Following his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Tuesday, US President Donald Trump indicated that he might be prepared to turn his attention to the issue of Iran’s nuclear program and other troubling behaviors. Trump announced on May 8 that the US was pulling out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which had been spearheaded by his predecessor and finalized between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany, in July 2015. He is now describing his plans as the pursuit of a “real deal,” in contrast to an agreement that he had decried for restricting Iran’s nuclear activities only on a temporary basis while failing to address its ballistic missile program or its regional interventions.
Trump’s comments regarding those plans were indicative of the same optimism that characterizes his discussion of the summit with Kim in Singapore. Few material commitments have emerged from that meeting so far, but the American president is confident that the North Korean government will soon begin the process of following through on Kim’s promise of denuclearization. Yet this outcome still faces obstacles, and the Iranian leadership evidently intends to be one of them. As NY Daily News reported on Tuesday, Tehran quickly warned the North Korean dictator against trusting the Trump administration, saying that it might “cancel the agreement before returning home.”
Such statements are presumably aimed partly at preventing the loss of a close partner in anti-Western activities and partly at undermining the legitimacy of Trump’s effort to replace the JCPOA with something stronger.
Iranian activists associated with the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI) have previously uncovered evidence of a North Korean presence at nuclear-related tests within the Islamic Republic, and the two countries have long been suspected of sharing know-how in this area, as well as missile technology. Potential cooperation between North Korea and the US could have the effect of interrupting this exchange, as well as possibly exposing additional secrets about the past military dimensions of the Iranian nuclear program – a topic that was abandoned by international negotiators around the time of the JCPOA’s implementation.
To whatever extent the success of talks between Trump and Kim allow the world to re-focus its attention on Iran’s nuclear program or to obtain new information about it, the likely effect will be greater levels of international support for the White House’s efforts to undermine the JCPOA and improve upon it. There is, of course, some variation among predictions regarding the significance of such a development, but Trump himself has claimed that his withdrawal from the JCPOA has already made Iran “a different country,” meaning that additional international pressure would presumably extend that same transformation.
Specifically, Trump said of the Iranians, “I don’t think they’re so confident right now” with respect to their efforts to establish a permanent foothold in Syria as part of a larger imperial project extending to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. This conclusion was perhaps strengthened by a report published on Tuesday by Newsweek, indicating that Iran-backed militants in Syria have apparently begun dressing up as Syrian military. This goes to show that Tehran is growing more preoccupied with shielding its regional activities from international scrutiny at a time when the regime is already facing pressure to scale back or abandon those activities.
Crucially, that pressure is coming both from foreign powers and from right inside the Islamic Republic, a fact that was highlighted by Haaretz on Monday in a report that indicates Israeli intelligence support’s Trump’s conclusion that his pressure on the Iranian regime is generating results that are even better than expected. One reason for this may have to do with the persistent domestic activism that has been observed all across the Islamic Republic since the outbreak of a nationwide mass uprising at the end of last year. Maryam Rajavi, the president of the PMOI and its parent coalition the National Council of Resistance of Iran predicted that that event would give rise to a “year full of uprisings,” and the various ongoing political demonstrations, labor strikes, and clashes with security forces suggest that she was correct.
Insofar as this has already added to the pressure the regime is facing in the wake of the American pullout of the JCPOA, it will no doubt continue adding to the pressure as the full effects of that pullout go on developing. As the Haaretz report notes, previously suspended economic sanctions are not scheduled to be fully renewed until November. And in the intervening months, the US Treasury will presumably add even more sanctions related to Iran’s human rights violations and support of terrorism, as it has done repeatedly since Trump took office.
In spite of all this, or perhaps because of it, the Iranian regime is still striving to maintain a defiant tone, in keeping with its warning to Kim that Trump should not be trusted to uphold a deal of his own making. That defiance was on clear display when Forbes reported that the Iranian parliament had voted on Sunday to suspend discussions that might have led to the Islamic Republic taking steps toward compliance with the UN’s International Convention for the Suppression of Financing of Terrorism.
The regime had already been slow to pursue such compliance in the wake of the JCPOA, even though it was a necessary prerequisite to being removed from the Financial Action Task Force list of countries that represent a particular risk of money laundering, and thus a risk to would-be foreign investors. The parliament’s vote guarantees that Iran will remain on that list, creating a further barrier to investment, in addition to the effects of US sanction threats. This also strengthens the possibility that international sanctions related to FATF non-compliance will similarly be re-imposed.
In other words, Tehran is effectively opening itself up to increased pressure not just from the US but also from the European defenders of the JCPOA, even at a time when the Islamic Republic is at risk of losing longstanding allies. While North Korea and the US are pursuing talks, another Iran ally, Russia, is reportedly turning away from the defense of Iran’s interests in Syria, instead advocating for the removal of all foreign forces from areas near the border with Israel.
Elsewhere, Iran has made political gains but its future remains uncertain. In Lebanon, for instance, Prime Minister Saad Hariri recently spoke out against interference by Tehran and Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, in the domestic affairs of Middle Eastern nations. According to the Associated Press, Hariri’s comments were made in reply to comments by Suleimani in which he praised the gains made by Hezbollah and other Iran-backed groups in Lebanese parliamentary actions. In 2016, the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council labeled Hezbollah a terrorist group as part of their pushback against what they perceive as destabilizing Iranian influence.
Despite the growing challenges, Tehran persists in downplaying actual and potential losses of allies and trading partners around the world. In regions of established influence, the Iranians express confidence in the triumph of their own proxies over competing domestic forces and forces associated with Iran’s regional adversaries. And in the broader context, Tehran evidently expects its shrinking list of allies to take up the slack for those would-be partners that are fleeing the Iranian market.
On Tuesday, UPI reported upon one of several public statements by Iranian officials claiming that Iran and China had made arrangements to avoid Western sanctions by trading in their national currencies while expanding cooperation in multiple areas. However, there was no confirmation of these claims from the Chinese side, and in any event it is highly unlikely that non-Western business alone will be able to provide the tens of billions of dollars in foreign capital that Iran was determined to need just for upgrades to its oil industry.
This is to say that Iran’s plan-B for its economic future may not be sufficient to interrupt the Trump administration’s plans for exerting what Trump called “brutal” pressure on the regime. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last month that as sanctions on Iran take full effect, the country’s government will find itself “battling to keep its economy alive,” unless it agrees to a series of concessions regarding nuclear activity, missile development, and regional interference.