News : Nuclear

As Nuclear Deal's Future Remains Uncertain, Iran Solicits Help From Eastern Allies

By Poorang Novak

French President Emmanuel Macron completed a three-day trip to Washington on Wednesday, which included meetings his American counterpart and a speech to the US Congress. One major purpose for that trip was to expand upon European efforts to convince Donald Trump to preserve the 2015 Iran nuclear deal beyond the May 12 deadline for the renewal of sanctions waivers put into place by the agreement. Trump renewed those waivers on January but warned that he would not do so again unless Congress and the European signatories to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action agreement upon a plan for fixing its “terrible flaws.”

Progress toward such a fix has been slow. And although France, Germany, and the United Kingdom have reportedly facilitated agreement among EU member states over issues like the expansion in monitoring of Iran’s nuclear activities, they have so far fallen short of satisfying all of the White House’s demands. Separately, Macron has expressed significant agreement with Trump regarding the need to impose new restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missile activities and its role in the broader Middle East.

The French president’s receptiveness to these concerns was presumably a source of encouragement for Trump, who said on Thursday that he believed he had brought Macron around to his way of thinking, according to the Associated Press. But Macron himself seemed to contradict this interpretation of their meeting, and the BBC quoted him as saying that Trump would likely withdraw the US from the JCPOA, for “domestic reasons.”

Macron issued the prediction without drawing back from the overarching European support for the preservation of the existing agreement. And although he continued to underscore his agreement with Trump over wider concerns for the Middle East, he also dismissed ongoing shifts in American foreign policy as “insane”.

But this language suggests the possibility of further such shifts, including on the nuclear issue. That possibility was teased by US Defense Secretary James Mattis in a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday. The AP reported that Mattis withheld any personal opinion about the future of the agreement, yet underscored that the US and Europe were still negotiating over possible fixes, and that the administration would remain open to those fixes until the May 12 deadline.

As long as ongoing American participation in the JCPOA remains an open question, it will be difficult to predict how and to what extent the US and Europe will cooperate over Iran policy and related issues in the coming months. It also remains to be seen how the Islamic Republic will react to Trump’s prospective pullout. Iranian officials have issued various warnings in this regard, though most have been vague. For his part, Trump was equally vague on Wednesday when he threatened that Tehran would face “bigger problems than ever before” if the regime resumed full-scale nuclear activities after the May deadline.

Atomic Energy Organization of Iran head Ali Akbar Salehi, among other officials, has suggested that the Islamic Republic could quickly ramp up its uranium enrichment to levels far exceeding pre-JCPOA levels if the US exits the deal. Some statements to this effect have said that this could be accomplished in as little as two days, though it is highly probable that this is only bluster from a regime known for boastful propaganda. Even so, the statements highlight a defiant attitude in the face of threats from the Trump administration. And as those threats escalate, Tehran is noticeably seeking support for its defiance among established and prospective allies.

This trend was on display on Thursday against the backdrop of an international security conference in the Russian resort town of Sochi. There, the Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, met with Chinese Public Security Secretary Guo Shengkun and touted the prospect of greater cooperation among Iran, China, and Russia with the specific intention of countering American influence.

As Iran Front Page News notes, Shamkhani underscored the fact that each of those three countries are under Western sanctions, though he glossed over the fact that those sanctions generally related to human rights violations both within those countries and in foreign conflict zones like Syria. As the power of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant continues to shrink toward insignificance, foreign interest in the conflict is becoming increasingly focused on its potential role as a lynchpin for larger imperial ambitions by Iran and its supporters. Tehran’s support of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, even in the wake of his use of chemical weapons, has created a situation wherein Iran-backed militants are heavily integrated into the Assad regime’s military force.

This is a problem that Macron sought to highlight during his visit to Washington. A day earlier, he told Fox News Sunday that leaving Syria after the defeat of ISIL would be a mistake because “we will leave the floor to the Iranian regime” and “they will prepare the new war; they will fuel the new terrorists.”

Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon sought to weigh in on the same topic on Thursday. Reuters reports that he presented the UN Security Council with a map purportedly showing the location of an Iranian base just five miles from the Syrian capital Damascus. Danon described the location as “Iran’s central induction and recruitment center,” wherein it provided training to more than 80,000 Shiite paramilitary fighters.

I addition to recruiting from local Shiite populations, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps has also assembled paramilitary divisions from Afghanis and Pakistanis, to be dispatched both to Syria and to Iraq with the promise of permanent resident status and working papers in the Islamic Republic. Taken together, these phenomena help to highlight concerns among Iran’s regional and Western adversaries regarding the possibility of Iran establishing a permanent foothold in Syria while also extending its reach further into the Shiite populations of surrounding countries.

Despite stark warnings about this trend from Macron, Danon, and others, international attention remains focused on the nuclear agreement for the time being. And until Trump announces his decision to either keep the US in the deal or to withdraw, it is not known how this issue will affect the prospects for cooperation by Iran’s allies and its adversaries to promote or counter the regime’s force projection throughout the Middle East.

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