Senate's Effort to Kill Iran Deal May Lead to US-Iran Conflict Involving Israel

© REUTERS / MORTEZA NIKOUBAZLMembers of Iran's Revolutionary Guards march during a military parade to commemorate the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war in Tehran.
Members of Iran's Revolutionary Guards march during a military parade to commemorate the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war in Tehran. - Sputnik International
A group of US senators has initiated a bill which would allow the president to renew economic restrictions against Iran – a maneuver experts warn could kill the landmark Iranian nuclear deal reached in 2015. Senior Iran expert Dr. Ali Vaez warns that such a scenario may ultimately result in a military conflict breaking out between Iran and the US.

Having come to the realization that the Trump administration isn't likely to unilaterally terminate the Iran nuclear deal, a group of US lawmakers led by Republican Senator Bob Corker is looking for ways to encourage the president to renew anti-Iranian sanctions, which are set to expire under the deal. Corker introduced a bill, titled 'Countering Iran's Destabilizing Activities Act' to the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee late last month, and has already found bipartisan support among many Republican and Democratic lawmakers.

Speaking to Radio Sputnik about the Senate initiative, Dr. Ali Vaez, senior Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based NGO promoting conflict prevention, explained that the initiative was not unexpected in light of US officials' record of sharp rhetoric toward Tehran.

"I think the main reason is political, and it goes back to the fact that President Trump, during the campaign season, made a lot of promises about being tough on Iran, and now he has to be seen as delivering on that promise," Vaez said.

"The reality," the analyst noted, "is that President Trump has realized that tearing up the nuclear deal [outright] will isolate the United States and would backfire on US interests," with the other parties to the agreement, including the Europeans, Russia, China, and Iran itself generally satisfied with its provisions.

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Therefore, Vaez said, "the opponents of the deal in Washington have now switched to Plan B: instead of killing the deal with a gunshot, to kill it with a thousand paper cuts. The way that they would do this is through a constant stream of sanctions, based on non-nuclear pretexts – sanctioning Iran because of its regional policies, or its missile program, or because of its domestic policies, or its human rights record. That could result in a deep erosion of the nuclear deal in a matter of months or years."

"Sanctions," the expert recalled, "are obviously always the lowest-hanging fruit, and especially sanctions on Iran, on which there is usually bipartisan agreement in Congress. So that's now the option that's coming to the fore."

At the same time, Dr. Vaez stressed that if the proposed legislation were to pass in its current form, "it would be a violation of the [nuclear] deal. There are some sections of the legislation, like Section 8, for example, which add new conditions to the agreement unilaterally."

Specifically, "Section 8 requires the US president to certify that some of the people that are supposed to be delisted [from sanctions] based on the calendar of the nuclear deal about seven years from now will only be delisted if the president can certify that they have not been engaged in support of terrorism and Iran's ballistic missile program; otherwise the sanctions on these individuals and entities cannot be lifted; that's a unilateral decision by the United States to change one of its own commitments under the nuclear deal."

"Not only would this amount to a violation of the deal – it would set a precedent that could start a process that could eventually unravel the deal," Vaez warned.

"The main point here is: if the legislation passes the way it is, the Iranians will probably go to the Joint Commission [which includes Iran, Russia, China, France, Germany, the UK, the representative of the EU and the US] and ask them to recognize that the US has breached the nuclear deal. That could start a process which could eventually unravel the agreement."

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At the same time, the expert stressed that "the Iranians also understand that part of this game from the American perspective is to push them to be the first to take actions which would be a clear-cut violation of the deal. If Tehran for example was not to give access to IAEA inspectors, or decide to revive their nuclear program, that would allow opponents of the nuclear deal in Washington to either impose more sanctions, or move toward killing this nuclear deal [altogether]. For that reason, I think the Iranians will try to be seen as the reasonable party. But this is a game that could be played only in the short run. In the long run, it will be much more difficult to sustain the deal under current circumstances."

Furthermore, Vaez warned that the collapse of the nuclear deal would greatly increase the danger of open conflict breaking out between the two countries. "Without any doubt, if the nuclear agreement starts eroding, we will see tensions rising. If the nuclear deal collapses entirely, then we will be back in the same spiral of escalation that we experienced in the past," meaning Iran considering the revival of their nuclear program on the one hand, and threats of war from the United States and Israel on the other.

"With more tensions, there are also other possibilities for confrontation. There is so much friction between Iran and the United States these days – in the Persian Gulf, in Yemen." The expert recalled that the channels of communications which existed between the two countries during the previous administration no longer exist. 

"Therefore, there is enough room for misunderstandings and miscalculations that could easily spiral out of control and result in conflict," Vaez stressed.

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Asked how other parties might react to prevent things from getting out of control, the expert noted that "for now, leaders and other members of the other P5+1 have come out strongly in support of the deal; they have all warned leaders in the United States against taking steps that could undermine the nuclear deal. But rhetoric goes only so far. I think at some stage there will be a need even for some actions which, in addition to discouraging US policy makers from undermining the deal, could deter them from [actually] taking those steps." 

Ultimately, Vaez noted that the Europeans, Russia and China should make clear to Washington that they would not comply to US unilateral sanctions not approved by the Joint commission. "I think that's important at some stage to be clearly communicated to US policymakers – that unless there is a real justification – real reasons for new sanctions, the rest of the international community will not simply fall in line because the US Congress has decided to sanction Iran."

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