On Tuesday, Reuters reported that US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had acknowledged differences of perspective between himself and President Trump regarding the future of the Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Last month, the president provided Congress with certification of Iranian compliance with the deal, despite the fact that his presidential campaign had repeatedly promised the cancellation of the agreement, which Trump described as the “worst deal ever negotiated.” Tillerson was given much of the credit for the latest certification, which was offered only begrudgingly by the president after his foreign policy team insisted that unilateral cancellation of the deal would alienate fellow signatories and US allies, thereby working against American interests in the long run.
Tillerson’s recent comments clarified that he has been discussing the issue with Trump and attempting to focus attention upon how the agreement and its vigorous enforcement could be used to advance the administration’s broader agenda for Iran. This is potentially made more significant by the fact that the White House announced it was undertaking a comprehensive review of its Iran policy, immediately following the certification of Iranian compliance. This roughly coincided with the nearly unanimous congressional votes in favor of a new sanctions bill, part of which targets the Islamic Republic over its ballistic missile activities and support of terrorism.
Before taking his position in the administration, Tillerson generally echoed Trump’s criticisms of the JCPOA, but even then his public comments appeared to call for the deal to be reviewed with an eye toward strengthening its enforcement, not cancelling it outright. Accordingly, the Reuters report describes Tillerson as having a more “nuanced” view of the issue than the president. Nevertheless, Iranian officials have made no serious distinction between their criticism of the two White House figures. In an example of this trend, Iran’s state-run English-language propaganda network, Press TV published an article on Tuesday that described the Secretary of State as “repeating the Trump administration’s anti-Iran allegations.”
The Press TV statement noted that the administration has accused Iran of being out of compliance with the “spirit” of the nuclear deal, a claim that Tehran has also made and continues to make of the US. Press TV went on to assert that the International Atomic Energy Agency had declared the Islamic Republic to be in “full compliance,” thus undermining the White House’s efforts to increase sanctions. But in reality, most reports on the IAEA’s findings have acknowledged that the international monitoring agency recognized minor violations, such as Iran briefly exceeding limits on heavy water stockpiles, but dismissed these as not serious enough to endanger the deal in its entirety.
It is presumably with respect to these minor violations that Tillerson and other Western critics would like to see an expansion in international enforcement measures. But as Reuters points out, it is presently unlikely that European powers will go along with the US if it decides to re-implement sanctions. On the other hand, this is not to say that that recent American measures imposing new sanctions on the Islamic Republic are in violation of the nuclear deal. Iranian officials have repeatedly attempted to make this claim, however, often referencing the deal’s “spirit,” in much the same way the White House does when talking about peripheral Iranian violations.
On Tuesday, it was reported that Tehran had formally complained to the United Nations for the first time since the nuclear deal was implemented, insisting that the just-passed American sanctions constitute a violation of the deal. But on Wednesday, the United States, United Kingdom, France, and Germany issued a complaint of their own, focusing on ballistic missile tests that have been carried out in defiance of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231, which was passed at the same time as the JCPOA’s implementation.
The US President’s certification of Iranian compliance, which is due before Congress every 90 days, refers not only to the JCPOA itself but also to Resolution 2231 and other so-called side deals. That resolution “calls upon” the Islamic Republic to avoid work on weapons that are “designed to be capable” of carrying nuclear warheads. The vague language has allowed Tehran to argue that the given provision should be regarded as a non-binding recommendation, and also that it refers to weapons that are intended for a different purpose, regardless of their capabilities.
On Thursday, the Associated Press reported that Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had built upon these talking points by essentially accusing the United States of anti-Iranian hysteria. “You launch a satellite-carrying missile, they make noise,” he said, adding, “The response to the hostility is to become stronger.” This was similar to the language used in earlier statements by the supposedly moderate Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who rejected what he characterized as foreign imposition over the country’s military development. Rouhani said that “the Islamic nation has chosen to be strong,” and he vowed that ballistic missile development would increase.
In July, immediately following the House of Representatives’ vote on new Iran sanctions, the Iranian parliament voted to devote more than a quarter of a billion dollars in new funding for the missile program, as well as providing the same funding increase to the foreign special operations Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. Thursday’s AP report added that Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi had vaguely referenced additional measures to “improve” Iran’s armed forces as a specific reaction to the new US sanctions.
While these sorts of comments from Iranian officials are clearly based on outright dismissal of criticisms coming from the likes of Trump and Tillerson, they also ser ve to highlight the rationale behind the White House’s efforts to tighten existing restrictions and portray the Islamic Republic as being unwilling to cooperate with the international community. The disagreements between individual White House officials suggest that those efforts could be taking a more extreme form than they currently are. But as Iran continues to meet criticisms with defiance, it may become easier for Trump’s hardline perspectives to prevail over those of his foreign policy advisors.