As US President Donald J. Trump grapples with the North Korean nuclear crisis, two former US officials have some words of advice: attempt dialogue before pre-emptive military strikes, and broaden the scope of that discussion to include the security needs of the region, including North Korea's.

Ernest Moniz, who served as energy secretary in Barack Obama’s administration, said heaping sanctions on North Korea alone cannot produce results and that this approach will only “spin wheels.”

R. Nicholas Burns, who served as undersecretary of state for political affairs in George W. Bush’s administration, said exhausting the diplomatic option before considering the military one is the “wisdom” gleaned from the first nuclear age. “Kim Jong-un is not a more deadly rival of the United States than Stalin was or Khrushchev was in the 50s and 60s,” he said.

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Doubts cast by US President Donald J. Trump about the future of the nuclear deal with Iran, US sanctions that have restricted access to foreign financing, and a tight budget have hampered the Islamic Republic’s ability to secure significant investments in renewable energy.

International banks have been reluctant to finance new energy projects in Iran as a result of Trump’s criticism of the nuclear deal that was reached between Iran, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Russia, China, and the United States in 2015. This reluctance is compounded by the fact that numerous Iranian energy companies are supervised by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is subject to US sanctions.

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As expected, US President Donald J. Trump on October 13 announced that he will not certify Iran’s compliance with the terms of a multilateral nuclear deal, accusing the Islamic Republic of “not living up to the spirit” of the agreement.

While Trump did not take the United States out of the deal, he asserted the right to do so and warned that he would if the US Congress does not make amendments to the agreement.

At the top of the list of amendments Trump would like is for Congress to address the issue of the “sunset clauses” in the deal. These clauses lift certain restrictions placed on Iran ten to fifteen years after the agreement took effect in January of 2016. However, even at that time, Iran would be prohibited from developing a nuclear weapon and be subjected to intrusive inspections.

Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China) and Germany struck the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), in 2015.

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The expectation that US President Donald J. Trump will decertify the nuclear deal with Iran this week raises the question: what would be the implications of decertification?

Trump faces an October 15 deadline to certify to the US Congress that Iran is complying with the terms of the nuclear agreement that the Islamic Republic struck with the five permanent members of the United Nations (UN) Security Council plus Germany in 2015. The deal cuts off Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon.

Despite criticizing the agreement as “terrible,” Trump has twice before certified Iran’s compliance with the deal. The president doesn’t need a reason to decertify the deal. Trump is expected to state that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is not in the United States’ national security interests.

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While the Kurdistani people may have voted for independence, the practical application of the referendum, which was rejected by the Kurdistan region’s neighbors, remains uncertain. Depending on the fallout in the days, weeks, and months to come, the referendum could either prove an opportunity to improve regional relations, or leave a bitter aftertaste for all parties involved.

September 25, 2017, was a historic day for the Kurds. In a referendum, close to 93 percent voted in favor of independence, a long-held dream for most Kurds. However, while many people in Kurdistan celebrated the outcome, the referendum was opposed by Iraq, its neighbors, and the international community. Further, Iraq, Turkey, and Iran responded by threatening to sanction the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq militarily or economically.

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European ambassadors to the United States on September 25 defended the nuclear deal with Iran, saying it is working, while warning that reopening negotiations would be a nonstarter and walking away from the deal would have serious consequences.

This joint defense comes as US President Donald J. Trump, who has to certify to the US Congress by October 15 that Iran is complying with the terms of the agreement, has reiterated his displeasure with the deal.

Germany’s ambassador to the United States, Peter Wittig, said the onus is on those who seek to renegotiate the deal to prove that first, renegotiation is possible, and second, it will deliver better results. “We don’t think it will be possible to renegotiate it and we believe there is no practical, peaceful alternative to this deal,” Wittig said.

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 US President Donald Trump waived economic sanctions on Iran’s banks and oil exports on September 14, as part of a law passed by Congress in 2015, following the landmark Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement—or Iran nuclear deal. The law requires every 120 days for the US president to decide whether to waive the renewal of economic sanctions. The more significant deadline in October is whether Iran is in compliance with the deal and which Trump seems intent on ending the agreement. The ever-mounting aggressive rhetoric and actions of the current US administration towards Iran signal a potential shift in the Obama legacy of the Iran deal. The US could further disrupt the balance in the region if it ends the Iran deal, yet in stark contrast, European allies continue to advocate for a pragmatic solution to save it.

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Turkmenistan must invest in new infrastructure to export its vast energy resources if it is to become a substantial player in the global energy market. Achieving this objective would reduce Turkey and the European Union (EU)’s dependence on Russian gas.

Turkmenistan boasts the sixth-largest natural gas reserves in the world, an estimated 617 trillion cubic feet (tcf), along with an estimated 600 million barrels of proven oil reserves. However, despite its vast energy resources, the Central Asian nation has thus far failed to become a major energy player. There are several potential pipeline interconnections that could help Turkmenistan achieve this status, yet none are without political complications.

Through the proposed Trans-Caspian gas pipeline, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan could export gas across the Caspian Sea through Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey to Europe, circumventing Russia and Iran. While this is considered a natural eastward extension of the existing Southern Gas Corridor, it is strongly opposed by Russia and Iran as it may threaten their energy dominance.

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Iran’s recent aggression toward US forces in the Persian Gulf may be part of a strategy among the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and other hardline elements to goad Trump into a rash decision on the nuclear deal that earns them a political payday.  

On August 8, Iran flew a drone within one hundred feet of a US fighter jet attempting to land aboard the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz. The US F/A-18 was forced to change course to avoid the unarmed drone. This was the third incidence of unprofessional Iranian behavior toward US forces in the Gulf in as many weeks, following two buzzing incidents involving the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)-Navy on July 25 and 29.

In light of Trump’s antagonistic view of Tehran and his outspoken criticism of the Iran nuclear deal, notably expressed days before the first buzzing, the three naval incidents raise questions as to why Iran is provoking the United States in the Gulf.

One possibility is that, given political dynamics in Iran and the United States, these incidents are part of a sustained effort by Iran’s hardliners to increase tensions with the Trump administration. These hardliners, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his clerical supporters, the IRGC, and the judiciary, could see an opportunity to leverage Trump’s well-publicized aspirations for doing away with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the landmark nuclear deal between the P5+1 countries and Iran.

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Iran challenges US policy, this time in the maritime domain

It seems hard for the United States to catch a break in the Persian Gulf these days. As its Arab partners continue to bicker among themselves, Iran remains a source of tension from across the water. A week after US President Donald J. Trump reluctantly notified Congress of Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal and imposed new non-nuclear sanctions, a US Navy ship fired warning shots at a patrol boat operated by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)-Navy in the Persian Gulf.

The July 25 encounter is yet another reminder that the IRGC-Navy will continue to create dangerous, potentially escalatory situations with US craft in the Gulf. Understanding the nature of Iran’s military forces and the threat they pose highlights both the need for continuing diplomatic engagement and the limits of dialogue with Iranian officials.

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