On Tuesday, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said that President Donald Trump had not yet made a decision about whether the recertify Iranian compliance with the Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The president is required to provide this certification every 90 days, as a term of congressional approval for the 2015 deal, which was spearheaded by Trump’s predecessor.
Trump himself has provided this certification on two occasions already, and the next report to Congress is due in October. However, the previous two decisions to preserve the deal were reportedly made begrudgingly, at the insistence of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and other members of Trump’s foreign policy team. The president has recently indicated that if left to his own devices, he would have cancelled the JCPOA at the first opportunity, in keeping with his campaign trail talking points describing it as the “worst deal ever negotiated.”
Trump’s longstanding aversion to continued JCPOA implementation may cause Haley’s recent remarks to come as a surprise to some. The Washington Post also appeared to suggest that Tehran was not taking those remarks seriously. At issue for Iranian officials was the fact that Haley’s comments preceded her visit on Wednesday to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, where she was to pursue answers to American doubts and concerns regarding Iranian compliance.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry has formally complained about the planned visit, with Foreign Minister Javad Zarif claiming in a letter to IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano that White House was attempting to spread its doubts far beyond the borders of the US. “Even before the visit takes place, the way it is planned and publicized and the signal that it sends have notable detrimental consequences for the successful implementation of the JCPOA,” the letter read.
But Tehran is arguably doing its own part to spread such doubts. Last week, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani offered a provocative response to the Trump administration’s assertive criticisms of the Islamic Republic, and to a congressional sanctions bill that Trump recently signed into law. The supposedly moderate Iranian president said that if the US continued to exert pressure, then Iran would be prepared to walk away from the JCPOA and resume uranium enrichment at an even higher level than before the deal was implemented. Rouhani specified that the Islamic Republic would be able to do this very quickly, “within hours or days.”
This commentary expanded upon previous remarks by figures including Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran. And on Tuesday, Salehi doubled down once again, telling Iranian state television that his organization could oversee an increase from the five percent enriched uranium allowed under the JCPOA, to the 20 percent “in at most five days.” Whereas the applications of five percent enrichment are limited to the power generation and medical research that Tehran insists its nuclear program is for, 20 percent enrichment is eminently capable of being used for the development of a nuclear weapon.
At the same time that the intention to resume this level of enrichment casts renewed doubt upon Tehran’s declared goals, the claim of such ready capability is suspicious in another way. Critics of the nuclear agreement have always maintained that its weak enforcement mechanisms allowed for the Iranians to conduct secretive research and uranium enrichment at sites that were off limits to IAEA inspectors, including Iranian military bases like the Parchin site that has long been suspected of playing a role in weaponization aspects of the nuclear program. Salehi’s and Rouhani’s claims are sure to add fuel to these criticisms, as it is difficult to imagine how such rapid renewal of full-scale enrichment would be possible if Iran had previously been in full compliance.
In reporting upon Salehi’s comments, Al Jazeera points out that the Obama administration and some independent analysts believed the JCPOA would lengthen Iran’s “breakout time” for a nuclear weapon from a few months to over a year. But Salehi’s claim of 20 percent enrichment within only five days may be explicitly intended to imply a much shorter window of time.
This would, of course, be in keeping with the deliberate provocations that are still being carried out against the US and some of its allies by other elements of the Iranian regime. A new editorial that originally appeared at Arab Weekly called attention to the details of the latest close encounters between the US Navy and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps in the international waters of the Persian Gulf, and it stated that “the Iranians seem intent on provoking the Americans into an international conflict.”
Of course, the more pragmatic figures associated with the Rouhani administration have suggested quite different intentions. Salehi said, for instance, that the Islamic Republic remained committed to the nuclear agreement after working hard to secure its negotiation, but also that it would react aggressively if “challenged” by the Americans.
Still, the Arab Weekly editorial suggested that the Iranians were risking a serious cost by provoking the US in the waters of the Middle East. And a similar argument can be made about Salehi and Rouhani’s own provocations, which, although more nuanced, still seem to raise the possibility of an American reaction and possibly even one that is broadly supported by the Western world.
Though President Trump has already seriously considered undermining the JCPOA, his declaration of Iranian non-compliance have tended to rely on the notion that Iran is violating the “spirit” of the deal. But coming just ahead of Ambassador Haley’s visit to the IAEA, Salehi’s “20 percent” comments could amplify the effect that the Iranian Foreign Ministry predicted that visit would have: namely spreading suspicions regarding Iran’s compliance with the actual letter of the deal.
Although Salehi’s and Haley’s comments were reported at around the same time, it is clear that Haley was aware of other, similar comments by both Salehi and Rouhani before she declared that President Trump had not yet come to a decision about certifying Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA. Yet it is possible that the White House is withholding any announcement about specific points of Iran policy until it completes a comprehensive review of that policy itself, which is apparently still pending.
If this is the case, it might also answer concerns that were raised by Kelly Jane Torrance of the Weekly Standard in an interview with Fox News following the White House’s announcement that it had concluded a similar comprehensive review regarding Afghanistan. Torrance noted that Trump’s speech on this matter failed to mention Iran, which has expanded relations with the Afghan Taliban during the past year and promises to have a significant impact on US policy in that country and in the region as a whole. It is quite possible that pundits and the American public will a better sense of the White House’s decision on both this and nuclear compliance once the comprehensive policy review is complete.