By Edward Carney
On Wednesday, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s 35-member Board of Governors met in Vienna to discuss prospective responses to the recent and forthcoming violations of the Iran nuclear deal. At the beginning of July, Iranian officials announced that they had officially surpassed the limits imposed on stockpiles of nuclear material. Days later, they also reported having begun enrichment of uranium to levels higher than the 3.67 percent fissile purity that was identified as the maximum allowed under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The IAEA confirmed both of these breaches, after having previously issued 15 separate reports indicating that the Islamic Republic had been complying with its primary obligations under the deal since it was implemented at the beginning of 2016.
Since the initial violation was confirmed, Tehran has continued to warn of pending increases in its output of nuclear material. The regime has also set a deadline in early September for the European Union and the three European signatories of the JCPOA to help Iran secure greater economic benefits. If that deadline lapses, the Iranians will ostensibly re-activate advanced centrifuges that were shut down under the terms of the deal but nonetheless remained intact and in the country’s possession. This would allow them to very quickly increase their uranium enrichment activities to even higher levels of fissile purity, potentially exceeding the roughly 20 percent maximum that had been achieved prior to the signing of the 2015 agreement.
It is, however, not a foregone conclusion that the regime will stick to its timetable or even follow through on planned violations. Some doubt results from the fact that recurring threats have been counterbalanced by signs of sensitivity to the international community’s outrage. The violation of stockpile limits took place later than it was expected, giving the Europeans extra time to respond to an ultimatum that Tehran had already issued weeks earlier. Since then, various Iranian officials have endeavored to emphasize that the steps now being taken, including the prospective 20 percent enrichment, are all reversible. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif made this general point last week, and Iran’s ambassador to the IAEA elaborated upon the claim on Wednesday.
“Everything can be reversed within a single hour - if all of our partners in the treaty would just fulfill their obligations in the same way,” Kazim Gharib Abadi told the German newspaper Die Zeit. While this language effectively reiterated Iran’s commitment to its demand for a financial windfall and assistance in evading US sanctions, it also conveyed an unusual amount of flexibility, which is somewhat at odds with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s statements promoting “resistance” and non-negotiation with Western powers.
Abadi also used his interview with Die Zeit as an opportunity to respond to accusations emanating from the White House. “We have nothing to hide,” he claimed, contradicting a statement US President Donald Trump made on Twitter earlier in the day suggesting that Iran had long been in violation of the JCPOA, by way of secret nuclear activities that had never been disclosed to the IAEA. While the president cited no new evidence to support this claim, the tweet merely reiterated longstanding allegations, which had initially helped to fuel the push for Trump to pull the US out of the agreement.
This withdrawal finally took place in May 2018, although Trump and a number of his foreign policy advisors had expressed animosity toward the JCPOA since before he took office. In explaining the withdrawal, he focused on violations of the “spirit” of the agreement, rather than its letter, taking issue with such things as the spending of unfrozen assets on regional interventions and support for terrorist groups like Hezbollah. Such activities are notably out of keeping with the sentiment expressed by the preamble to the JCPOA, which refers to the signatories’ commitment to using the agreement in order to foster regional peace and stability.
Among other activities not explicitly addressed in the JCPOA, Iran continued to carry out ballistic missile development and testing after the agreement was implemented. And as the White House and its supporters repeatedly emphasized, these activities had been expected to halt by the beginning of 2016. This is because the deal’s implementation coincided with the adoption of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231, one provision of which called upon the Islamic Republic to avoid all work on weapons with the capability of carrying nuclear warheads.
The potential significance of Iran’s advancements in missile technology has been made increasingly obvious in the midst of escalating tensions between the Islamic Republic and its adversaries both in the Gulf region and in the West. For instance, a senior commander in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Hossein Najat, was quoted by Iranian state media as threatening the US on Tuesday with a reminder that some of its regional military bases are within range of Iranian missiles. This remark came just days after Iranian and Israeli officials traded warnings over their respective missile capabilities, with one conservative Iranian lawmaker even saying that “Israel's remaining lifespan would not even reach half an hour” in the event of an American military strike.
Such a strike almost took place last month in the wake of the downing of an American surveillance drone by the IRGC. Although the White House initially approved retaliatory action, it was called off at the last minute with Trump citing a prospective death toll that he deemed disproportionate to the loss of an unmanned aircraft. Trump and others then cautioned the Iranians against mistaking American restraint for weakness, but comments by Nejat and others suggest that political hardliners and the IRGC have not taken the sentiment seriously. Their rhetoric also undermines the efforts by more pragmatic elements of the regime to assuage European concerns and delay any prospective international response to nuclear and military provocations.
This could make the work of the Trump administration easier as it urges partners in Europe and the Middle East to contribute to a “maximum pressure” strategy and punish the Iranian leadership for its latest actions. In the run-up to Iran’s decision to abandon the JCPOA in response to the US’s year-long non-participation, the White House emphasized that its own withdrawal did not justify Iran accelerating its progress toward a nuclear weapon. And on Wednesday, US Ambassador to the IAEA Jackie Wolcott reiterated the president’s willingness to negotiate over this matter, but added that this would be expected to result in a “solution that enduringly addresses the proliferation challenges presented by Iran's nuclear program” as well as “other aspects of Iran's destabilizing conduct.”
Interestingly, reports also emerged on Wednesday which complicated the picture of Iran’s response to Trump’s overtures concerning negotiation. Three US officials indicated to Reuters that when Tehran released a US permanent resident from political imprisonment last month, it did so with an eye toward opening a channel for diplomatic talks. Reuters indicates that it was the US that dismissed the gesture, even though President Trump had previously welcomed talks without precondition, while the Iranian Supreme Leader and other leading officials publicly dismissed the notion of talks without precondition.
On one hand, the US State Department may have been unimpressed with the gesture, in part because Zakka’s lack of US citizenship made him a lower-value political prisoner and in part because of the fact that his release was widely portrayed as a favor not to the US but to his country of origin, Lebanon, which is home to the Iran-backed paramilitary Hezbollah. One of the officials interviewed by Reuters was quoted as saying, “If Iran wants to reduce tensions and engage with the United States government, it should make a humanitarian gesture such as releasing one of the innocent American citizens it is holding hostage.”
But on the other hand, the problem with Zakka’s release may have stemmed from Iran’s own frustration at not being rewarded for the supposed good faith gesture of releasing a hostage who had committed no apparent crime during his visit to Iran. “This was seen as a de-escalation step from their side, which obviously they expected to be somehow reciprocated from the American side,” noted another of the Reuters interviewees.
Such expectations could create problems for the prospect of diplomacy. But it bears repeating that Iran’s overtures to the West have not halted completely, and this may be due to the fact that it has experienced greater frustration as a result of contrary, aggressive strategies for putting pressure on its adversaries. The sanctions already imposed by the US have had massive impact on the Iranian economy, with potential for six percent contraction this year, and Iran’s breaches of the nuclear deal led Trump to declare on Wednesday that these pressures would once again increase substantially.
At the same time, the US is apparently well on its way to developing a broader coalition for containing Iranian threats against maritime commerce and the infrastructure of neighboring countries. General Joseph Dunford, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff spoke to the press about this effort on Tuesday and estimated that “over the next couple of weeks we'll identify which nations have the political will to support that initiative and then we'll work directly with the militaries to identify the specific capabilities that'll support that.”
When the IRGC shot down the American drone last month over what the US said was international waters, it was widely interpreted as an effort to impede surveillance of activities like the sabotage of four tankers in the Gulf of Oman just days earlier. But the pending military collaboration among countries concerned by such actions will go a long way toward disrupting the regime’s plans. Meanwhile, the aggressive nature of those plans may still drive European governments to sign onto a strategy of “maximum pressure” despite Iran’s occasional, questionable overtures concerning the reversal of its nuclear deal violations.