In Vienna and Beyond, Concerns Are Raised About Iran's Nuclear and Regional Activities

Nikki Haley, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, was in Vienna on Wednesday for meetings with officials in the International Atomic Energy Agency. As was reported ahead of those meetings, their declared purpose was to address American concerns and questions about the ongoing implementation of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Those advance reports also indicated that Iranian officials had taken exception to Haley’s visit, with the Iranian Foreign Ministry writing an official letter to IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano and complaining that meetings were really intended to sow the seeds of doubt in the international community regarding Iran’s compliance with the deal.

That compliance has been an open question virtually since the JCPOA was implemented at the beginning of last year. And that question has been repeated more insistently since Donald Trump assumed the American presidency at the start of the current year. Interestingly, Haley’s visit was immediately preceded by her claim that the Trump administration had not yet made a determination about whether it would certify Iran’s compliance in October, when the president is next required to provide such certification to Congress, which is due every 90 days.

Voice of America News reported upon the content of Haley’s meetings shortly after they took place, and the report arguably supported both sides’ characterizations of her trip. On one hand, the ambassador’s communications with the nuclear authority did indeed seek specific clarifications, particularly about the extent of IAEA inspectors’ access to known or suspected Iranian nuclear facilities. But on the other hand, Haley reportedly took her visit as an opportunity to warn the IAEA about the possibility of Tehran exploiting vague language in the nuclear agreement to push the boundaries of compliance.

The White House’s certifications have been based in large part upon IAEA reports establishing general Iranian compliance. But these reports have acknowledged minor violations, such as brief excesses of materials that are limited under the JCPOA. This has arguably fueled Western suspicions about the possibility that further violations are ongoing either in between planned inspections or at sites to which the IAEA does not have access. Furthermore, the Trump administration and especially the president himself have maintained that Iran is not complying with the “spirit” of the JCPOA, as evidenced in part by ballistic missile tests that violate a parallel UN Security Council resolution.

In her comments prior to the Vienna visit, Haley tempered her claim of a still-pending certification decision by reiterating the administration’s view that Iran has proven itself to be generally untrustworthy, especially by virtue of its repeated violations of other directives. Previously, President Trump predicted that Iran would be judged noncompliant in October, and he added that if not for the intervention of his foreign policy team, he would have passed this judgement before Congress the first time he came up against a certification deadline.

In light of this general context, it seems fair to say that Tehran’s suspicions of Haley’s visit are not unfounded, but neither are the White House’s suspicions of Tehran. And following recent US enforcement measures on other matters, including Iran’s ballistic missile tests and terrorist sponsorship, the Iranian government exacerbated those suspicions by repeatedly claiming that it could quickly resume full-scale nuclear activities in a very short period of time. A day ahead of Haley’s trip to Vienna, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran asserted that the nuclear program would be reach 20 percent enrichment in less than five days if the US pushed the nuclear deal toward cancellation.

Stronger Pushback Elsewhere

Nevertheless, Haley’s warnings to the IAEA appeared to be far from unequivocal, and did leave room for the IAEA to convince the US government that it would be worthwhile to certify Iran’s compliance once again. But other warnings about different Iranian activities have been far more definitive; and not all of these are coming from the United States.

The Associated Press reported on Wednesday that the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had met with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss what he called Iran’s “escalated effort to base itself militarily in Syria.” Netanyahu called attention to the fact that Iran already exerts much control over Lebanon, and is gradually expanding its control over Iraq and Yemen to match. He added that it would be unacceptable if the defeat of the Islamic State in Syria led to that terrorist group being replaced by Iran-backed entities. The Israeli leader described this potential outcome as “a danger to Israel, the Middle East and in my estimation, the entire world.”

Fox News adds that in the meeting – the sixth of its kind since Russia became directly involved in the Syrian Civil War at Iran’s behest – Netanyahu hinted at the possibility of unilateral Israeli action to keep Iran from developing a deeper foothold in Syria. But by communicating this warning to the Russian government, Netanyahu seemed to also be hinting that the possibility that Moscow could still adjust its regional policies to help rein in Tehran. The Russian government has shown various signs of being increasingly closely aligned with the Islamic Republic at a time when both are facing pressures from the US and its allies. But Russia has also maintained close ties with Iran’s sworn enemy, Israel, making the future dividing lines in regional conflicts somewhat less clear.

At the height of the Syrian Civil War, various international analysts suggested that divergent Russian and Iranian interests in the region might eventually harm the alliance. This evidently has not yet come to pass, but Netanyahu expressed sustained optimism on Wednesday, saying that his past interactions with Putin had served both Israeli and Russian interests, and that the same thing appeared to be true of the latest meeting.

Tensions Getting Better or Worse?

Another report on Wednesday cast a different sort of doubt upon the nature and extent of the tensions and alliances in the region. Al Jazeera reported that Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had announced plans for mutual diplomatic visits between Iran and regional rival Saudi Arabia. Zarif suggested that these visits could take place as soon as the first week of September, immediately after the end of the hajj pilgrimage. This claim is sure to be regarded with surprise by many observers who had been following the dramatic expansion in tensions between the two states.

Tehran has clearly contributed to these tensions, as when it accused the Saudis of being behind a pair of Islamic State attacks in the Iranian capital in June. But the Iranian government has also periodically tried to downplay the tensions, or at least Tehran’s part in them, perhaps in the interest of making Iran seem like a more stable target for investors in the wake of the nuclear agreement. These facts may put Zarif’s claims of diplomatic exchange in a different light, especially as Saudi Arabia continues to act along the same lines as Israel in pushing back against Tehran’s regional influence.

This pushback was the subject of an AFP report on Wednesday, which affirmed that the Saudis and their established allies are still pursuing closer ties with Iraqi power players in the hopes of preventing Iran from establishing a long-term presence there after the defeat of Islamic State militants. The report notes that border openings between Iraq and Saudi Arabia challenge Iranian dominance over Iraq’s imports at a crucial time for Iran’s efforts to spur its own economic recovery.

Furthermore, the AFP report indicates that the Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has expanded his push for the dismantling of Iran-backed paramilitary forces in Iraq, following his visits to both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. This situation also shows the regional divisions to be more complicated that they might appear at a glance, because Sadr led Shiite militias in fighting the US forces during their occupation of Iraq.

Nevertheless, this seems to indicate that between suspicions about Iran’s nuclear ambitions and its pursuit of regional hegemony, there are various opportunities for parties with otherwise divergent interests to find common cause in putting pressure on the Islamic Republic of Iran.

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