However, the administration is seemingly making considerable effort to retain the perception of its own hardline stance toward the Islamic Republic, even while it accepts the political realities of the nuclear agreement and works within them, at least for the time being. In the present case, this effort came in the form of new sanctions against Iran’s ballistic missile activities.
Beginning about three months after the conclusion of nuclear negotiations, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps conducted tests of weapons capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, thus flouting United Nations Security Council resolutions urging the avoidance of such provocations. Several such tests took place while President Obama remained in office, and another was conducted just over a week after President Trump’s inauguration.
The latter test led to the Trump White House issuing a statement putting Iran “on notice” over its ballistic missile work and its destructive influence in the Middle East as a whole. Some additional sanctions had been imposed over this issue by the prior administration and by the current one, and the latest measures broaden the list of sanctioned entities to include specific Iranian defense officials and a Chinese company with alleged business ties to the Iranian ballistic missile program.
The nuclear agreement necessitates the suspension of sanctions related to Iran’s would-be development of a nuclear weapon, but it does not affect other types of sanctions enforcement, although Iranian officials have tried to argue that any new sanctions whatsoever constitute violation of the “spirit” of the JCPOA. For its part, the Trump administration has made similar references to the spirit of the agreement when criticizing Tehran over ballistic missile tests, provocative moves against US Navy vessels passing through the Persian Gulf, and the continuation of nuclear work that stretches the limits of what is allowed under the deal.
Although the International Atomic Energy Agency has certified Iran’s general compliance with the terms of the agreement, the Iranian opposition group the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran released intelligence in April suggesting that the institutions involved in the weaponization of Iran’s nuclear program had remained active.
While such intelligence on its own may not be sufficient justification for the Trump administration violating or cancelling the JCPOA, it may still factor into the “comprehensive Iran policy” that the White House is still formulating, according to Stuart Jones, the top US diplomat in charge of the Middle East.
Canadian Press quoted Jones as saying, “This ongoing review does not diminish the United States’ resolve to continue countering Iran’s destabilizing activity in the region, whether it be supporting the Assad regime, backing terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, or supporting violent militias that undermine governments in Iraq and Yemen. And above all, the United States will never allow the regime in Iran to acquire nuclear weapons.”
The previous administration was widely criticized for a narrow focus on the nuclear issue, which arguably encouraged the provision of unearned sanctions to the Islamic Republic in the interest of preserving the JCPOA. This criticism has in turn been attached to recent, destructive trends in areas of Iranian influence such as Syria, Yemen, and the waters of the Persian Gulf.
On Thursday, Al Jazeera published the results of an analysis of some 1,400 public statements made by Iranian officials from across the political spectrum. One of the key points that it emphasized was widespread agreement about the regime’s commitment to a “political solution” in Syria which excludes the opposition against President Bashar al-Assad. This is almost certainly unrealistic, but Iran now wields power over the diplomatic negotiations in part because it was welcomed into them by the Obama administration.
By contrast, American advisory forces in Syria today have been specifically working to compete against Iran, as illustrated by a recent Riyadh Vision article describing the possibility of those forces and their local allies cutting off a planned Iranian route for linking Tehran to Damascus and the Mediterranean.
The more general takeaway from the Al Jazeera analysis is that neither side of the Iranian political spectrum could realistically be expected to oversee improved relations with the West, or behavior that is more in line with Western interests. Although the Daily Mail predicted that the preservation of the nuclear deal would help the incumbent Hassan Rouhani to stay ahead of his hardline challenger in Friday’s Iranian presidential elections, it seems safe to say that this was not a deliberate intention of the White House.
The Trump administration has demonstrated distrust of the Iranian regime as a whole, regardless of who holds office. In this way, it is more in line with the views of the PMOI, which, apart from sharing intelligence on the regime, had been organizing a boycott of Friday’s elections. Those efforts have specifically promoted regime change, as well as the ten-point plan of PMOI President Maryam Rajavi, which includes the commitment to a non-nuclear future for the country. This commitment is something the Trump administration does not seem to regard as attainable under the current nuclear agreement, or perhaps under the current regime.