Iran-US relations: Trump imperils nuclear deal

President risks undoing one of most important diplomatic achievements of past decade

As the world frets about the threat of nuclear war in Korea, the landmark deal designed to prevent Iran developing its own nuclear capability is at greater risk of unravelling than at any point since it was signed two years ago. Agreed in July 2015 between Tehran and the so-called P5+1 – the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) and Germany – the deal imposed limits on Iran's uranium enrichment programme and gave international inspectors intrusive access to the country's nuclear sites. In exchange the EU, UN and US all committed to lifting sanctions they had imposed on Tehran for its nuclear programme. The deal was one of Barack Obama's foreign policy successes as US president, holding out the promise that relations between Tehran and the West could be reset after decades of mutual hostility and suspicion.

The EU, UN and western intelligence agencies all believe Iran is abiding by the agreement, and last month US president Donald Trump formally certified as much. But he did so grudgingly, and continues to condemn the deal as a capitulation. Last week, Trump declared to the media that he believed Iran was in violation because "they're not living up to the spirit of the agreement." That was presumably a reference to Tehran's ballistic missile test last month, a move that prompted the US to impose new sanctions. But Trump's argument is a stretch. The nuclear deal is just that. It does not commit Iran to refraining from ballistic missile tests, or require Tehran to stop doing any of the other things that anger the West, such as sponsoring Hizbullah and Hamas or cracking down on human rights. By the same token, it does not preclude the US from imposing sanctions on Iran for non-nuclear activities.

Indeed, the US itself may well be in breach of the spirit of the deal. The White House has admitted that Trump has sought to dissuade other world leaders from doing business with Iran. That's despite the deal barring the US and EU from any policy "intended to directly and adversely affect the normalisation of trade and economic relations with Iran" so long as Tehran remains in compliance. Not surprisingly, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani has reacted angrily to Trump's rhetoric and said Iran could abandon the deal "within hours" if the US imposed more sanctions.

By his words and actions, Trump risks undoing one of the most important diplomatic achievements of the past decade, damaging US interests in the process. Instead of undermining the Iranian moderates who championed the agreement against hardliners’ objections, Washington should be doing what it can to buttress the accord and help bring about the economic recovery that Rouhani promised as a way of selling the deal to sceptics at home.