03 Jun The UK Should Stay Committed to the Iran Nuclear Deal — Student Ambassador Series
Current news cycles have been dominated by growing tensions between American and Iranian forces. The foundations of this tension lie with Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the Iran nuclear deal last year and reimpose US sanctions.
Although Iran had been complying with the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Trump decided to reimpose sanctions which has driven Iran into economic recession. In response, Iran appealed to the international community for assistance with its recovery. The UK should demonstrate its commitment to denuclearisation and continue supporting the JCPOA.
The Iran deal is of great importance for the UK for several reasons. Importantly, as a signatory of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), the UK has pledged to pursue global nuclear disarmament and prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. It has been the consistent view of the UK that non-nuclear states are needed for international security.
Hence, the UK has remained committed to the JCPOA, despite the US’s withdrawal. The JCPOA represents the greatest hope of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon through its limits on uranium enrichment and regular inspections by international regulators. With the JCPOA now in jeopardy, the UK and the wider international community could lose the ability to regulate Iran’s nuclear development. Considering Iran’s links to terrorist organisations, the number of enemy states it has in the region and its hostility to the West, the JCPOA has been imperative for the security of the Middle East and the West.
Historically, the UK and Iran have had strained relations. Recent events have resulted in this relationship worsening, as the trust between both states has completely collapsed. As part of the EU, the UK imposed sanctions on Iran relating to the severe human rights violations by the Iranian regime. In the Syrian and Yemen Civil Wars, the UK and Iran have found themselves on opposing sides, with the UK critical of Iran’s support of Assad and Houthi forces. Regarding diplomatic relations, the UK Foreign Office has urged dual nationals against travel to Iran in light of the imprisonments of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Aras Amiri. Both prosecutions are indirectly related to a £400m debt from a 30-year old arms deal owed by the UK government to Iran. Despite these issues, the UK should remain committed to the JCPOA. As significant as the JCPOA was for restricting nuclear proliferation, the deal was also meant to be an advancement for British-Iranian relations. With a stronger diplomatic relationship, it is possible that Iran and the UK would be able create a dialogue to solve these issues more effectively. Future cases similar to Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Amiri could have a more beneficial conclusion.
To incentivise Iran to remain compliant with the JCPOA, the UK alongside the other members of the E3 – France and Germany, announced the creation of the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX). INSTEX was a new trade mechanism designed to facilitate European trade with Iran without violating US sanctions. It was thought that INSTEX would alleviate some of the hardships on the Iranian economy by encouraging European and Iranian trade. However, INSTEX has faced widespread criticism from Iranian officials. Despite the mechanism being announced in January, it is not yet fully functional. Furthermore, INSTEX only applies to humanitarian goods, such as agricultural food, medical devices and pharmaceutical goods, in order to comply with US sanctions. These sectors do not contribute a significant amount to the Iranian economy, compared to their main exports, oil and natural gas, which have been banned by the sanctions. Therefore, Iran sees INSTEX as a symbolic gesture, not intended to provide relief for Iran’s economy.
In response to the lack of protection Iran was getting from the international community, on May 8th President Hassan Rouhani sent a letter to each of the JCPOA signatories. This letter set a 60-day deadline for the signatories to provide Iran with access to banking and oil markets restricted by US sanctions. If this was not achieved, Iran threatened to abandon the JCPOA’s 3.67% limit on uranium enrichment, severely reducing their break-out time. It had been estimated that Iran would only need a few months to develop a nuclear weapon once it surpassed the JCPOA’s enrichment limits.
UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has warned Iran that violating the JCPOA could result in further sanctions for the state, as he has reiterated his support for the US amongst the growing tensions. However, the choice is not simple for the UK. The UK’s main interest in this issue should be restricting Iranian nuclear proliferation. Iranian development of a nuclear weapon would have alarming consequences for the security of the Middle East and the West. Backing Iran into a corner will only further isolate them and increase their hostility to the UK amongst others. Therefore, ensuring Iran remains committed to the JCPOA is the best course of action to facilitate British interests. The Iranian economy is already suffering from US sanctions after failing to receive substantial backing from other states. Despite the UK and others reiterating their commitment to the JCPOA through initiatives such as INSTEX, its postponement has meant that Iran’s economy has had no relief.
A more constructive option for the UK would be to work with the international community to circumvent US sanctions. The other signatories of the deal; China, Russia, France, Germany and the EU all remain committed to ensuring the endurance of the JCPOA. INSTEX’s operation could be accelerated or include non-European states to increase the market size. However, the most effective action INSTEX could take would be to explore the inclusion of the trading of oil and natural gas. With crude oil accounting for 71.7% of total Iranian exports, it is crucial for the recovery of their economy that Iran is able access oil markets. The collapse of Iran’s economy will increase their hostility towards the West and give support to extremists who claim Rouhani has been too conciliatory towards the West. Of course, the trading of oil would anger those in Washington as these transactions are currently not permitted under US sanctions. Thus, any moves to undermine US sanctions is likely to render consequences. Look at China, who are feeling the effects of a tariff war.
The UK and the US have a strong, historically close alliance, and this is likely to increase in importance now because of Brexit. However, the UK must consider the complex balance of its interests and its primary goal in this issue is to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, rather than following President Trump’s policy. If the UK worked alongside the international community, and not in isolation to help alleviate Iran’s woes, Iran could be somewhat shielded from US actions. With Iran being able to export its oil and natural gas reserves, it could remain committed to the JCPOA and satisfy the UK’s nuclear proliferation restriction attempts.