Rouhani Threatens Renewed Nuclear Activities, Raising Doubts About Iranian Compliance

On Tuesday, numerous global media outlets picked up on reports in Iranian state media which quoted Iranian President Hassan Rouhani as saying that the country was prepared to dramatically increase its output of enriched nuclear material in response to increasing amounts of pressure from the US government. Both the administration of US President Donald Trump and the US Congress have taken measures in recent months to impose new sanctions on the Islamic Republic and its foreign affiliates over the regime’s illicit ballistic missile tests, human rights violations, and wide-ranging support of terrorist organizations.

The 2015 nuclear agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, provided Iran with tens of billions of dollars’ worth of relief from sanctions specifically levied against the nuclear program that many foreign powers feared would lead to the development of an Iranian nuclear weapon. To earn these, the Islamic Republic committed to a reduction in the number of uranium enrichment centrifuges it was allowed to operate, as well as the quantities and levels of enrichment that it was permitted to keep stockpiled.

Despite minor or temporary violations of these limits, the International Atomic Energy Agency has judged Iran to be generally in compliance with the agreement, and Mr. Trump has signed off on this certification as he is required to do every 90 days. But Trump has also said that if not for the intervention of his foreign policy team, he would have declared Iran out of compliance at the first opportunity, owing to its violation of the “spirit” of the agreement.

These remarks seem to have primarily referred to Iranian ballistic missile tests, of which there have been several since the JCPOA was negotiated by Trump’s predecessor, along with five other world powers and Iran. Although the types of ballistic missiles that Tehran and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps have been testing are capable of carrying nuclear weapons, they are not mentioned in the formal text of the JCPOA. However, a separate United Nations Security Council resolution that was passed at the time of the nuclear deal’s implementation called upon the Islamic Republic to avoid further work on such weapons.

Tehran’s outright denial of this provision has been cited by critics of the deal as evidence that Iran still has long-term designs on the development of a nuclear weapon. And although President Rouhani was instrumental in bringing the negotiations to a successful conclusion during his first term in office, he has repeatedly contributed to the regime’s dismissal of the Security Council’s “imposition” regarding military development.

Rouhani’s latest remarks regarding nuclear enrichment can be regarded as an extension of the same rhetoric, but the new commentary is sure to be seen as an even more serious indictment of his intentions for long-term cooperation with the international community. In an address to Iranian lawmakers regarding US policies and new sanctions, Rouhani said that nuclear enrichment and research could quickly be restarted at a “much more advanced stage… within hours or days.” It is difficult to imagine how such rapid advancement could be possible if Iran had not been continuing undisclosed nuclear activities in secret.

In a statement responding to them, the National Council of Resistance of Iran issued a statement describing Rouhani’s comments as acknowledgement of the fact that the regime is “maintaining facilities to make nuclear bombs.” The NCRI noted, as did various media outlets, that while these particular boasts may have been new to Rouhani himself, they were by no means unprecedented. Last week, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran declared that if Iran decided to break the nuclear agreement over the issue of American sanctions, it could very quickly reach enrichment levels exceeding 20 percent.

Both men, along with other figures in the Iranian regime, continue to justify these sorts of threats by saying that Iran would be justified in breaking the terms of the JCPOA after the US violated its “spirit”. But contrary to Iran, the US has not been seriously accused of material violations in even the “side deals” associated with the nuclear agreement, such as Security Council Resolution 2231. When Iranian officials refer to the spirit of the deal, they are generally highlighting sanctions that have been imposed since the deal was implemented. But the JCPOA does not affect human rights and terrorism-related sanctions, and the US is not barred from imposing more of the same.

Even if Tehran succeeds in convincing the international community that the Islamic Republic is justified in breaking the agreement after the latest American actions, this will not account for why Iran is supposedly capable of higher-level nuclear activity than it should have been if it was abiding by the deal’s terms up to this point. Furthermore, convincing the world of the first point may be difficult, even if many stakeholders in the agreement are somewhat critical of the Trump administration’s handling of the JCPOA.

This is to say that recent threats about higher-level nuclear enrichment are not the only examples of provocative rhetoric directed against the US and its allies. Other such threats and provocations precede Mr. Trump’s inauguration and even the implementation of the nuclear deal. Ballistic missile tests fit into this category, and so do threatening maneuvers made by the Revolutionary Guards against American ships and aircraft in the Persian Gulf.

The Associated Press notes that the US Navy has recorded 14 such incidents around its vessels so far this year. Last year, the total figure was 35, and this represents a dramatic increase over the number of similar incidents in years before the nuclear agreement and the Rouhani presidency. These figures appeared in the context of a report about a new encounter on Sunday, in which an Iranian drone shadowed an American aircraft carrier and flew within 1,000 feet of two F-18s, creating significant danger of mid-air collision.

These sorts of IRGC-led activities have frequently been characterized as hardline efforts to push back against Rouhani’s outreach to the international community, as characterized by the JCPOA. But Rouhani’s recent remarks may cast doubt upon that interpretation, as well as upon the sincerity of Rouhani’s outreach. Furthermore, these remarks come after it was already reported that Rouhani appeared to be quickly distancing himself from his moderate and reformist electoral base in the wake of winning a second term as president on May 19.

Rouhani’s reelection campaign included the reiteration of promises made in his first campaign four years earlier, regarding such matters as the detention of political prisoners and restrictions on the internet and free speech. But in the subsequent three months, he has repeatedly disappointed reformists, as when he said that the release of the Green Movement leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi would depend in large part upon other elements of the regime, including the hardline judiciary.

Rouhani’s reelection was also viewed by some commentators as a referendum on the nuclear deal and the prospect for further interaction with the Western world. But both before and after his reelection, Rouhani failed to challenge the IRGC and other hardline figures over foreign policy in the midst of their provocations. The Iranian president has little power over such matters, which are largely guided by the IRGC and the supreme leader, but reformists have argued that Rouhani could at least exert significant influence over the domestic sphere.

But in this area also, he has failed to take action, sometimes directly violating campaign promises including his assurance that Iranian expatriates could return to their home country without fear of repercussions. Not only has this proven false, but it has exposed significant overlap between Iran’s foreign and domestic policies, since various individuals have been arrested under the Rouhani presidency for either holding dual citizenship or having alleged connections to Iran’s “enemies.”

This overlap and Rouhani’s telling silence about it were put on display on Tuesday when The Guardian reported that Iranian employees and former contributors of the British Broadcasting Corporation had recently been subject to their largest targeted crackdown by the Iranian government. The BBC runs a Persian service that is banned by the clerical regime but nonetheless reportedly reaches 13 million viewers in Iran, thanks to the popularity of illegal satellite receivers and other workarounds for the regime’s restrictions on media.

A new court order identifies 150 current and former employees and contributors for BBC Persian and bars them from financial transactions. The Guardian notes that these new measures come in addition to a longstanding campaign of harassment against the Iranian families of foreign-based employees of the network. The five-year sentence given to the Iranian-British charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is possibly connected to her former affiliation with the BBC. In any event, both that arrest and the broader crackdown are notably indicative of the unchallenged hardline attitudes toward Western powers and the citizens of Western countries.

Insofar as Rouhani’s nuclear-related threats can be connected to this more general antagonism, it may provide further fuel for the Trump administration’s arguments about Iranian non-compliance with the JCPOA, as well as complicating the Rouhani administration’s effort to garner sympathy from US allies that are less eager to bring an end to the nuclear deal.