On Thursday, The Hill reported that White House aides were preparing a strategic plan for American withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. It is not yet clear whether President Donald Trump will in fact initiate that pull-out, but the US and its European allies are quickly moving toward a May 12 deadline for fixing the “terrible flaws” that Trump sees in a deal he has called the worst ever negotiated.
If Congress and the European signatories to the JCPOA do not agree upon a plan of action before that deadline, Trump is expected to refuse the sanctions waivers that are scheduled to then be renewed. This would effectively end American participation in the deal, but The Hill indicates that there are still open questions about how the change will be managed.
Previous analyses have analyzed the administration’s options in terms of differing levels of aggression. The quiet re-imposition of sanctions would presumably have a different global impact than re-imposition accompanied by a formal declaration of withdrawal. Additionally, the re-imposed sanctions could be limited to those which target Iran directly, or they could target all entities doing business with Iran, thus putting much greater pressure on the Europeans. White House aides have also reportedly indicated that they are considering delaying the sanctions in order to give other countries time to respond, or even allowing the UK, Germany, and France to remain parties to the JCPOA over the long term.
Even if the administration opts for this latter, softer alternative, it is by no means clear that the JCPOA would actually be able to survive in the mist of stepped-up economic pressure from the US. Since soon after the deal was implemented in January 2016, Iranian officials have been complaining about supposed American violations of the “spirit” of that agreement, via the maintenance of non-nuclear sanctions and the alleged discouragement of Western investment in the Islamic Republic. At various times, these complaints have risen to the level of Tehran threatening to pull out of the deal unless greater benefits accrue.
On Thursday, at an international security conference in Moscow, Iranian Defense Minister Amir Hatami reiterated his government’s complaints in the context of the imminent threat posed to the JCPOA by the Trump administration. Press TV, the English-language Iranian propaganda network, quoted Hatami as saying, “Under baseless pretexts and due to its lack of commitment to international accords, the US is making efforts to prevent our country from [collecting] the dividends of this deal.”
The defense minister’s remarks did not, however, include any explicit threats of unilateral retaliation. But they did call upon the other five signatories to the JCPOA, along with the international community as a whole, to put pressure on the White House over its “commitments”. In talks with his Pakistani counterpart during the same meeting, Hatami also urged the expansion of a united front against Western influence in the region.
The non-European signatories to the JCPOA, Russia and China, are widely viewed as potential anchor points in an eastern bloc that could seriously challenge Western interests across the globe, with participation from Iran.
But while Russia and China can be expected to defend Iran’s position on the JCPOA in the face of the Trump administration’s threats, it remains unlikely that Hatami’s outreach to the international community will find a receptive audience among close European allies of the US. The prospect of large-scale European pressure on the US is made more remote by the fact that influential measures like sanctions can only be adopted by the European Union in the wake of unanimous agreement.
The other side of this issue, as The Tower pointed out on Tuesday, is that the demand for unanimity makes it all the more unlikely that Trump’s demands for fixing the JCPOA will be satisfied by the May deadline. That report noted that while the UK, Germany, and France have already advocated for new sanctions on Iran’s ballistic missile program, the leadership of the EU has pushed back against this.
Restraints on ballistic missile activities are one of the benchmarks for improvement of the JCPOA set by President Trump. Presently, the agreement does not address the issue of nuclear-capable missiles, although the United Nations Security Council resolution governing the deal’s implementation did call upon Iran to avoid work on such weapons. This provision has, however, been ignored by Tehran, and the Washington Free Beacon pointed out on Thursday that Iran has tested 23 ballistic missiles since the conclusion of nuclear negotiations, 14 of which were capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.
These figures were highlighted in the context of the Free Beacon’s synopsis of a report prepared by Jacob Nagel of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies regarding the flaws in the JCPOA. That report underscores each of the points highlighted by the Trump administration. Apart from the ballistic missile issue, these include the limited scope of international inspectors’ access to Iranian sites and sunset provisions that allow Iran to greatly expand its nuclear enrichment activities after the deal has been in effect for 10 years.
According to Nagel, the threat posed by those sunset provisions is made much greater by loopholes in the JCPOA which allow Iran to continue working on advanced enrichment centrifuge technology. Taken together, these two aspects of the agreement mean that Iran may be able to install equipment several years from now which allows the country to sprint toward a nuclear weapon by enriching uranium at least 15 times faster than it previously could.
Indeed, Iranian officials have themselves teased this potential capability, counterintuitively using it as a means of pressuring the US to remain in the deal as it is written. Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, appeared to repeat the relevant threat once again on Thursday, in response to the latest threats to the future of the JCPOA.
Press TV quoted Salehi as saying, “The enemies should know that in case of a JCPOA rollback… and when the high ranking officials decide, there will be a special surprise for those who scuttle the agreement.” While his phrasing in this case is vague, Salehi and others have previously declared that Iran would retaliate against the deal’s collapse by immediately unveiling nuclear enrichment capabilities that far outpace the country’s capabilities just prior to implementation.
But the lack of an explicit threat in Salehi’s latest message may be meaningful, as may be the fact that Amir Hatami called for international pressure in his remarks, instead of boasting of a potential unilateral response. The potential significance was highlighted by the Washington Institute on Thursday in its analysis of the speech delivered by Supreme Leader Khamenei in Mashhad on the occasion of the Iranian New Year holiday, Nowruz, on March 21.
The analysis described that annual speech as the most important gauge of the regime’s policies, preoccupations, and anxieties. And to the likely surprise of everyone, the latest such speech did not mention the nuclear agreement at all, despite the fact that it is under imminent threat. The Washington Institute suggested that Khamenei’s awareness of that threat has made him wary of issuing threats that his regime might soon be challenged to back up with action. That wariness may also be amplified by the regime’s domestic crises, which raise the stakes for opening up new forms of conflict with powerful foreign adversaries.
At the end of 2017 and the beginning of 2018, anti-government protests spread across every major city and town in Iran, giving rise of chants of “death to the dictator,” in reference to Khamenei. In an interview with Bloomberg published on Thursday, the renowned Iranian human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi suggested that such unrest was evidence that the Iranian people had “reached the point and realized this system is not reformable.”
The Washington Institute argued in its analysis that instead of addressing the nuclear deal or focusing on confrontation of Western “arrogance,” Khamenei attempted to emphasize the supposed domestic merits of the theocratic system, precisely because he had come to recognize “that more and more Iranians reject the regime's political legitimacy” and are accordingly threatening its hold on power.