It was widely reported on Thursday that the United States had made two contrasting moves with regard to Iran sanctions and the 2015 nuclear agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. These come as the White House faced a deadline for reauthorizing the suspension of sanctions identified by the JCPOA. In absence of presidential reauthorization, those sanctions would be automatically retriggered at the end of any given 120 day period. The Trump administration elected to grant reauthorization in this case but also imposed new sanctions while it continues to wrestle with the prospect of withholding certification of Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal.
Under the law granting congressional acceptance to the JCPOA, the president is also required to provide Congress with certification that Iran is staying true to its obligations every 90 days. Two of these deadlines have passed since Trump took office, and he provided certification in both cases, although it has been reported that he did so begrudgingly. After the most recent certification, Trump told reporters that he would have declared Iran out of compliance at his first opportunity, if not for the influence of foreign policy advisors who believe that unilateral decertification would put the US at odds with some of its allies and be more harmful than beneficial to American national security.
Thursday’s developments arguably reflect this tension between Trump’s hardline position on the JCPOA and the pragmatic calculations of his foreign policy team. In fact, there has already been much speculation that the Trump administration would strive to split the difference between endorsing and directly undermining the nuclear agreement. This speculation was fueled, for instance, by the speech given to the American Enterprise Institute earlier this month by Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations. In it, she emphasized that if Trump decertified Iranian compliance, it would not necessarily mean that the US was walking away from the JCPOA.
Since then, a number of reports have suggested that the president might “punt” the issue of continued enforcement of the nuclear deal to Congress, while his administration pursued other means of putting pressure on Iran over the nuclear issues and other matters of malign behavior by the clerical regime. The combination of new ballistic missile and cyberterrorism-related sanctions with the ongoing suspension of nuclear sanctions seems to uphold this expectation. The Associated Press reports that the new sanctions target 11 individuals and companies with alleged connections to known cyberattacks that targeted American infrastructure, as well as to the several ballistic missile tests that have been carried out since the conclusion of JCPOA negotiations in 2015.
The ballistic missile tests have become a hot button issue and a major focus of President Trump’s allegation that the Islamic Republic is routinely violating the “sprit” of the nuclear agreement. Although ballistic missiles are not directly addressed in the JCPOA itself, the UN resolution that oversaw implementation of the JCPOA also called upon the Iranians to avoid work on weapons that are designed to be capable of carrying a nuclear payload. Iran has effectively ignored that provision, arguing that it is not mandatory and that the Islamic Republic will accept no foreign imposition with regard to its military development.
This notion of foreign imposition is also driving persistent discord about the level of access given to international inspectors who are tasked with verifying Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA. The International Atomic Energy Agency has repeatedly said that the Islamic Republic is upholding its end (notwithstanding minor violations such as briefly exceeding restrictions on levels of nuclear enrichment and quantities of stockpiled nuclear byproducts), but the IAEA’s findings have been called into question by critics of the nuclear deal who believe that Iran has been left with too many opportunities to continue concealing relevant activities.
Of particular issue is the supposed lack of access to Iranian military sites such as the base at Parchin, where the Iranian regime evidently undertook nuclear weaponization experiments. NPR issued a report on Thursday that examined the controversy over these sites and highlighted the fact that this is a major topic of debate as the White House reconsiders its approach to the nuclear deal.
That report noted that the IAEA has refuted criticism of limited access, with Director General Yukiya Amano claiming that nothing is explicitly off limits and that “we do not distinguish between civilian sites and military ones.” But the report goes on to acknowledge that such statements do not necessarily mean the IAEA has actually requested or been granted access to military sites. Meanwhile, Iran gives a much different public assessment of the situation, flatly declaring that no foreign entities are permitted to visit Iranian military sites, something that Iranian officials say would constitute a threat to national security.
But Western critics believe that limited inspector access is an inherent threat to not just national but global security, as it preserves the possibility of illicit nuclear activities being carried out under the nose of those who are charged with enforcing the JCPOA. The NPR report indicates that this criticism was recently expressed in a memo by former IAEA official Olli Heinonen and David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security. That document suggests that access to Iranian military sites out to be routine, as opposed to being the potential result of a more than three-week mediation process involving a regime that is likely to use that time to hide evidence of malfeasance.
Albright and Heinonen’s memo is certainly not the only piece of formal criticism that has been circulating on Capitol Hill as the Trump administration weighs the nuclear agreement and its overall Iran policy. Foreign Policy Magazine reported upon another of these, which urges the US government to establish the threat of a “de facto global economic embargo.” This, in theory, would convince the Iranians that they do not have time to “break out” to nuclear weapons capability while the US is reviewing its strategy, because illicit activities would trigger a severe economic collapse.
The obvious challenge facing this approach has to do with the need for international consensus in order to make it work. But at the same time, the document itself argues that this strategy answers the much-downplayed question of what comes next after the Trump administration’s potential decertification of Iranian compliance. Critics of the strategy have suggested that Iran might utilize decertification to drive an economic wedge between the US and its allies. And indeed, a number of Iranian officials have boasted that if faced with an ultimatum from the US, many European leaders would choose to continue pursuing economic ties with Iran rather than reversing the terms of the JCPOA.
This only serves to further highlight the need for international consensus, and this is something that the Trump administration already appears to be working on, even in the wake of its extension of sanctions relief. NBC News reported on Thursday that American diplomats and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson were speaking to European counterparts against the backdrop of the UN General Assembly and urging them to keep their distance from the Islamic Republic at least until “fatal flaws” in the nuclear agreement are worked out.
The “economic embargo” memo reportedly began independently circulating on Capitol Hill in part because of the exit of notable Iran hawks from the Trump administration. This development has led to concerns that the president’s commitments to moving against the JCPOA and formalizing an assertive policy toward the Islamic Republic might be waning. The simultaneous extension and imposition of different sanctions may be seen to reinforce uncertainty about US policy toward Iran, which remains under a period of review. But statements from the current leading figures in the administration may also suggest that the White House is simply biding its time, not reversing course.
This is perhaps underscored by Tillerson’s statement that the administration is considering the JCPOA only as one part of a single, overarching Iran policy. “We must take into account the totality of Iranian threats, not just its nuclear capabilities,” he said.
Additionally, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said that the extension of sanctions relief under the JCPOA “should not be seen as an indication of President Trump or his administration's position on the (nuclear deal), nor is the waiver giving the Iranian regime a pass on its broad range of malign behavior.” Nauert explicitly emphasized that the sanctions waivers had been approved to “maintain some flexibility” while consulting with American lawmakers and foreign allies with respect to a comprehensive Iran policy.
Although the policy review has not been concluded, an announcement is expected before the president must make a decision on certification of Iranian compliance. Various details of the anticipated policy have already been shared with the media. They include stronger responses to Iranian arms smuggling, missile tests, and naval provocation, as well as expanded ties with pro-democratic groups inside Iran. In June, Secretary of State Tillerson told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that US policy should include “support of those elements inside of Iran that would lead to a peaceful transition of that government.”