Insider news & Analysis in Iran

by Edward Carney

On Monday, the state-affiliated Fars News Agency reported on some of the latest Iranian rhetoric regarding the 2015 nuclear agreement and the efforts by the White House to improve upon perceived weaknesses in the deal. In January, US President Donald renewed the sanctions waivers put into place by the agreement at the beginning of 2016, but he announced that he would not do so again in May unless Congress and the European signatories committed to a plan for addressing Iran’s ballistic missile activities and securing more invasive inspections of the country.

The Fars report quoted Bahram Qasemi, the spokesman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry as saying that Trump’s demands would prove to be “in vain and worthless”. Tehran has consistently rejected any notion of reexamining the terms of the deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The ballistic missile issue is not part of that agreement, but a parallel resolution by the United Nations Security Council “calls upon” the Islamic Republic to avoid all new work on weapons that are designed to be capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.

Trump and other critics of the JCPOA consider it and the ballistic missile issue to be inseparable. However, their technical separation into two different documents may be beneficial to ongoing efforts to toughen restrictions on Iranian missile activities without undermining the nuclear deal. This partly accounts for the New York Times claiming in a report on Monday that there has been some progress toward resolution of this particular issue among the US and its European allies.

The US will certainly face push-back on this matter from Russia and China, fellow members of the Security Council who also appear to be increasingly close allies of the Islamic Republic. But while this may prevent the international body from modifying either the JCPOA or the associated resolution, it cannot stop the other two permanent members – Britain and France – from joining the US along with Germany and the European Union in imposing their own multilateral restrictions and penalties.

Various recent public statements from European leaders have highlighted their apparent willingness to follow this course of action. In this way, those leaders have also suggested that European views on Iran policy are trending closer to those of the Trump administration. This has presumably been driven in part by consistent American outreach to those allies, which has aimed at focusing attention on Iranian misbehavior such as the apparent transfer of ballistic missiles and other arms to the Houthi rebels in Yemen, in violation of international embargoes.

This particular issue was the subject of a British-drafted resolution that was introduced in the UN on Monday, which would “condemn Iran”, according to the Associated Press. It was not immediately clear what practical effect the resolution might have, but one might assume that it would serve as a meaningful gauge of overall UN attitudes toward Iran while also warning the Islamic Republic of Europe’s serious intention to work with the US in countering destabilizing activities.

However, neither this resolution nor the underlying European statements point to broad-based agreement between those countries and the US. As the New York Times report emphasizes, the European are still broadly committed to the JCPOA, despite Trump’s repeated descriptions of it as an “embarrassment” and “the worst deal ever”. Furthermore, this rhetoric has reportedly reinforced concerns that the Europeans might not be able fully satisfy Trump’s demands. Recent reports have indicated that there is lingering uncertainty about precisely what those demands are, and that this has made US allies wary of committing to unspecified action subsequent to the May 12 deadline imposed by the White House.

In other words, it remains possible that Britain, Germany, and France will ultimately agree with the Iranian Foreign Ministry’s description of those demands as “excessive”. Even some conservative critics of the JCPOA have endorsed a compromise solution in which the US and its partners preserve the nuclear deal as it is currently written while also utilizing their own multilateral authority to enforce a tough line on Iran’s overall behavior. The Times specified that such an approach would constitute a “successor deal” that is separate from the JCPOA. But the same report speculated that Trump might reject an offer along these lines, in favor of preserving his campaign-trail promise to either tear up or conclusively renegotiate the agreement itself.

But even in the face of these uncertainties, there are signs that Europe may continue its trend toward greater assertiveness. Certainly, the White House’s information campaign is part of the reason for this, but regional developments also serve to independently highlight the incompatibility of Iranian and Western interests. On Monday, this was particularly evident in the context of international dialogue on the Syrian Civil War and the effort to impose a nationwide ceasefire.

On one hand, the Associated Press quoted Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif as saying that Iran accepted the UN plan to halt hostilities for a period of 30 days. But whereas this was in keeping with the Western-educated diplomat’s role as a friendly face for the regime’s international relations, his comments were undermined by public statements from other Iranian officials, and also from the conditions on the ground.

Reuters reported on Monday that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and his backers had escalated the conflict in direct defiance of the ceasefire, leading to more than 500 new deaths over the past week. Meanwhile, The Tower quoted General Mohammad Bagheri as providing the rationale for this defiance. The Chief of Staff of the Iranian army insisted that the areas of ongoing Iranian military activity are exempt from the ceasefire because Iran is conducting operations against “terrorists”.

The UN ceasefire specifically states that the terrorist groups ISIL, al Qaeda, and the al Nusra Front are not included in the agreement. But since entering the conflict more than six years ago, Tehran has publicly characterized all opponents of the Assad regime as terrorists, and has excused all of its operations on that basis. The Tower notes that this approach has been largely responsible for the failure of numerous previous attempts to impose ceasefires on the Syrian conflict.

Iran’s control over Shiite paramilitaries in both Syria and Iraq has been widely described as part of an effort by the Islamic Republic to establish regional hegemony spanning a “Shiite crescent” with its capital in Tehran. Separate from the concerns over Iranian nuclear and missile activities, the White House has been pushing for stronger Western policies in opposition to that Iranian design.

While the US and its allies may still face an impasse over some aspects of the nuclear agreement, it is quite possible that efforts to confront this issue will be influenced by the multilateral response to broader concerns about Iranian foreign policy. But it remains to be seen whether Iran’s rhetorical defense of that policy will harden the face of joint US-European pressure, or whether it will begin to shift toward begrudging compromise.

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