US Certifies Nuclear Compliance but Pursues Assertive Policies, Over Iran's Complaints

On Monday, it was reported that US President Donald Trump had certified Iran’s basic compliance with the 2015 Iran nuclear deal after lengthy discussion with his foreign policy team. The president is required to provide evidence of Iran’s compliance to Congress every 90 days, in absence of which congressional sanctions on the Iranian nuclear program would be rapidly re-imposed. Monday marked the second such deadline under the Trump administration, and in both cases there were substantial doubts about the White House’s willingness to affirm the findings of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is tasked with inspecting Iran with regard to the deal’s restrictions on nuclear stockpiles and enrichment activities.

Accordingly, the Los Angeles Times reported on Tuesday that the latest certification decision came down to “last minute drama” as the president signaled a desire to push forward with his campaign-trail promise to rip up the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which he referred to as the “worst deal ever negotiated.” Such action was apparently opposed by some of his top advisors, who indicated that US allies and the other signatories to the deal would need advance notice before the US moved unilaterally to dismantle it.

In an apparent effort to reconcile this advice with his commitment to hardline policies on Iran, the president asked for plans as to how to continue getting tougher on the Islamic Republic while the JCPOA remained in place. The substance of the resulting plans seemingly came into focus on Tuesday, when the White House announced the imposition of yet more sanctions on individuals and entities with alleged ties to the Iranian military, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and the country’s controversial ballistic missile program.

Eighteen individuals and business entities were targeted by these new sanctions, 16 of them being Iranian, one Turkish, and one Chinese. In concert with the announcement of the sanctions, the US State Department cited specific motivating factors behind the measure, including the Iranian military’s support of fast-attack boats that are generally operated by the IRGC and have been used in the harassment of US Navy vessels transiting the Persian Gulf.

This is one of a number of activities that the Islamic Republic has used to demonstrate defiance of the US. The ongoing development and testing of ballistic missiles is another, and the underlying defiance has been directed not just against the US but also the United Nations and Iran’s regional adversaries. UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which was passed alongside the implementation of the nuclear agreement, calls for Iran to avoid work on weapons like ballistic missiles, which are capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. Iran’s compliance with that resolution is a separate issue from its compliance with the JCPOA, but it has been raised by the US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley on more than one recent occasion to highlight he continuation of Iranian misbehavior.

“Iran’s other malign activities are serving to undercut whatever 'positive contributions' to regional and international peace and security were intended to emerge [from the JCPOA],” the State Department’s commentary on the new sanctions explained. In an earlier address to the UN Security Council, Haley cited these activities, including ballistic missile work and regional provocations, as symbols of the “true nature” of the Iranian regime.

Last month, the IRGC actually deployed half a dozen ballistic missiles in an attack on ISIL targets in eastern Syria, but at least one general in the hardline paramilitary opined that the attack would be a message for the US and Saudi Arabia, among others. What’s more, high-ranking regime officials including the supposedly moderate President Hassan Rouhani have repeatedly affirmed that they will continue developing ballistic missiles as part of a more general military buildup, regardless of international disapproval.

These facts arguably indicate that Iran is becoming more dangerous over time, and thus they supplement Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s declaration to Congress on Monday that the Islamic Republic is already “one of the most dangerous [adversaries] to U.S. interests and regional stability.” Like Trump, Tillerson has been extremely critical of the Iranian regime since first taking office, at which point he advocated for a full review of the JCPOA, with an eye toward strengthening its enforcement.

More recently, and in light of political realities surrounding the nuclear deal, the administration as a whole seems to have shifted focus away from enforcement on this particular issue and toward confronting Iran over parallel issues. On Tuesday, UPI quoted one unnamed official as saying the White House “intends to employ a strategy that will address the totality of Iran's malign behavior.” But that official and others also said the administration now intends to work together with allies to address perceived flaws in the JCPOA, although they declined to elaborate.

Both the sanctions announcement and this more general commentary met with a predictably critical response from Iranian officials. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said, for instance, that he perceived the Trump’s affirmation of Iranian compliance and his pursuit of additional pressure on other issues to send “contradictory signals”. According to the UK’s Daily Telegraph, Zarif then went on to say that “creates the impression in Iran that the United States' hostility toward Iran will never end.”

Of course, the above-mentioned provocations and Iran’s widely recognized status as the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism are all regarded by American and other Western policymakers as signs of greater hostility on the Iranian side. Zarif’s criticisms were immediately belied by a vote in the Iranian parliament that was described as an urgent measure to respond to US “adventurism” in the Middle East.

According to AFP, the bill orders a 260 million dollar increase for missile development programs under the regular Iranian military, and an increase in the same amount for the Revolutionary Guars’ foreign operations wing, the Quds Force, which is responsible for much of the Islamic Republic’s support of terrorism and its intervention into regional conflict zones including Syria and Yemen. These interventions and terrorist activities were also specifically highlighted by State Department remarks on Monday and Tuesday.

Many critics of the JCPOA have observed that Iran’s anti-Western rhetoric and provocations have actually increased in the two years since negotiations concluded. These actions are not limited to the maritime confrontations and ballistic missile tests but also include law enforcement crackdowns on dual nationals and native Iranians who have alleged ties to Western entities, or even sympathy for Western lifestyles.

Details emerged on Tuesday about another in a series of dual nationals, after the Iranian judiciary announced that it had handed down a 10-year prison sentence for an unnamed individual who was later identified as the Chinese-American Princeton graduate student Xiywe Wang. According to the Associated Press, the 36-year-old was doing research for his doctorate in Eurasian history when he was arrested and accused of espionage on the basis of his having scanned thousands of pages of documents – something that his advising professor described as “standard scholarly practice”.

Wang joins several others who have been sentenced in recent months on vaguely substantiated accusations of spying, including the San Francisco resident and prospective graduate student Robin Shahini, the information technology expert Nizar Zakka, the Iranian-American businessman Siamak Namazi, and his father Baquer.