When six major powers reached a deal with Iran to prevent it from building nuclear arms, it was hailed as a victory for diplomacy in a world that faces Middle Eastern wars, North Korean threats and Western tensions with Russia.
However, there is little reason yet to celebrate the anniversary of the agreement that came into effect on January 16 last year.
On that day, the United States, Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia agreed to scrap economic sanctions targeting Iran, in return for long-term curbs on Tehran’s nuclear activities.
Since then, Donald Trump’s election as US president, the prolongation of a US sanctions mechanism and the lack of economic benefits felt in Iran have raised doubts about the future of the agreement.
Trump, who will be inaugurated on January 20, initially said last year he wanted to “dismantle” the agreement, then later stated that he would renegotiate it. He said that it gives Iran too many economic benefits, while allowing the country to expand its nuclear programme after 15 years.
In addition to the uncertainty surrounding Trump, the deal’s first birthday was marred by the recent extension of the US Iran Sanctions Act for another 10 years.
In early December, the Senate unanimously decided to prolong these measures that ban large foreign investments in Iran.
These long-standing sanctions have actually been suspended by presidential waivers. But those waivers require extensions, providing Trump with leverage in negotiations with Tehran.
In reaction, the Islamic Republic triggered consultations that are part of the nuclear deal’s mechanisms to resolve disputes between Iran and the six powers.
“The extension of the Iran Sanctions Act is a breach of the US obligations,” Iranian Vice Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi charged this week, when talks on the US sanctions were held in Vienna.
“Of course this is not a very favourable act” for the nuclear deal, Russian envoy Vladimir Voronkov said. “But life is life,” he added, highlighting the view among the powers involved that there is little they can do about the US sanctions.
While the Sanctions Act became law in mid-December, the world is still waiting for any concrete steps from the new US administration.
Trump’s nominee to be secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, provided a glimpse of what may come in his confirmation hearing in the Senate on Wednesday.
He proposed talks to prevent Iran from enriching uranium or storing nuclear materials, even after the currently agreed terms of the deal have run out.
“Whether Iran is prepared to chart a pathway that looks like that, we’ll only know once we engage in discussions,” he said.
For its part, Tehran has threatened that it could boost its uranium enrichment programme within 18 months in retaliation against hostile US actions, a step that would allow Iran to amass material that can be used for nuclear weapons.
Iran’s main concerns are not of a nuclear nature, however.
The threat of US sanctions and uncertainty over Trump’s plans have kept potential foreign investors away from the oil-rich country that is home to a market of more than 80 million people.
Iran’s order of more than 180 airplanes from Airbus and Boeing symbolized the new, sanctions-free era, but the broad economic boom that President Hassan Rowhani has promised has yet to come.
Ahead of the elections in May, in which Rowhani seeks a second term, his hawkish opponents have already declared the nuclear deal a failure because of a lack of economic benefits.
In the months and years to come, Trump may find it harder to change the Iran deal, as all major powers have stakes in it.
“For Russia, the importance of the deal is not only the economic gains that it promises, but it is also a matter of the country’s global prestige,” said Nabi Abdullaev, a senior Moscow-based expert at the consultancy Control Risk Group.
Russia, China and the European Union see the pact as a key tool to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power, he added.
EU chief diplomat Federica Mogherini has warned that the US may end up isolated on issues such as Iran if it tries to chart its foreign policy alone.
“Case by case, you will find issues where I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Europeans and the Russians on the same side — Iran deal, Middle East peace process, possibly the role of the UN,” she told the Wall Street Journal.(dpa/NAN)