Canada must resist U.S. efforts to further undermine the Iran nuclear deal

May 5, 2020

The Iran nuclear deal has long been derided by U.S. President Donald Trump, whose actions have already jeopardized some of the concrete security dividends of the hard-won agreement. But his latest move constitutes a clear affront to international law that must be rejected, especially by countries like Canada that express strong support for a rules-based multilateral order.


Two years ago, President Trump announced that the United States was unilaterally withdrawing from the 2015 deal between Iran and the P5+1 (permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany), which was intended to ensure that Iran’s nuclear program pursued only peaceful goals. Recently, however, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appears to be on a mission to rewrite history. Last week he claimed that the United States was still a party to the deal and so, under its provisions, could invoke further sanctions against Iran.

Iran has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic and is already limited in its ability to access relief goods. Echoing appeals from humanitarian organizations, a growing number of current and former senior officials from Western nations are, instead, calling on the United States to ease sanctions. On the list are four former NATO Secretaries General; former EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini; and former senior U.S. officials under both Republican and Democratic administrations, including William Burns, who led U.S. negotiations on the deal.

Trump will not listen. Not only is his administration gearing up to impose further sanctions, it is trying to compel states that had eased sanctions against Iran since 2015 to re-impose them. This includes Canada, which in 2016 acted to comply with UN Security Council Resolution 2231, the legal framework for the nuclear deal.

Now Canada is in an awkward position. It must try to avoid controversy with its southern neighbour to preserve the many critical dimensions of a strategic bilateral relationship. But it is bound to uphold the integrity of the UN Resolution, which is consistent with its often expressed support for a rules-based international order.


The Iran nuclear deal was about limiting Iran’s ability to produce a nuclear warhead, under strict international verification, in exchange for sanctions relief. The agreement was pragmatic, robust, and verifiable. It was broadly applauded by the international community for addressing legitimate concerns about Iran’s nuclear program, while lowering tensions and avoiding military confrontation.

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu was quick to label the deal a “historic mistake.” But Israel is also the only state actually in possession of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, and one of only four outliers to the nearly universal Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The fact is that, before the United States pulled out of the deal, Iran was faithfully meeting its obligations.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, the authoritative UN “nuclear watchdog” tasked with monitoring the deal, repeatedly certified Iran’s full compliance. Notably, not once in the 2018 address in which Trump announced the decision to withdraw from the deal did he point to a single concrete Iranian violation. Trump has, however, repeatedly conflated the well-defined objectives of the agreement with U.S. concerns about democratic deficits in the Iranian regime, financing of insurgencies, ballistic missile development, and regional power dynamics.

States facing U.S. pressure need to recognize why Iran moved away from a deal that lifted suffocating sanctions and provided desperately needed economic respite.

Today, Iran is no longer fully compliant with the 2015 agreement, and the United States seems to have a compelling argument as it pressures nations to re-impose sanctions. But Ottawa should fully consider the context for Iran’s actions over the last two years before it decides to join the United States in reacting punitively.


Canada and other states facing U.S. pressure need to recognize why Iran moved away from a deal that lifted suffocating sanctions and provided desperately needed economic respite. Did Iranian leaders just wake up one day and decide, in the face of growing domestic social unrest, to throw away all those economic and political benefits?

The sequence of events is crucial. In withdrawing from the agreement in 2018, the United States put itself in direct violation of UN Security Council Resolution 2231. The resolution calls on states “to take such actions as may be appropriate to support” the deal and to refrain from “actions that undermine implementation of commitments” in the agreement. The exact opposite of the Trump approach.

When Iran announced that it would start reversing the steps it had taken to comply with the deal, it did so because the incentives attached to compliance had already been pulled by the United States.

And surely Iran is fully aware of the double standard underpinning its agreement with the P5+1 states, each of which has nuclear weapons on its territory. Even Germany, officially a non-nuclear-weapon state, holds U.S. warheads. Nuclear weapons-sharing among some states in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which runs contrary to the letter and spirit of the NPT, is endorsed by all NATO members—including Canada.

All parties to the Iran deal have also refused to join the historic Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which was adopted by a majority of the international community in 2017. No one in this group has clean hands.


At a minimum, Canada must recognize that, while Iran has moved away from compliance and must continue to be held accountable for its nuclear program, the United States was the first to bail and set off the deal’s unravelling. Now a diplomatic resolution to the Iranian nuclear question seems farther away than it has in years.

Canada must also consider the humanitarian impact of tightening sanctions against Iran in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. As the Western diplomats and officials noted in their call for sanctions relief, the current sanctions regime already makes Iran’s ability to secure desperately needed resources “slower, more expensive, and complicated.” Easing it could save “hundreds of thousands of lives.”

And so the Canadian government has a delicate decision to make. In play are legitimate nuclear proliferation concerns, support for a rules-based international order, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on Iran, pressure from key allies Israel and the United States, and the legal implications of the “now I’m out, now I’m in” approach of the Trump administration.

As Ottawa attempts to reconcile intertwined and contradictory interests, it must carefully consider the humanitarian implications of any decision. And it must continue to make a rules-based international order a key guiding principle.

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