On Iran Diplomacy: Q&A with Amb. Peter Jenkins
The Iran nuclear deal, popularly known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, has been widely lauded as a historic understanding that untangled an apparently intractable dilemma spanning over more than a decade, and opened broad new prospects for Iran and the international community to collaborate with no specter of distrust and confrontation around the corner.
The global media and Iran pundits are diligently probing the different dimensions of the landmark deal and how it affects Iran’s connections with the outside world. At the same time, the JCPOA, signed last summer, constitutes an invariable theme in the U.S. presidential candidates’ debates and speeches. The Republican nominee Donald Trump’s son has recently suggested that one of the reasons why his father joined the presidential race was his anger at the Iran deal, which he said he would renegotiate and even scrap it altogether if he makes it to the White House.
Now, the observers watch warily as Iran has been reported to have complied with the deal and disbanded those parts of its nuclear program which the JCPOA details, while the Iranian officials accuse the United States of non-compliance and failing to honor the terms of the accord pertaining to the facilitation of banking transactions with Iran and the lifting of the sanctions. The expression of this concern by Iran has been enough for some commentators to mourn the premature, untimely unraveling of the nuclear deal.
I interviewed Amb. Peter Jenkins to survey the obstacles ahead of the smooth implementation of the nuclear deal and the primacy of this agreement in the next U.S. president’s agenda.
The former Britain’s ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency says perhaps time has come for Iran to lodge a complaint about the U.S. non-cooperation to the dispute settlement committee which the JCPOA has stipulated for cases when a party to the deal feels one or more other parties are not delivering on their commitments.
“Personally, I wonder whether the time has come for Iran to refer this problem to the Joint Commission. The JCPOA provides that if any party believes that another party to the deal is failing to meet its commitments under the agreement it may refer the matter to this dispute resolution body,” Mr. Jenkins said.
“Some way of countering extra-territorial intimidation of foreign banks by American politicians, without any authorization from the UN Security Council, must be found. Such intimidation ought to be considered unacceptable,” he added.
Peter Jenkins joined the British Diplomatic Service in 1973. Throughout his 33-year career, Amb. Jenkins served on different missions in Vienna, Washington, D.C., Paris, Brasilia and Geneva. From 2001 to 2006, he was the UK Permanent Representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency and UN organizations in Vienna. He retired in 2006, but continues to comment on international political issues, especially Iran’s nuclear program. Mr. Jenkins contributes to Lobelog.com and other online and print publications worldwide. He has been a vocal advocate of peaceful talks between Iran and the global powers to find a negotiated solution to the nuclear crisis.
Amb. Peter Jenkins responded to my questions about the potential threats to the survival of the Iran nuclear deal, the regional repercussions of the agreement and the possible scenarios for how the deadly crisis in Syria will evolve.
The JCPOA deal agreed by Iran and the P5+1 group of countries last summer was reasonably a face-saving solution to more than a decade of quarrel over Iran’s nuclear challenge. Now, it’s turning out that the United States hasn’t been able to deliver on its commitments fully and the removal of the sanctions and facilitation of banking transactions between the European and Iranian financial institutions is taking place quite complicatedly. Won’t the survival of the nuclear deal be at stake if the United States fails to perform its part of the bargain and Iran doesn’t get the actual benefits of the JCPOA as promised?
Yes, the reluctance of many European banks to engage with Iranian counterparts is a reasonable cause for concern. It is inhibiting the development of trade and investment between Europe and Iran. Reviving that economic relationship was only one of the JCPOA’s objectives, but it was and is of capital importance, in view of continuing opposition to the JCPOA in the United States. The time may come when Europe has to serve as a counter-weight to the United States to sustain the JCPOA.
U.S. officials would probably deny that the United States is failing to deliver on its part of the JCPOA bargain. They would say that they have made clear to European banks that they have nothing to fear provided they steer clear of Iranian individuals and entities that are specified on U.S. sanctions lists. They would argue that the way forward is for European banks to engage lawyers who can advise them on the intricate detail of U.S. sanctions provisions, and to perform due diligence to the utmost degree before doing business with Iranian counterparts.
The problem with this guidance is that it implies significant costs for European banks without eliminating the risk that a European bank may inadvertently transgress and become liable to huge American fines – billions of dollars. It is understandable that European banks have been inhibited by that risk.
Personally, I wonder whether the time has come for Iran to refer this problem to the Joint Commission. The JCPOA provides that if any party believes that another party to the deal is failing to meet its commitments under the agreement it may refer the matter to this dispute resolution body. Some way of countering extra-territorial intimidation of foreign banks by American politicians, without any authorization from the UN Security Council, must be found. Such intimidation ought to be considered unacceptable.
So, there’s another imminent obstacle to the enforcement of the Iran deal. Donald Trump’s coming to power as the U.S. president in the November election is a serious likelihood corroborated by several recent polls. Trump has called the Iran deal a disastrous accord and said he would rip it up if elected to the White House. Is the unilateral termination of the JCPOA by President Obama’s successor consistent with the U.S. Constitution and the international obligations of the U.S. government? Do you think Donald Trump will realize this plan?
I regret that I am not qualified to offer an opinion on what is or is not consistent with the U.S. Constitution. I will only say that the JCPOA is an inter-governmental understanding; it is not the kind of international agreement that acquires the force of domestic law through ratification. None of the parties submitted it to their legislatures for ratification. I assume therefore that repudiation of the JCPOA would be a political act, not a legal act.
Predicting what a President Trump would or would not do is exceptionally difficult. In my country, children learn a nursery rhyme about the “grand old Duke of York” who “marched his men to the top of the hill and marched them down again.” Mr. Trump tends to say one thing today and the opposite tomorrow. But I suspect that even he, if he becomes President, will take advice on matters affecting American security from experienced officials in the Pentagon, State Department and intelligence community – and I am confident that they will advise him to honor the JCPOA as long as Iran honors it.
I also suspect that, once President, Mr. Trump would calculate that repudiating the JCPOA is well down the list of priorities of those who elected him. A majority of Americans welcomed the JCPOA as a way of avoiding yet further U.S. military action in Southwest Asia.
Congressional Republicans who used every muscle to block the implementation of Iran deal after it was sealed last July are now exploiting Iran’s ballistic missile tests as a basis to slap new sanctions on the country. Will the Congress machinations to punish Iran under different pretexts result in the early collapse of the nuclear agreement if Iran feels that it’s being unduly pressured while it has agreed to make significant compromises over its nuclear program, and then decides to cease the implementation of the deal?
I’m in no position to forecast how the Iranian government is likely to react to U.S. legislation targeting Iran’s missile program. What I can say is that I would be very surprised if Europe were to follow America’s lead in sanctioning that program, as it does not violate any international legal obligation and as there is no chance at all of the UN Security Council mandating sanctions on account of the missile program. Nonetheless it would be prudent for Iran to refrain from developing missiles with a range in excess of 2,000 kilometers.
I would hope that the Iranian reaction to any missile-related U.S. legislation would be measured. Any such legislation should be seen as a product of ideological influences on the U.S. legislature and of political funding arrangements that are undermining the intent of America’s Founding Fathers. “This American rose is sick,” as an English poet, William Blake, might have said, and we must all be patient in the hope that, given time, the rose will recover its bloom.
How do you think Iran’s Arab neighbors view the nuclear deal? Does the JCPOA change the geopolitical calculus in the region in certain ways and undermine the hegemony of heavyweights such as Saudi Arabia by multiplying Iran’s economic strength and reintegrating it into the community of nations as a normal actor?
Saudi Arabia and some, though not all, members of the Gulf Cooperation Council have made no secret of their distaste for the JCPOA. They, like Israel, had been hoping that the West could be so convinced of an Iranian nuclear threat to global peace and security that the West would sacrifice its interest in normal relations with Iran indefinitely. It was these Arabs’ misfortune that Europe, and even the United States under President Obama, finally woke up to the fact that they had misjudged Iran’s long-term nuclear intentions, and then set about creating a basis for nuclear cooperation within the framework of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
What has changed as a result of the JCPOA is, as you say, that Iran’s economic prospects have improved – U.S. sanctions-related problems notwithstanding – and that the international community, with the possible exception of the United States, has become readier to accept that Iran has certain legitimate regional interests.
As I see it, the JCPOA has increased the number of significant regional actors in Southwest Asia from four to five, [namely] Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel. I will be very surprised if any one of these succeeds in establishing hegemony over the others. Instead the situation reminds me of the so-called balance of power in Europe during the decades that preceded World War I. Let us hope that Iran and Saudi Arabia can learn a lesson from that historical analogy and achieve the entente that now allies France to Germany without going through three horrendous wars!
That’s an interesting point of view. So, can the Iran nuclear deal set a good precedent for future non-proliferation agreements in the world, including the chaotic Middle East? The idea of a Middle East nuclear-weapon free zone has long been at the center of public debate in the region, especially since 1974 when it was endorsed as a UN General Assembly resolution. Is it likely that Israel accepts to put its nuclear facilities under the IAEA safeguards and ratifies the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty while it’s one of the only three outliers that haven’t joined the accord?
It is very unlikely, I am sorry to say. The United States and Europe continue to pretend that they do not know whether or not Israel possesses nuclear weapons. Annually at the IAEA’s General Conference, they vote against innocuous resolutions which call upon Israel to adhere to the NPT and submit its nuclear material to IAEA safeguards. At NPT preparatory and review conferences, the United States blocks all attempts to put Israel under pressure to negotiate a Middle East nuclear or WMD-free zone. So Israel is able to do as it pleases, and dismantling its nuclear weapons to join a NWFZ does not please.
If the other states in the region were more united, and readier in some cases to annoy their American patron, they could embarrass Israel by creating a regional nuclear weapons free zone and inviting Israel to join it. That would highlight the absurdity of Israel, a state without nuclear-armed enemies, and closely allied to the world’s leading nuclear-weapon state, denying the Middle East the sense of security that these zones have brought to Latin America, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, the Pacific and Africa.
Let’s digress to some crucial international issues. As a career diplomat observing the global politics for so long, what do you make of the turbulences in the relations between Russia and the West, which have culminated in the imposition of EU travel bans and asset freezes against persons involved in the annexation of Crimea and its sanctions against Russian banks, corporations and energy firms coupled with the U.S. sanctions introduced in September 2014? Do you think the tensions will begin to diffuse, especially now that countries like Germany and Italy are opposed to the expansion of punitive measures on Moscow? How will the Russia-West row affect the future of Syria peace talks?
Much depends on what underlies the progressive deterioration in relations between Russia and the West over the last twenty years. I ascribe that deterioration to unwise decision-making by insensitive Western politicians: the expansion of NATO to Russia’s Baltic border; the attacks on Serbia, Iraq and Libya; the decision to station U.S. missile defense units in Poland and Romania; the offering of NATO accession to Georgia and Ukraine; the demonization of President Putin; the EU’s refusal to listen to Russian concerns about the likely consequences of an ambitious EU-Ukraine trade agreement for Russian economic interests; and support for the overthrow of a democratically elected Ukrainian president.
But a Russian friend of mine, a highly intelligent retired ambassador, is more inclined to the view that some at least of these Western decisions were not blunders, the product of too little empathy and poor judgment, but the result of U.S. determination to eliminate any critics of U.S. global domination – “leadership” as Americans like to put it, euphemistically.
If he is right, the United States will want to block any move back towards more normal European relations with Russia. If I am right, then perhaps European leaders will be allowed to cease punishing Russia for doing what they would have done in President Putin’s place: defend a vital national interest. Enough time has passed since the loss of the Crimea to Russia for Europe no longer needs to distract attention from its failure to foresee that this loss might follow on the overthrow of President Yanukovich.
The situation in Syria seems to be deteriorating, and even the brittle ceasefire agreed between the warring parties on February 27 is not holding. The global powers and regional actors involved in Syria accuse each other of aggravating the tensions. Are the 20 countries and regional organizations comprising the International Syria Support Group adequately determined and united to bring the crisis and continual humanitarian losses to a peaceful end? How do you see the future of Syria?
At the heart of the Syrian problem lies the future of the Baathist regime that has governed Syria for the last 50 years. It is extremely hard for the United States and Europe, not to mention countless Syrians, to contemplate the continuation in power of a regime that has reacted so brutally to a domestic uprising and has inflicted so much suffering on so many innocent men, women and children. On the other hand, there is no evidence that the opposition to President Assad’s rule could come together to form a government capable of safeguarding all Syrians, or that the UN Security Council will authorize the use of force to overthrow President Assad who looks stronger now than a year ago.
As long as the problem retains such an intractable form, the International Syria Support Group is likely to be in great difficulty. The existence of tensions within the group – between the U.S. and Russia, for instance, or between Iran and Saudi Arabia – will be unhelpful. But those tensions will not be the root cause of the group’s failure to bring the crisis to an end.
I fear the most likely prospect is that the crisis will drag on until eventually “something turns up,” as a British idiom goes. At least we can say that there has been movement in the right direction in recent months. All interested parties are now involved in the search for a diplomatic solution, fighting between the Syrian government and the moderate opposition has declined in intensity, and the jihadi opposition is losing ground.
This article was originally posted in Iran Review.