On Thursday, Fox News published an editorial that was critical both of the 2015 nuclear agreement and US President Donald Trump’s handling of it. Although Trump has repeatedly described the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action as one of the worst deals ever negotiated and has recently indicated that he expects to decertify Iran’s compliance with it in October, the editorial accuses him of failing to make Iran’s nuclear program a priority as he has done with the nuclear threats coming from North Korea.
“Undoing the harm done by the Iran nuclear deal needs to share the top of the agenda,” the article insists. It then goes on to lay out common criticisms of that agreement, including the notion that it is far more beneficial to Iran than to the US or its allies. While supporters of the JCPOA argue that it lengthened Iran’s breakout time for a nuclear weapon and gave the international community more time to address that issue, the editorial counters that what the deal did instead was buy Iran time to continue research and development on some aspects of the nuclear program, thereby reducing its breakout time once the deal expires.
Various recent statements from Iranian officials have seemingly supported this latter interpretation of the situation. Last month, the supposedly moderate Iranian President Hassan Rouhani claimed that the country would be able to act within a matter of days to expand its nuclear enrichment beyond the levels it maintained prior to the implementation of the JCPOA. Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, has made similar statements on multiple occasions.
Iran News Update has previously observed that these remarks – some of which specifically identify a five-day deadline for a benchmark of 20 percent enrichment – cast further doubt upon Iran’s commitment to upholding the nuclear deal.
President Trump’s intention to decertify Iranian compliance is primarily based on the idea that the Iranian regime has been in violation of the “spirit” of the agreement. This peripheral violation includes repeated tests of ballistic missiles, in defiance of a UN Security Council resolution that served as a “side deal” to the JCPOA and called upon the Islamic Republic to avoid work on weapons that are capable of carrying nuclear payloads.
But the recent comments from Rouhani, Salehi, and others represent activities that are much closer to violation of explicit restrictions on levels of nuclear enrichment and number of enrichment centrifuges that the Islamic Republic is permitted to run. As a condition for the implementation of the JCPOA in January 2016, the Iranians were supposed to permanently restructure the Arak heavy water plant by pouring concrete into the plutonium-producing core. The Fox News editorial notes that Rouhani and Salehi have specifically claimed that the Arak core could be reactivated, suggesting that Iran was never in compliance with the initial conditions of the agreement.
What’s more, Al Monitor reported on Tuesday that Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif had said in an interview that the country has kept its nuclear research and development program active. “We currently have much better centrifuges, and the design of the Arak reactor is also very advanced,” he said after reiterating the claim that Iran is capable of immediately reaching a “better point” than before the implementation of the JCPOA. This he contrasted with the resumption of multilateral economic sanctions, which would likely be a slow process involving resistance from some entities that are happy to exploit their newfound access to the Iranian economy.
Zarif’s remarks were reminiscent of certain reports put out by the leading Iranian opposition coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran. Relying on the intelligence network of its main constituent group the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, the NCRI has concluded that at least some of Tehran’s ongoing nuclear activities have been carried out jointly by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Organization of Defensive Innovation and Research, which is the institution that had previously been tasked with the weaponization aspects of the nuclear program.
Despite explicitly highlighting the threat that Iran’s ongoing activities could pose to Western national security, Zarif used the same interview to argue that America’s European allies would not follow the US in reimposing sanctions or otherwise undermining the nuclear agreement. On one hand, this raises questions about the US government’s plans for ramping up pressure on the nuclear program and building consensus within the international community. But on the other hand it arguably contributes to the perception that this pressure is urgently needed, since European aversion to renewed sanctions may only grow more entrenched as European businesses secure economic agreements with state-linked Iranian counterparts.
Last week, it was reported that former US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton had authored a policy brief aimed at advising President Trump about how to build the necessary consensus among established allies and potential partners in a new policy regarding the Iranian nuclear program. Fox News called attention to this fact but also expressed concern about the absence of a serious public response from the White House to this and other calls for action. Bolton had released his plan publicly after complaining that changes in White House staff had made it difficult for him to get close to the president.
Bolton and Fox News are certainly not the only ones to express concern about the White House’s apparent lack of a comprehensive plan on how to proceed after the possible decertification of Iranian compliance. After Trump provided certification to Congress in July as the president is required to do every 90 days, it was announced that his administration would be undertaking a comprehensive review of its Iran policy in advance of the next deadline. But there is no clear indication that such a review was ever concluded and numerous reports on the future of the JCPOA have suggested that analysts are still uncertain about the White House’s overall goals in this area.
Nevertheless, during the past few weeks the administration has dispatched its UN Ambassador Nikki Haley to several meetings with the apparent intention of laying the groundwork for decertification and exploring the possibility of enhanced enforcement of the JCPOA. At a meeting with the International Atomic Energy Agency, Haley criticized the limited extent of international monitors’ access to possible nuclear sites in Iran, particularly military sites. And this week, in an address to the American Enterprise Institute, she argued that the president has firm ground upon which to stand if he chooses decertification.
However, as Voice of America News pointed out on Thursday, that address also seemed to betray a presidential interest in splitting the difference between endorsing the JCPOA and deliberately walking away from it. Haley asserted that discussions of this situation have tended to ignore the fact that decertification does not necessarily mean walking away. Bloomberg explained this point further, pointing out that the president is required to certify not only that Iran is in compliance with the JCPOA but also that the continued enforcement of the agreement is in the national security interest of the United States. This appears to be the very thing that the White House has been addressing as it emphasized the provocative nature of Iranian ballistic missile tests and public statements.
Bloomberg argued that the White House could use this provision to get “the best of both worlds” by affirming the technical continuity of the JCPOA but taking no action regarding its continued enforcement, thereby punting the issue to Congress. But while re-imposition of the sanctions that were suspended by the nuclear deal would be a congressional responsibility, the president has already used presidential authority to levy new sanctions on matters unrelated to Iran’s nuclear activities, as well as signing a congressional sanctions bill that also targeted ballistic missile development and support of terrorism.
These efforts have earned President Trump some praise for those who support a generally assertive policy toward the Islamic Republic. But this has not prevented the perception that the White House is failing to provide clear leadership on the nuclear issue. Voice of America quoted Alex Vatanka of the Washington-based Middle East Institute as saying that “Haley’s speech really didn’t offer us any alternative ways forward” in the event that either the president or Congress moves to walk away from the JCPOA.
Bloomberg made much the same point, saying that neither the White House nor Congress has clearly outlined what they would do in the case of Iran resuming full-scale nuclear activities in response to the re-implementation of US-led sanctions. Nonetheless, it is clear that Trump and his leading advisors are committed to continuing to push back against Iranian rhetoric on this issue and to go on enforcing and even expanding sanctions as far as is allowed by the JCPOA. This was made clear once again on Thursday when Reuters reported that the US had indicted former Turkish Economy Minister Zafer Caglayan and three other Turkish nationals on charges of evading US sanctions on behalf of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Iranian officials have repeatedly insisted that such continued enforcement by the US constitutes its own violation of the “spirit” of the JCPOA. But the White House has shown no more sign of being moved by these arguments than by the apparent ultimatums underlying Tehran’s claims of advanced nuclear capabilities. Still, questions linger as to how the US government will address the broader issue and whether it will exert further pressure on Tehran directly, as opposed to focusing on foreign entities that do business with the Iranian regime.