On Wednesday, a Reuters report explained that Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, is planning to travel to Vienna later this month in order to discuss the Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, with the United Nations body tasked with assessing Iran’s compliance. The report notes that this is part of a large-scale review of that compliance, which may culminate with US President Donald Trump’s refusal to certify it before Congress.
Such certification is required every 90 days, and the president was reportedly quite begrudging in signing off on the continued enforcement of the agreement first in April and then again last month. His decision to do so reportedly came only after lengthy discussions with his Secretary of State and the rest of his foreign policy team, most of which is extremely skeptical of the deal and yet unwilling to unilaterally cancel it out of fear that the consequences could outweigh the benefits, especially where American relations with European allies are concerned.
Nevertheless, since last month’s certification, Trump has indicated that he is likely to declare Iran to be out of compliance the next time he is required to report to Congress. He has also affirmed that he would have personally preferred to make such a declaration at the first opportunity. The Islamic Republic has indeed been guilty of slight violations of the JCPOA, but these have been effectively written off by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the nuclear watchdog that Haley will be visiting later in August.
The known violations are minor and include briefly surpassing the defined limits for nuclear-related materials like heavy water. But Trump’s longstanding opposition to continued enforcement of the deal seems to focus on peripheral issues such as repeated Iranian ballistic missile tests, which he believes to violate the “spirit” of the agreement. Although not actually part of the JCPOA, there is a UN Security Council resolution that oversees that agreement and calls upon the Islamic Republic to avoid work on weapons designed to be capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.
The recently-tested ballistic missiles do indeed have this capability, but Iran has categorically rejected that provision of the resolution, asserting that its language does not make compliance obligatory and does not refer to weapons that are intended for non-nuclear purposes. Meanwhile, Tehran has repeatedly parroted American accusations regarding violation of the “spirit” of the agreement, asserting that the US has made Iran’s economic recovery too difficult by continuing to enforce non-nuclear sanctions while also imposing more of the same.
Last week, President Trump signed into law a wide-ranging sanctions bill that targets the Iranian ballistic missile program and expands all human rights sanctions to include the entirety of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. Despite Tehran’s vigorous protests, many American and European commentators have expressed support for the continuation of this project, which began with ballistic missile sanctions imposed on presidential authority alone. These supporters including people who share Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s declared position opposing the president’s plan to simply blow up the nuclear deal.
On Tuesday, the Washington Post published an editorial making precisely this case and describing the expansion of non-nuclear sanctions as a “waive and slap” strategy. That term had been coined by researchers with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies who believe that the US government can put effective pressure on the Islamic Republic over illicit activities that are not limited to nuclear weapons ambitions. The editorial noted that these other issues, including apparently rising levels of Iranian meddling in the broader Middle East, are of greater near-term concern to leading figures in the Trump administration, including Tillerson, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, and National Security Director H.R. McMaster.
Sanctions on human rights violations and ballistic missile tests could help to keep the immediate focus of American policy upon these other issues, while also earning international sympathy for a strategy that confronts Iran in a comprehensive fashion. Advocates of this strategy generally believe that targeting the JCPOA directly and immediately would drive European allies further away, as they try to salvage the economic benefits of the nuclear agreement. This could in turn have the effect of distracting attention from other issues and driving the Europeans away from interventions in those areas.
However, a contrasting editorial appeared in The Hill and pointedly argued in favor of Trump’s preference for simply getting rid of the JCPOA. It argued that the “security guarantees” stemming from the nuclear deal are the essential reason why Tehran’s regional interventions have accelerated in recent months. As many have argued since before the nuclear negotiations were concluded in 2015, the effects of long-term economic sanctions and a credible threat of military force were the very things that brought the Iranian regime to the negotiating table in the first place. When these things were apparently removed after the implementation of the JCPOA, Tehran arguably viewed it as license to ramp up illicit activities, as long as they did not directly and blatantly violate the agreement.
Of course, the lack of outright violation does not dispel the often-cited threat of secret activities aimed at shortening Iran’s breakout time for a nuclear weapon following the cancellation or expiration of the nuclear deal. This danger has been eagerly highlighted by the Trump administration as it presses for more comprehensive assessments of Iranian compliance, including assessments based on access to Iranian military sites, which remained off-limits at the unyielding insistence of Iranian negotiators.
Tehran remains strongly defiant on this issue, and on Monday the Associated Press quoted Iranian officials as saying that access to military sites is “a ridiculous dream that will not come true.” Meanwhile, other officials have exacerbated Western concerns by repeating boastful rhetoric about Iran’s potential nuclear capabilities. For instance, Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, has met Western criticisms and sanctions measures by asserting that Iran is prepared to restart full-scale uranium enrichment at an even higher level than before. If this were to happen, it would be virtually impossible for Tehran to explain such accelerated capabilities other than by admitting that the country had been continuing illicit research and development while the JCPOA was still in effect.
This Iranian rhetoric is likely to be among the issues that are raised by Haley when she visits the IAEA this month. It remains to be seen precisely what demands the US will make in the interest of securing greater assurances of compliance. For that matter, it remains to be seen whether Haley will primarily serve the State Department’s ambition for strengthening enforcement of the existing deal, or the president’s project of justifying its cancellation from the American side.