The environment in which intelligence agencies are working is one in which the president has evidently made up his mind about how to proceed, even though US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley made statements to the contrary last week. Haley said that the White House is examining the evidence but still maintains that the Islamic Republic is generally untrustworthy and clearly out of compliance with parallel agreements such as UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which calls upon Iran to avoid work on nuclear-capable ballistic missiles.
Haley’s comments came in the context of a visit to the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is tasked with monitoring Iran’s nuclear activities and enforcing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. This visit was met with harsh criticism by Iranian officials, several of whom asserted that the actual American intention was not a neutral assessment of the IAEA’s investigations, but rather the spreading of doubt about the compliance judgments that the IAEA has already made.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry has already sent a formal letter of complaint to the head of the nuclear monitoring agency over this issue, and Daily Trust reported on Monday that the Iranians had also declared their intention to call a meeting of the nuclear negotiating parties, known as the P5+1, within the context of the larger meeting of the UN General Assembly, which is set to take place between September 12 and September 25. The announcement was made by Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, following up on his previous letter referring to “the harassing acts of the Americans” with regard to the nuclear agreement.
On Sunday, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi indicated that Tehran would use the planned meeting to reinforce the notion that inspections of Iranian compliance would only be carried out within the framework of Iran’s own policies. Primarily, this signifies rejection of the idea often voiced in the US and by harsh critics of the Islamic Republic, that effective verification of Iranian compliance depends upon unqualified access to suspect sites within the country, including military sites.
It is not clear whether President Trump is personally convinced that the Islamic Republic is carrying out nuclear research or development at these sites, but The Guardian indicates that focus on military sites is one means by which the White House could precipitate the cancelation or renegotiation of the JCPOA. If the US convinces the IAEA that there is evidence of illicit activities at those sites, the international body can push for and ultimately force inspector access under the terms of the deal. But having made this issue a prominent red line in the past, the Islamic Republic might simply walk away from the deal rather than allow this procedure to proceed.
Thus, suspicious activity at military sites is one piece of intelligence that the Trump administration would very much like to get its hands on. And according to The Guardian, the White House is actively pushing for the revelation of this or any other data that might justify Trump’s decertification of Iranian compliance on the basis of something other than violations of the deal’s “spirit.”
This apparent pressure has led to numerous unfavorable comparisons to the politicization of intelligence regarding weapons of mass destruction in the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq. But The Guardian also quotes David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security as disputing this comparison and noting that “the Obama administration downplayed and even hid violations and problems,” leaving serious questions open about the true extent of Iranian compliance.
The same report quoted Richard Nephew, a member of the JCPOA’s American negotiating team, as saying that there is a responsible way of asking intelligence analysts to sift back through information that has already been looked at and that might have been unjustifiably dismissed.
It is an open question as to whether the Trump administration is following such responsible procedures, as opposed to pushing a pre-determined narrative. But at the same time, the mere existence of pressure on this matter may be leading to the Islamic Republic unwittingly exposing itself to additional scrutiny. As was reported last week, various Iranian officials have responded to that pressure by saying that the country could dramatically increase its levels and quantities of nuclear enrichment in a matter of days.
Although intended as a threat against decertifying Iranian compliance, these remarks may also have the effect of raising questions about how the Islamic Republic could resume nuclear activities at such a high level if it had not been engaged in undisclosed activities while the JCPOA was being enforced.