On Wednesday, the Washington Post reported that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had urgently reiterated his critical view of the Iran nuclear deal ahead of a planned visit to Washington. In advising US President Donald Trump to either fix or bring an end to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Netanyahu called specific attention to the sunset clause whereby Iran can begin running more nuclear enrichment centrifuges in less than 10 years and can start stockpiling more enriched material in less than 15. CNN noted that the Israeli Prime Minister suggested the loosening of restrictions on the Iranian nuclear program should be based on changes in Iran’s malign behavior and not merely on the passage of time.
It appears certain that Trump will be highly amenable to Netanyahu’s suggestions when the two meet, since both men have been similarly aggressive in their criticism of the JCPOA. While campaigning for office, Trump repeatedly called it the “worst deal even negotiated” and promised to tear it up. Since becoming president, however, he has twice certified to Congress that Iran is living up to its obligations. But since then Trump has also indicated that he would have withheld this certification at the first opportunity if not for the influence of his foreign policy team.
Now, the White House appears to have already taken the initiative to explore changes in line with what Netanyahu will recommend when he speaks to the president directly. Bloomberg News reported on Wednesday that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and other American diplomats had begun meeting with their European counterparts in an effort to convince allied governments to help extend the JCPOA’s restrictions beyond the years identified in the sunset clause.
Iranian officials have preemptively addressed these efforts by highlighting the apparent differences between American and European interests in this situation. For instance, Al Monitor reported on Tuesday that Kamal Kharrazi, the head of Iran’s Strategic Council on Foreign Relations, expressed some confidence that European leaders would break with the US over the nuclear issue. Similar statements had been made previously by the likes of Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, but Kharrazi’s comments placed particular emphasis on the accusation that the US is “really serious about damaging the JCPOA.”
However, the Bloomberg report noted that efforts to correct the perceived inadequacies of the JCPOA would not necessarily undermine the agreement itself. If the US and its allies do attempt to extend restrictions beyond their current expiration dates, it would be through a separate agreement. This approach has the added advantage of allowing for the inclusion of other issues that were not addressed by the agreement, thus opening it up to further criticism. The Trump administration and the US Congress have already expanded sanctions on Iran’s ballistic missile activities, for instance. But the current diplomatic efforts could reinforce these measures with international consensus.
As might be expected, criticism of the JCPOA generally goes hand-in-hand with broader criticism of the Islamic Republic of Iran. This broader criticism certainly characterized Netanyahu’s recent comments, which urged not only a revised Western approach to the nuclear issue but also a stronger position on Iran policy in general. CNN quoted the Israeli Prime Minister as saying, “War is coming because of a soft position on Iran, and a stronger position on Iran would avert war.”
On this point, also, the American president appears to have separately arrived at the same conclusion, and his administration may be poised to act accordingly. As mentioned above, Trump has already imposed new sanctions on Iran’s ballistic missile program and support for terrorism. But now, Reuters reports that the White House is weighing a more aggressive strategy of dealing with Tehran’s overall behavior. The strategy is expected to be publicly announced by the end of the month, but following a National Security meeting last Friday it is projected to include freer rein for American military commanders in dealing with threatening Iranian maneuvers in the Persian Gulf, as well as with suspected Iranian arms smuggling.