The risk was understood from the beginning. When six countries signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015 to ensure that Iran remains a verifiably non-nuclear country in exchange for an end to sanctions, everyone knew that all it would take to unravel a dozen years of work would be one country going rogue and failing to comply with the deal.
On Tuesday afternoon, that risk became reality.
President Donald Trump knew the risk. His allies had spelled out the dark consequences of a withdrawal. Mr. Trump’s own intelligence and defence officials had made it clear, as recently as a few weeks ago, that Iran has fully complied with the deal. A pullout could only be viewed by the wider world as a betrayal by the United States.
Withdrawal from the deal carries at least four major consequences:
1. Iran will become more unstable and dangerous
This is a volatile moment in Iran. The economy is in shambles. The rial, its currency, plunged to a record low last week. Unemployment and private-debt levels are at unsustainable highs. Iranian economist Mehrdad Emadi described “a complete collapse of confidence” in the economy.
While sanctions imposed by the international community a decade ago had the effect of turning Iranians against their anti-Western leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, this time around, it will be hard for ordinary Iranians to blame anyone but the United States.
This year has seen mass protests in Iran by both rights-seeking reformists and hard-liners seeking a more rigid and Islamic version or their country. President Hassan Rouhani’s more moderate administration has maintained legitimacy in part through the opening of business, banking and travel ties with the wider world.
The hard-liners now have a far greater claim to legitimacy, and Tehran now has every reason to consider pursuing a nuclear-weapons program. “Tehran may not react immediately, but the government of President Rouhani would be under intense domestic pressure to resume aspects of the nuclear program restricted by the JCPOA,” said Barbara Slavin, an Iran analyst at the Washington-based Atlantic Council. “Those that fear that the agreement would allow Iran to get close to a nuclear-weapons threshold in a decade or so would have to confront that possibility much sooner.”
2. Nuclear proliferation will be harder to prevent
The JCPOA was an unprecedented deal: For the first time, a country that was signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) agreed to have constant high-tech inspections of all its facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to ensure its compliance with the treaty. (The IAEA concluded, as recently as February, that Iran was in full compliance). Other nuclear-weapons powers, including Israel and North Korea, have not even signed the NPT, nor agreed to inspections. The Iran deal, by tying NPT compliance directly to one country’s connection to the world and its economy, was seen as a potential precedent.
After Tuesday, no nuclear weapons-seeking country has any reason to sign such an agreement. North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un will pay particular attention to Iran’s ordeal: From Pyongyang’s perspective, Tehran abased itself, swallowed a key source of national pride and bent over backwards for the Americans, only to have the United States’ side of the deal withdrawn. It is hard to see how any lasting North Korean disarmament deal could work now.
3. The transatlantic alliance will be crippled
The United States effectively imposed sanctions on Europe on Tuesday. While European leaders said on Tuesday that they would attempt to salvage the deal, the presence of U.S. sanctions on Iran – and promises to isolate companies that trade with Iran – means that European businesses, and entire economies, will suffer. Significantly, the withdrawal threatens to return much of the continent back into near-monopoly dependence upon Russia for heating fuel.
4. Regional conflicts will deepen
“Missiles, the region, human rights – let’s not fool ourselves. This is a major hardline win in Iran,” Ariane Tabatabai, a Georgetown University nuclear-diplomacy specialist, said on Tuesday.
It’s also a major win for Israel and Saudi Arabia, whose dictatorship is now fully ascendant for the first time since before the George W. Bush presidency.
Iran’s hard-liners have nothing restraining them from trying to seize control of Iraq, intensify the Syrian conflict, wreak worse havoc on Yemen and fight a more or less direct conflict with Israel in Syria.
Any last vestige of control and stability in the region had held on by a slender thread. That thread, until Tuesday, was known as the Iran deal.