Updated: Aug 1
On 27th May 2020, United States of America’s (henceforth, “USA”) Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took out a press statement announcing the re-imposition of sanctions that the USA had previously waived. These sanctions were in connection to civilian nuclear projects being undertaken in Iran. Additionally, the statement also announced the imposition of additional sanctions on two officials working for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (henceforth, “AEOI”). Majid Agha’i and Amjad Sazgar were said to be involved in activities that would enrich uranium by enhancing the production and development of centrifuges. The only waiver that has been extended is the one on the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant.
These waivers had allowed various companies operating in China, Russia, and Europe to carry out work on Iran’s civilian nuclear facilities without being a target of American penalties. However, Pompeo’s press release seems to show up the implications of the US’ withdrawal from the JCPOA. USA’s withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear deal in 2018 led to it reinstating sanctions. These have been violated on multiple occasions by Iran, which has consistently attempted to pressurize other nations to aid it economically.
It is important to analyze the tumultuous relationship between USA and Iran from the aftermath of the USA’s withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Deal till now, especially the motivations behind Pompeo’s press release.
Background of the Iran Nuclear Deal and USA's withdrawal
In 2015, following tensions regarding Iran developing nuclear weapons, the five permanent members of the United Nations (henceforth, “UN”) Security Council along with Germany entered into a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (henceforth “JCPOA”) agreement with the country. Together, these nations are known as P5+1.
The agreement’s object was never to limit Iran’s nuclear capacity, something which is a lot easier said than done. Instead, it focused on stretching out Iran’s breakout time. The breakout time of a country while producing nuclear weapons refers to the period required for it to accumulate enough highly enriched uranium essential to carry out the production of a single nuclear weapon. Championed by the Obama administration, it was believed that having the deal in place would be instrumental in acting as a setback in case Iran decided to exploit its nuclear capabilities. It would buy the international community some time to decide on proper action in case such a situation arises.
Major provisions of the agreement included:
Nuclear Restrictions on Iran: The JCPOA attempted to prevent Iran from undertaking secret operations to develop nuclear weapons by restricting its uranium enrichment. It did this by placing a limit on the number and type of centrifuges that Iran can operate, which are essential for the purpose of enrichment. Additionally, the core of the heavy-water reactor at Arak was dismantled.
Monitoring and Verification: The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was set up by the UN to act as a watchdog and ensure that nuclear facilities are repurposed for research, industrial, or medical aims. It issues quarterly reports to the various stakeholders. Iran is also a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty which mandates it to never pursue nuclear weapons, except for peaceful purposes. The agreement is overseen by the Joint Commission, which is comprised of the representatives of all the stakeholders.
Sanctions Relief: USA, UN, and the European Union all lifted their respective sanctions on Iran pursuant to the JCPOA agreement. The USA also removed sanctions from specific entities but only waived existent nuclear sanctions, with previously imposed ones still remaining in place.
However, the USA’s attitude towards the nuclear deal changed with the transfer of power from Obama to Trump. In fact, one of Trump’s most prominent campaign promises was that he would withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, a promise that he managed to uphold. However, whether this promise was a worthwhile one is a debatable point. The reason Trump gave for USA’s withdrawal was major that Iran wasn’t complying with the terms of the agreement, a claim for which no evidence was provided by either Trump or countries such as Israel or Saudi Arabia that are supporting his decision.
Trump’s move even earned a rare public rebuke from Obama, who went on to say that “the decision to put the JCPOA at risk without any Iranian violation of the deal is a serious mistake.” This is noteworthy considering that Trump and Obama have rarely agreed on policies, with Trump undoing most activities previously undertaken by the Obama administration. Further, one cannot deny that Trump’s move seems more politically motivated than anything, considering that the USA shares strong ties with Israel, which has had sour relations with Iran for years.
The fact of the matter remains that having the nuclear deal in place was definitely not harmful for the USA as well as the international community, regardless of the assertions made related to Iran’s violations of the terms of the deal. This has led many to conclude that the USA’s withdrawal from the JCPOA in 2018 might not have been the smartest course of action. But it seems like Trump and his administration are committing to their previous decision, with Pompeo’s press release acting as the final straw in USA’s decision to withdraw.
Certain recent events may have further triggered this press release and it is important that these be understood and explored.
Repercussions of using the term "Final Solution"
The chain of events that seems to have motivated Mike Pompeo releasing his press statement began on Quds Day when Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s office released a controversial cartoon.
Khamenei is an 80-year old cleric who was appointed as Iran’s Supreme Leader after the passing of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini who was the founding father of the Islamic Republic, a feat he achieved by managing to amend the Iranian Constitution. He is the most powerful man in Iran and harbours a deep distrust towards the USA. When the Iran Nuclear Deal was negotiated, he criticized the move and warned not to expect the deal to be held up by the USA for too long. When his prediction did come true three years later, he remarked, “I said many times from the first day: don’t trust America.”
Since then, Khamenei has left no stone unturned in criticizing the USA, especially due to its close friendship with Israel. Israel and Palestine have been fighting over Jerusalem for the last 70 years. USA’s alliance with Israel is of distaste to Iran due to Iran’s vocal support of Palestine’s claims over Jerusalem and the city’s holy site which is known as Temple Mount to Jews and Noble Sanctuary to Muslims. In fact, the celebration of Quds Day every year in Iran on the final Friday of the month of Ramadan is a way for it to criticize Israel and demonstrate its support for Palestine.
A few days before the Quds Day celebration this year, Khamenei’s office released the aforementioned cartoon that can be described as showing “smiling Iranian-backed forces, people from Arab counties, and two Orthodox Jews bearing a headline.”  The headline prominently featured the term ‘the final solution’, which also appeared on Khamenei’s website along with the tagline ‘Palestine will be free’. The term final solution is a lot more diabolical than it sounds, with it being the term used by Nazis to refer to the genocide they perpetuated of close to 6 million Jews.
The essence of the cartoon was basically to demonstrate that the entire site in the illustration was in Muslim hands. when this is interlinked with the meaning behind the term final solution, a deadly picture is painted. This cartoon was also tweeted by the Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif, which was further retweeted by Pompeo in which he slammed the government of Iran for “echoing Hitler’s call for genocide”. A week after Pompeo expressed his disdain regarding the Iranian government’s usage of the term final solution, the press release was taken out, which further enunciated Pompeo’s displeasure over the usage of the term.
While it is possible that Pompeo’s press release had been in the works for many days beforehand, it is safe to conclude that the Iranian government endorsing the term final solution did not bode well for them. If anything, it only strengthened the USA’s motivation to further withdraw itself from the Iran Nuclear Deal.
Other countries such as France, United Kingdom, and Germany are not happy with USA’s decision, especially considering that since USA’s withdrawal, Iran has once again started uranium enrichment by injecting gas into centrifuges. It still remains to be seen what the future holds for the attempts to curb the proliferation of nuclear weapons as well as Iran-USA relations. For now, however, all we know is that Iran has said that it will continue to undertake nuclear projects despite the sanctions imposed on it, causing it to be reinstated as a very real threat to the world order.
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