Disregarding Iranian Threats, White House Keeps up Pressure on Nuclear Deal

Within the new context, the ambassador said that the president might leave the final decision to Congress, to which he is required to report on Iran’s compliance every 90 days. Two such deadlines have passed since Trump took office in January, and he has certified Iran’s compliance both times, albeit begrudgingly. When campaigning for office, Trump repeatedly promised to tear up or renegotiate the deal, which he called one of the worst ever negotiated. The next deadline for certification is in October and the president has said that he expects Iran to be deemed out of compliance by then.

This is, however, at odds with the findings of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is tasked with enforcing the deal and inspecting Iran’s specified nuclear sites to make sure that enrichment activities are being held within acceptable levels. The IAEA has repeatedly judged Iran to be in compliance with its obligations, although critics have observed that this judgment involved overlooking minor or temporary violations such as overruns on the Iranian regime’s quota for the nuclear byproduct known as heavy water.

The White House has reportedly urged intelligence agencies to reexamine such downplayed or overlooked violations, in hopes of better supporting the efforts to undermine the JCPOA. But as Haley’s speech pointed out once again, the current argument for the deal’s cancellation hinges less on these issues and more on Iran’s alleged violation of the “spirit” of the agreement, particularly through its neglect of the United Nations Security Council resolution that established the implementation of the JCPOA.

Iranian officials have variously indicated that they might be willing to walk away from the deal on their own if the US continued to exert pressure over these peripheral violations, particularly Iran’s ongoing development of ballistic missiles, which are capable of carrying a nuclear payload. Security Council Resolution 2231 calls upon the Islamic Republic to avoid such work, but Iran has carried out more than half a dozen relevant tests since the JCPOA went into effect, and its officials have repeatedly stated that they will accept no foreign imposition regarding Iran’s military activities.

In the midst of rising tensions between Iran and the US, the Iranians have greatly elaborated on this commentary, as well as committing to the continuation of other provocative moves that are evidently intended as statements of defiance against American pressure. As an example of this latter phenomenon, Fox News reported on Tuesday that the new Iranian Defense Minister Amir Hatami had boasted to Iranian state media about Tehran’s desire to extensively arm its allies in the Middle East, “to prevent war and conflict.”

Iran has already established a firm presence in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen by way of militant proxies, and many of these have been compared to the Lebanese paramilitary Hezbollah, through which Iran has long wielded significant control over that country’s affairs. Hatami did not specify which countries he was referring to when he spoke of Iranian arms shipments, which are still largely banned under international law. But his remarks may have been aimed at vaguely encouraging concerns about the development of an overarching “Shiite crescent” extending from Tehran to the Mediterranean.

Iran’s adversaries, both in the local region and in the West, have expressed serious concern about the growth of this Iranian sphere of influence in the wake of the Syrian Civil War and the nearly concluded fight against Islamic State militants. Hatami’s allusions to the Shiite crescent were paired with references to a “specific plan to boost missile power” in the Islamic Republic. Insofar as this implies the transfer of advanced missile technology to other regional enemies of the US, it highlights the national security concerns that many American commentators are quick to connect to the nuclear deal.

Although Nikki Haley told the American Enterprise Institute that the exact outcome of the White House’s review of the nuclear deal remains uncertain, she also described that deal as implicitly flawed and having an adverse impact on national security. CNN quoted the ambassador as warning against wearing “blinders” and as saying of the JCPOA, “you can’t put lipstick on a pig.” She also suggested that the agreement merely “kicks the can down the road” with respect to the Iranian threat, which she suggested needs to be addressed directly.

At the time of the nuclear negotiations’ conclusion in 2015, it was suggested that the implementation of the JCPOA could be the first step toward broader rapprochement between Iran and the West. But Iranian hardliners quickly acted against those assumptions, ramping up anti-Western rhetoric and barring officials from negotiations with the US over anything other than the nuclear file and resulting business deals.

Iran effectively reaffirmed its anti-Western self-image on Sunday when the country’s judiciary announced that appeals had been rejected for three American citizens and one permanent resident of the US who had been given 10-year sentences in Iran on the basis of unsubstantiated accusations of spying. Newsweek detailed some of these cases on Tuesday, emphasizing their particular mistreatment, including beatings and tasering applied to the Iranian-American businessman Siamak Namazi during his weeks-long periods of solitary confinement.

Reports of the upheld sentences for the four Americans have also tended to point out that an unknown number of citizens of other Western countries have been subjected to similarly questionable arrests and prosecution, as well as mistreatment in the political wards of Iranian prisons. While the identities of many of these individuals are unknown, some have become major activist causes, including the Iranian-British charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, whose two-year-old daughter was taken from her and prevented from returning to the United Kingdom following her arrest last year.

Another Iranian-British political prisoner, Kamal Foroughi, has just marked his 78th birthday while serving his sixth year in Evin Prison. According to informed sources his family and friends organized a rally outside the Iranian regime’s embassy in London to coincide with the occasion and to call attention to the regime’s unexplained refusal to grant him the conditional release for which he was legally eligible after his third year in prison.

The same report points out that Foroughi’s birthday coincides with the one-year anniversary of the resumption of diplomatic relations between the UK and the Islamic Republic. This is significant because it has arguably diminished the British government’s responsiveness to the imprisonment of Western nationals, including its own citizens. Whereas the UK government has been widely criticized for silence on the cases of Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Foroughi, and others, the Trump White House has vocally demanded the release of all wrongly imprisoned Americans.

Following the July announcement of a 10-year sentence for the Princeton graduate student Xiyue Wang, Trump said that there would be new sanctions and serious consequences for the continuation of this crackdown on Western nationals. It is not clear that this same commentary would have emerged if the White House was committed to expanding business relations with Iran under the JCPOA, as many European policymakers and business leaders still appear to be.