Iran warily eyes Trump over nuclear deal

Putin’s involvement could be deciding factor in fate of nuclear deal.

2017/01/29 Issue: 91 Page: 17

The Arab Weekly
Tom Spender

In the global game of political chess, Iran is quietly waiting for the next move. It will come, of course, from new US President Donald Trump. It is a bit of a tricky waiting game. Trump is a wild card.

While he campaigned heavily against the Iran nuclear deal, he also appears to be quite chummy with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has been working closely with the Iranians in Syria. Could Putin convince Trump to leave the deal alone? Not know­ing how Trump will react makes it hard to see what that next move will be.

Iran has finally broken its silence on the issue. Iran’s atomic energy chief, Ali Akbar Salehi, in an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, said his country’s position was wait and see.

Salehi, one of the key archi­tects of the 2015 nuclear agree­ment, said he would prefer not to see the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), thrown to the side but said if it was, Iran could get its programme up and running not just to where it was before JCPOA but “a much higher position technically speaking”.

Despite Salehi’s comments, there are a lot of moving parts that make it hard to determine what will happen in the next few months as far as the nuclear deal is concerned.

In Iran, there is still much controversy over the deal. Hardliners do not like it and the election of Trump played into their hands and their argument that the Americans can never be trusted regardless of who their leader is. Other critics say the deal, which allowed Iranian oil back on the open market, has not been the golden goose many thought it would be, especially for ordinary Iranians.

With elections coming this spring and Iranian President Hassan Rohani facing a tough fight for re-election, a loss by his more moderate faction means the Iranians could be the ones who pull the plug on the deal.

In Europe, the scene can only be described as chaotic. Although Europe strongly supports the deal, its attention is rather split. With Britain opting for Brexit, elections this year in many European countries and the far-right looking stronger, preserving the deal with Iran is not at the top of most European leaders’ to-do list.

If push came to shove, as much as Europe likes the deal and has benefited from it, its main strategic interests lie with the United States. It would probably work very hard to convince Trump of its value, but if the US president said it had to go, in the end, Europe would fall in line.

In the United States, outside of the Republican Party, there has been strong support for the deal, particularly among the country’s top nuclear experts. Three dozen top scientists, including Nobel laureates and former White House science advisers, have written to Trump to ask him to preserve the deal. It remains to be seen if he can be convinced.

Once again, the man with real control over the chess board is probably Putin. With ties to both the US president and the Iranian government and military, Putin’s involvement could be the deciding factor in the fate of the nuclear deal. If Putin tells Trump that Russia, one of the sponsors of the deal, believes it helps keep the world safe, Trump might back off his threats. Putin, who knows flattery is the key to Trump, could tell him that the world would be extremely grateful for his continuing the deal.

Only time will tell, but watch how Russia plays the game. Putin seems to be the only leader with a long-term strategy in mind. In the end, it really could be his say that determines the fate of the nuclear deal.

Tom Spender is a London-based journalist who has worked in the Middle East and China.

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