Although the International Atomic Energy Agency announced on Thursday that Iran was still in compliance with the restrictions put in place on its nuclear program by the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the US sought to shine a light on other aspects of Iran’s pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, in an apparent effort to further justify the American withdrawal from the agreement.
The IAEA statement comes more than two weeks after the full re-imposition of US sanctions in line with that withdrawal. The first round of sanctions went back into effect in August, prompting many international businesses to withdraw from Iranian contracts. But the November sanctions on the Iranian oil industry and banking sector were expected to have a much greater impact, targeting more than 700 individuals and entities as the Trump administration follows through on its strategy of “maximum pressure” on the Iranian regime.
In reporting upon the IAEA’s announcement on Thursday, Reuters pointed out that the nations of Europe are still working to counteract the American pressure, in the interest of incentivizing Tehran to remain a party to the JCPOA. However, the report went on to note that this effort has met with limited success within the European Union, as none of its member states have yet stepped forward to accept the risk involved in hosting a “special purpose vehicle” to facilitate sanctions with the Islamic Republic in defiance of US sanctions.
Furthermore, pressure is mounting within the EU for expansion of a European sanctions regime that is ostensibly unrelated to the issue of Iran’s historical pursuit of nuclear weapons. Although the JCPOA led to the lifting of nuclear sanctions, it left the door open for both the US and Europe to maintain existing sanctions and add new sanctions addressing the regime’s longstanding human rights abuses and its support of terrorism. The US added a number of sanctions on these bases even before President Trump withdrew from the JCPOA in May, and last month the government of France did the same in the wake of an intelligence report confirming that the Islamic Republic was responsible for a foiled plot to blow up a gathering of Iranian opposition activists near Paris in June.
On Monday, Agence France Presse reported that the EU as a whole was examining those sanctions in view of a letter by 150 Members of the European Parliament, which urged European leaders to respond more assertively to Iranian terror threats and human rights violations, and to make relations with the Islamic Republic conditional on improvements in these areas. In the preceding weeks, the EU had also come under pressure from the government of Denmark after it was revealed that an Iranian national had been arrested in that country for plotting to assassinate members of an Iranian Arab separatist group.
In the wake of a meeting of European foreign ministers in Brussels, the stage may be set for the expansion of the French anti-terror sanctions to encompass the whole of the EU. The actual extent of any collective measures remains to be determined, but internal and external pressure seems to have contributed to the foreign ministers’ examination of the issue, and there is no sign of these pressures diminishing in the near future. The French and Danish responses to Iranian terror threats are two examples of this, and the ongoing American efforts to promote compliance with and participation in renewed sanctions are another.
This was presumably a motivating factor in the White House’s latest efforts to underscore evidence of Iranian violations of an international non-proliferation convention. Reuters reported on Thursday that Kenneth Ward, the US ambassador to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, had told the agency that Iran is presently working to obtain banned chemical weapons, and had previously failed to disclose the existence of relevant facilities.
This allegations arguably broaden the pressure on traditional US allies to take measures that would further restrain the Islamic Republic. At the same time, they represent an issue that is closer to the original intent of the JCPOA than some of the elements of Iranian behavior that were highlighted to justify American withdrawal from it. Though the Trump administration never explicitly disputed the IAEA’s repeated conclusions that Iran was in compliance with its basic requirements under the nuclear deal, the US president insisted that Tehran was in violation of the “spirit” of that agreement, which had sought to promote regional peace and stability.
In pulling out of the JCPOA in May, Trump underscored Tehran’s disregard for the United Nations Security Council resolution governing the deal’s implementation, which called for a halt to the development and testing of Iranian nuclear-capable ballistic missiles. The president also pointed to Iran’s destabilizing influence in the broader Middle East, including its support of the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. These and similar topics have remained familiar talking points for the White House over the past six months, as pressure has mounted on European governments and businesses to embrace American sanctions on the Islamic Republic.
Those talking points were evident, for instance, in a recent White House statement that emphasized Iranian threats in order to justify the maintenance of existing relations with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Iran’s main regional adversary. The statement dispelled criticism of Saudi involvement in the devastating Yemeni Civil War by saying that that involvement was purely a response to the Iranian origins of the rebel uprising and that the Saudis “would gladly withdraw from Yemen if the Iranians would agree to leave.”
That aspect of the Trump administration’s remarks reflected Saudi Arabia’s own contributions to the chorus of voices urging international action against Tehran’s malign activities. On Monday, Reuters quoted King Salman as saying, “The Iranian regime has always intervened in the internal affairs of other countries, sponsored terrorism, created chaos and devastation in many countries in the region.” He went on to specifically highlight the Iranian nuclear and ballistic missile programs and to insist that Saudi involvement in Yemen is part of “a duty to support the Yemeni people in confronting the aggression of Iranian-backed militias.”
According to Newsweek, when President Trump was pressed on his defense of this and other Saudi positions, he “swiftly changed the subject to the ‘terrorist nation’ of Iran—a move that angered [Iranian Foreign Minister Javad] Zarif.” The report went on to detail Zarif’s response, which included a post on Twitter that insisted Trump’s words revealed “hostility toward an entire people” and exposed “the real reason for targeting them” with economic sanctions.
But in various public statements, President Trump and his leading foreign policy officials have drawn clear distinctions between the Iranian government and the Iranian people, calling them “the longest-suffering victims” of Tehran’s repression and human rights abuses. Those same officials are also quick to point out – as the president did in the statement on Saudi relations – that state-sponsored rallies in Iran regularly feature chants of “death to America” and draw no obvious distinctions between the government and the people of a nation that Tehran refers to as “the great Satan.”
In view of these rallies and ongoing, explicit threats against American and European assets, the Islamic Republic threatens to undermine its own efforts to dissuade the European Union from joining in the enforcement of growing numbers of economic sanctions. On Wednesday, the day before the IAEA issued its latest affirmation of Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal, Reuters reported that Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the head of the aerospace division of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, had threatened American bases in Afghanistan, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar, as well as US aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf.
“They are within our reach and we can hit them if [the Americans] make a move,” he said. Hajizadeh also asserted that the IRGC had greatly improved the range and precision of its ballistic missiles in recent years, a testament to the hardline paramilitary’s open defiance of the Security Council resolution calling for an end to this development. As the Reuters report pointed out, the IRGC and the Iranian regime have not only continued to test such weapons but have also recently deployed them against targets in Iraq and Syria, in moves that were lauded by Iranian hardliners as warnings to “enemies” in the US and in Europe as well.