest authority on the JCPOA and that no US President has the right to unilaterally cancel a UN Resolution.

Whether or not the EU will remain as firm in the face of what are bound to be enormous US pressures and the threat of sanctions against EU businesses doing business with Iran remains to be seen. The most optimistic view would be that the EU sees the bizarre and counterproductive conduct of the US as further evidence of the decline of US imperial power. The EU’s own interests would therefore require further separation from the US’s yoke. That may be too much to expect.

More important to Iran than the EU however, has been the support of Russia and China, both of whom see Iran as a vital link in the Eurasian geopolitical rebalancing that is taking place through major initiatives such as the Belt and Road Initiative, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the North South Transportation Corridor and the Eurasian Economic Union.

At least one of the possible motives for Trump’s decision and the rhetorical assault upon Iran is recognition of Iran’s pivotal role in the aforementioned developments. There is ample evidence of attempts by the US to sabotage through sanctions, hybrid warfare, terrorism and overt military action the rise of China and Russia as alternative multipolar power centres.

Perhaps the greatest longer-term consequence of Trump’s speech however is the reputational damage it has done to the US. An immediate illustration of this is in the current US confrontation with North Korea, a nation that does have nuclear weapons and the ability to wreak havoc in the neighborhood and beyond.

Russia and China have twice suggested a “double freeze” policy whereby North Korea would halt its nuclear and missile tests while the US and its allies stop their provocative military exercises in close proximity to North Korea. Such a double freeze would encourage North Korea to negotiate a diplomatic solution that would safeguard its legitimate national security interests.

North Korea’s history with the US, going back at least to the 1880s, would make their willingness to negotiate very difficult to achieve. They nonetheless responded positively to the Russia-China proposal. Trump’s reaction however was that “all options were on the table” but not, it would seem, the diplomatic option.

The North Koreans are now confronted with Trump’s blatant disregard for the terms of the JCPOA and the forthcoming probable breach. In those circumstances the serious question would have to be: why would any nation enter into an agreement with the US that potentially compromised its security, when the evidence from the JCPOA is that the US will unilaterally discard an international agreement that it had helped negotiate and then agreed to?

Iran and North Korea are far from being the only two nations to confront the reality of US geopolitical conduct. They will not be the last. The dishonouring of the JCPOA by the US only serves to make the world a more dangerous place.

*Barrister at Law and geopolitical analyst. He may be contacted at

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