Insider news & Analysis in Iran

By INU Staff 

INU - On Monday, Agence-France Presse issued a report emphasizing the fact that the White House had apparently still not determined exactly how it would address the issue of the Iran nuclear deal spearheaded by President Trump’s predecessor. The report highlights the perceived successes of the agreement, in terms of lengthening the “breakout time” for Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon. It also notes that the other negotiating parties – the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, and China – all appear to be averse to the notion of renegotiation that was put forward by Donald Trump when he was still just a candidate for office.

However, a Fox News report last week indicated that the European members of this P5+1 group of nations were planning to present the Trump administration with options for tightening the enforcement of the agreement in order to address some of the White House’s concerns. Some have suggested that the agreement is structured in a way that allows for Iran to violate its obligations. But others have attributed this perception to the overall conciliatory nature of the Obama administration’s handling of Iran policy.

In its latest report on the White House’s stance on the future of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Reuters quoted President Trump as saying he wants to “police that contract so tough (the Iranians) don't have a chance.” Meanwhile, the administration’s Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has called for a “full review” of the agreement, with an eye toward strengthening its enforcement to the greatest degree possible.

But these remarks still only characterize the administration’s position in broad strokes, without a clear sense of the precise steps it will take toward strengthening the agreement, undermining it, or both. One might expect that some clarity about these plans would have been established last week following the first meeting between Tillerson and officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is tasked with enforcing the JCPOA. However, neither side of those discussions has revealed any of the specifics of what was discussed.

Both Reuters and AFP quoted IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano as saying, “The new administration of the United States just started and they are looking at various issues - not just this issue but many other issues, so it is very early for them to give their assessment.” What’s more, Reuters suggested that the IAEA had expressed tentative optimism about the administration sticking with the agreement as it currently exists.

Nevertheless, declining to walk away from or dramatically renegotiate the agreement does not necessarily equate to embracing its long-term survival. In fact, it has been suggested that by focusing on other topics of conflict between the US and the Islamic Republic, the Trump administration could exploit Tehran’s own wariness and encourage it to cancel the JCPOA on its own accord.

On the Iranian side, the JCPOA was spearheaded by President Hassan Rouhani, who was elected in 2013 on a relatively moderate campaign platform, which helped to secure his reputation as a more pragmatic politician than many of his colleagues. The subsequent nuclear negotiations went forward with the ostensible approval of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the ultimate authority in all matters of Iranian policy. But Khamenei also ordered his subordinates to avoid all other negotiations with the United States, and after the JCPOA was implemented he began to publicly express skepticism about its value.

There are also other signs that the powers-that-be in Tehran are interested in undermining the agreement or at least distancing themselves from the notion of cooperation with Western powers. One possible sign of this trend emerged months ago when it was reported that one Iranian negotiator in the talks, who also holds Canadian citizenship, had been arrested for reasons that were never made clear. Now, that story has reemerged, with the Associated Press concluding that this dual national was the person being referred to in a report by the Iranian judiciary stating that a member of the negotiating team had been formally indicted.

The incident arguably highlights two simultaneous trends that the Trump administration could utilize to pursue a mutual cancellation or revisit of the agreement. The first is hardliners’ own antagonism toward the JCPOA, but the other is their ongoing persecution of dual nationals, including several Americans who have recently begun long prison sentences over vaguely defined national security crimes.

This is one area of US-Iran relations that the Trump administration has been urged to take an assertive stance on. And President Trump is certainly interested in following such advice, seeing as his campaign-trail commentary on the Islamic Republic was not strictly limited to the nuclear agreement. The New York Times highlighted both the external pressure and the inherent interest driving the administration toward action on this issue.

Specifically, that report noted that administration officials had been in touch with the family of former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who is believed to have been kidnapped by regime officials or affiliates while in Iran on the basis of a private investigation in 2007. Some of those family members accused the Obama administration of ignoring Levinson’s possibly ongoing plight, and their subsequent contacts with the Trump administration have led them to express confidence that it will take a more direct role in resolving the issue of this and other Western hostages who continue to be detained in spite of the concessions granted to the Islamic Republic under the nuclear deal.

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