Insider news & Analysis in Iran

By INU Staff

INU - When US President Donald Trump refused to certify Iran’s compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in October, he did so in spite of international support for the nuclear agreement. The International Atomic Energy Agency has repeatedly affirmed that Iran is upholding its essential obligations under the deal, but the Trump administration maintains that a range of Iranian activities constitute violations of its spirit.

There is grounds for serious debate over whether this perception justifies an American pullout of the agreement, which Trump might order in the coming month. Following the decertification, Congress had 60 days to consider whether to re-impose nuclear-related sanctions that had been suspended. But that deadline lapsed last week without action, leaving the president in the position of deciding whether or not to extend the relevant sanction waivers.

Whatever position one takes in that debate, he or she must contend with apparent contradictions in the Iranian regime’s own commentary on the JCPOA and its future. On one hand, numerous officials have insisted that they are living up to their bargain; but on the other hand, many have also boastfully suggested that the agreement had little to no impact on Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

Both of these narratives are used to similar effect in state propaganda. That is to say, they underscore the regime’s hardline anti-Western self-image, simultaneously suggesting that the United States is being needlessly aggressive or unlawfully undermining the agreement, and that the agreement itself was a one-sided victory for the Islamic Republic. This latter position is, of course, shared by President Trump, who has called the JCPOA “the worst deal ever negotiated”.

The irony of this alignment is made more apparent when Iran makes an argument that is similar to that of the Trump administration insofar as it maintains that the other party can violate the spirit of the deal, even without violating its explicit terms. In particular, Tehran has repeatedly blamed the US for the slow pace of Iran’s economic recovery, asserting that American leaders are obstructing legitimate business relationships between other Western nations and Iran.

Although the US Congress has begun considering legislation that would block or place conditions on the transfers of American-made aircraft and related equipment to the Islamic Republic, the Iranian impulse to blame such measures for the absent recovery is arguably undermined by international assessments of the Iranian economy, including that which was recently released by the International Monetary Fund.

Reuters indicates that that report credited the Iranian economy with moderate growth. But it also noted that the future continuation of that growth is threatened by the absence of bank reform. Such reform is needed in part to bring the Iranian economy into line with the requirements of the Financial Action Task Force, which identifies the threats that are posed to investment by endemic money-laundering and financial crimes.

Tehran has until next month to bring the country in line with these requirements, and President Hassan Rouhani has claimed that it is committed to doing so, according to the same Reuters report.

But Rouhani’s message on this point has been undermined by other officials who see such international standards as foreign infiltration of the Iranian economy. Such officials have also contradicted Rouhani’s expressions of commitment to and compliance with the nuclear deal, viewed by many hardliners as a similar imposition in spite of its obvious financial benefits to the Islamic Republic.

On this point, Rouhani has even been contradicted by his own administration and by statements that he himself has made on other occasions and in different venues. A Reuters video report highlighted this trend on Tuesday when it quoted the Iranian president as condemning his American counterpart over the JCPOA. “How many times have the Americans tried to scrap the deal?” he asked in a televised address. “We will continue our path,” he added. But Reuters also noted that Tehran has said it will tear up the agreement if the US pulls out, regardless of the actions of the other five signatories.

Furthermore, Iranians representing every mainstream political faction have rejected the possibility of further negotiations with the West, which might help to preserve American participation in the JCPOA. As the Trump administration has continued to express its doubts about the agreement and its anxiety about that agreement’s impact on other Iranian behaviors, some of the JCPOA’s defenders have begun to come forward to demand such supplementary negotiations. On Tuesday, a top advisor to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei responded to this trend by describing French President Emmanuel Macron as “Trump’s lapdog”.

Among European nations, France has taken a leading role in echoing the White House’s demands for constraints on the Iranian ballistic missile program. That issue was ignored in the JCPOA but tentatively addressed in a parallel United Nations Security Council resolution, the relevant provision of which Iran has disregarded, citing vague and non-binding language.

At the same time that Iran is both exploiting perceived holes in the nuclear deal and refusing all efforts to fill them, many regime officials also appear to be deliberately fueling the anxieties of Trump and other critics of an arguably weak agreement. For example, Iran’s Tasnim News Agency, which is affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, recently reported that one senior member of the Iranian Parliament had publicly bragged of the continued growth of Iran’s capacity for enriching nuclear material.

“Our nuclear capability has not declined but, rather, we can continue on this path (of progress in peaceful nuclear technology) powerfully,” said Alaeddin Borourjerdi, the chairman of the National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, during a visit to the Isfahan Uranium Conversion Facility on Monday.

Directly alongside this quotation, Tasnim reiterated the claim that Iran is in “full compliance with all its obligations”. This claim was supplemented by the state media outlet Fars News Agency in a report that asserted there were no disagreements between the Iranian government and the IAEA over Section T of the nuclear deal, which broadly bars the Iranians from pursuing activities that could lead to the development of a nuclear explosive device, but which specifies no enforcement mechanisms.

The Fars report quotes the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi on this point, but it does not reference any explicit agreements or communications between the relevant parties. Neither does Fars directly acknowledge that IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano personally raised this issue of Section T and its apparent non-enforcement in September.

Taken together, the various Iranian statements on the JCPOA seem to explicitly deny any form of non-compliance while implicitly suggesting that the agreement is either being violated or not fulfilling its stated goals of halting Iran’s progress toward a nuclear weapon and enhancing regional stability. There is little doubt that these possible contradictions will continue to fuel the debate over the JCPOA in lead-up to Iran’s decision on sanctions waivers, and perhaps well beyond that point.

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