JCPOA 'Unlikely' to Be Saved, Middle East Tensions Jeopardize Any New Nuclear Agreement - Professor

© REUTERS / Iranian Presidency Office, Mohammad Berno In this Jan. 13, 2015, file photo released by the Iranian President's Office, President Hassan Rouhani visits the Bushehr nuclear power plant just outside of Bushehr, Iran.
 In this Jan. 13, 2015, file photo released by the Iranian President's Office, President Hassan Rouhani visits the Bushehr nuclear power plant just outside of Bushehr, Iran.  - Sputnik International
The past several weeks have brought a new escalation of tensions in the Middle East. On 3 January, the Pentagon conducted an airstrike authorized by the US president that killed one of Iran's top military commanders, Qasem Soleimani.

Iran responded by attacking two Iraqi bases housing US military personnel. US President Donald Trump has not announced a military response to the missile strikes but pledged to impose additional economic restrictions on Tehran.

Just a week before the killing, the United States blamed the Iranian-backed Kataib Hezbollah militia for a 27 December attack on a US military base near the Iraqi city of Kirkuk that killed a US contractor. The US retaliated by striking Kataib Hezbollah forces in Iraq and Syria, killing some two dozen of its fighters.

That retaliatory operation triggered protests at the US Embassy in Baghdad on 31 December, during which demonstrators stormed the facility and set fire to its outer perimeter. The United States blamed Soleimani for orchestrating the protests at the embassy. 

Last week, the Trump administration announced new sanctions on Iran, designating eight senior Iranian officials involved in the attack, as well as 17 Iranian iron and steel companies. White House National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien said that the 'maximum pressure' campaign on Iran would eventually prod Tehran to negotiate. Trump said that he did not care whether Iran agreed to negotiate.

Professor Nader Habibi from the Crown Centre for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University shares his view on the new pivot in US policy toward Iran and ponders possible Tehran responses to Washington, while recalling the root cause of the US-Iran standoff - the unilateral US withdrawal by the Trump administration from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal.

Sputnik: President Donald Trump stated that he did not care whether Iran agreed to negotiate with the United States. What would be the US benefits if Iran does or does not come back to the negotiating table, and what would be the liabilities?

Nader Habibi: It all depends on the conditions under which Iran agrees to return. I think what President Trump said should be taken in the context of the variety of the tweets that he has been issuing in recent weeks about Iran.

And what is clear from them is that there is a lot of contradiction in what he says. His position about war with Iran is a good example. Some tweets say they are ready to initiate. Some of them say we don't want war. In some tweets by him and his administration members and we see that they call on Iran to negotiate.

Even after the killing of Soleimani, there was a message from Pompeo that we are even ready to negotiate with Iran without any condition.

And then some others like this one simply say indicate that he's indifferent. I think we might see another tweet from President Trump tomorrow saying something completely opposite.

But clearly, if under current circumstances, Iran agrees to come to the table to negotiate with the US, which in my opinion is then not likely, it сould be a victory for President Trump.

But it all depends on whether such negotiations could be truthful. But even the coming of Iran to the negotiation table could have some political benefits.

What the US president Trump, not the United States, but President Trump, because he can claim that - my policy of maximum pressure paid off. And finally, Iranians are coming to the negotiation table.

Sputnik: What does this rhetoric say about US policy towards Iran and the region?

Nader Habibi: The US policy is not clear and there are a lot of contradictions in it. But what we can see is that on one hand, the Trump administration might want to escalate the situation.

And on the other hand, the Congress is trying to prevent any kind of escalation that can lead to war.

So the most recent position after the killing of Soleimani and the measure, the reaction of Iran, which was the missile attacks, which were pre-notified so that Iran wanted to intentionally make sure those attacks do not lead to any casualties.

Given these developments, I think the current policy is to use economic pressure and diplomatic pressure on Iran without allowing the tensions to escalate into a direct confrontation with Iran.

And that seems to be the position of Iran as well, because Iran is now in no condition to try to escalate - in rest of the Middle East, of course, the US is now under pressure in Iraq because while it killed Soleimani, it also killed a major leader of the popular mobilization front.

And that has caused significant anger among a large group of Shiite Iraqis. And the Iraqi parliament has asked for withdrawal of US troops. So there is tension in Iraq, which, again, is uncertain how it might evolve in the coming weeks.

The situation overall in the Middle East is very tense and very unpredictable. That's why we see that several countries are launching diplomatic initiatives.

There has been a visit by the leader of Qatar to Iran, for example, just yesterday. Europeans are taking initiatives to try to de-escalate and make sure it is not to escalate into a military confrontation that can destabilize the entire region.

Sputnik: What is the general perception right now among the US public towards the ongoing standoff?

Nader Habibi: I think based on most recent polls, among those who support President Trump there are some that support his policy. And there are some who are opposed to it.

This means people who identify themselves as Republicans, perhaps half and half division there, among his opponents, the independents and supporters of the Democratic Party - there is significant opposition to his current policy and policy of escalation because the Democrats from beginning, opposed to President Trump's withdrawal from the nuclear agreement.

And they believe that this policy has not benefited the United States. And we see that in the primary campaigns for 2020 presidential election, all candidates are expressing a strong opposition to President Trump's and Middle East policy at present during their talks.

Sputnik: President Emmanuel Macron and President Vladimir Putin said that they want to keep the JCPOA. Same statements we have seen during Angela Merkel’s visit to Moscow. In your view, how can this deal be saved?

Nader Habibi: It is very difficult - because the Europeans, who were opposed to US withdrawal from the nuclear agreement from the beginning, said that we will try to maintain a mechanism, create a mechanism for financial transaction with Iran, which was called Instax.(INSTEX)

But that mechanism has not been successful because the United States has successfully blocked it. As a result, the economic pressure on Iran has intensified.

And Iran has reacted by taking gradual steps to disengage from the nuclear and give agreement. In other words, gradually and in a smallest steps, walking away from its own obligations under the nuclear agreement.

And it has done so by repeatedly warning the Europeans - that if you do not fulfill your promise of economics, we walk back step by step.

And we saw that overdo during the past 12 months. While the Europeans have said they will try to set up a mechanism, so far they have not been successful. So the key to Europeans being able to save the nuclear agreement is if they can activate the Instax mechanism for financial transactions.

But the United States is watching very carefully and putting a lot of pressure on European countries not to do that, because the US wants to make sure the economic pressure on Iran continues and even intensifies. We have witnessed that Iran's sales of crude oil have diminished substantially.

India and China, who were major customers, even those countries have cut back because of their sensitivity to US warnings.

So Iran is now in a very difficult situation. And I think if Europeans cannot find a solution, Iran will take more steps, additional steps to walk away from its nuclear obligations, which is, of course, something that Europeans don't want because it will amount to reactivating Iran's nuclear enrichment program.

Sputnik: Is there any likelihood of a revival of JCPOA in a previous shape, and in what form can it be?

Nader Habibi: Yes, it's it's hard to predict that because that will depend on how the relations between Iran and the United States would evolve in the coming months.

As long as these tensions continue, it is very unlikely that the JCPOA can be saved or a new agreement can be negotiated just with the Europeans because it does not help Iran.

But if there is some improvement in tensions between Iran and the United States, then there could be another round of negotiations for perhaps a new nuclear agreement between Iran and the five major negotiating powers countries that have been dealing with Iran.

Sputnik: What would be Iran’s response to this rhetoric from the US?

Nader Habibi: At the moment, Iran in these days is struggling with a domestic protest because of the misinformation about the cause of the decline of the fall of the Ukrainian airplane. So the United States is there expressing support for the protesters.

And Iran's position right now is not one of two being able to take any active action or react to us. It cannot take any military action similar to what it did in response to Soleimani. And there it is simply in a defensive position, trying to perhaps cope and suppress the protests that started two days ago.

And they were very intense yesterday. In terms of diplomatic activities, there has been a number of diplomatic contacts with Iran. The latest one was yesterday by the leader of Qatar.

So we have to wait and see how these diplomatic initiatives evolve, whether they can result in any kind of de-escalation between Iran and the United States.

But overall, it is very uncertain because there is both domestic unrest in Iran and the risk of further tensions with the United States, especially if there are any unexpected attacks on US assets in Iraq, which might lead to some sort of military action by the United States.

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