The political stand-off between Iran and the United States regarding the future of the nuclear deal Tehran signed with world powers in 2015 is continuing on a rocky path that began with President Donald Trump’s administration. His latest push for additional inspections of “suspicious” Iranian military sites was met with mockery from Tehran, setting the stage for Trump’s suspected attempt to wriggle out of the agreement. Iranian officials described the request as a “ridiculous dream that will never come true,” at the same time raising the question of whether the same could be said about the nuclear deal’s stability and implementation.
For a while, it seemed like Trump would not deliver on his electoral promise to “rip up the nuclear deal,” also known as Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which he described as “the worst deal ever signed.” He had plenty of support among the Republicans regarding this position, yet once Trump reached the White House, even the deal’s vocal critics, including Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, recognized that once signed, the agreement had to be upheld.
Yet, months of Washington and Tehran going back and forth on all the things they did not agree on seemed to cloud the administration’s judgment on the only thing they had ever agreed on: the nuclear deal. This is how the conversation on a myriad of issues between the two countries and their opposing interests in the Middle East always circles back to the nuclear deal, even though upholding or breaking it most certainly would not lead to a solution of the conflict.
“It’s easier to say they comply. It’s a lot easier. But it’s the wrong thing. They don’t comply … We’ll talk about this subject in 90 days. But I would be surprised if they were in compliance,” said Trump, mere days after begrudgingly admitting that, once again, Iran’s compliance with the deal has been confirmed through regular State Department reports to Congress.
Several days later, an anonymous U.S. official told Reuters that the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, would travel to Vienna later this month to discuss Iran’s nuclear activities with UN atomic watchdog officials as part of Washington’s review of Tehran’s compliance. Haley has been very active in exchanging accusations and threats with Iranian president Hassan Rouhani and his government over their ballistic missile tests, but will Haley be able to dig up dirt on Tehran’s conduct prescribed by the JCPOA?
Is Iran Violating the Deal? You Could Say No, but…
“On behalf of the Iranian people and authorities, I explicitly announce that the Islamic Republic of Iran will not start violating the JCPOA, but will not remain quiet against the United States’ continuing to wriggle out of its commitments. We have no business with novice politicians, but we announce to those more experienced that the process of the JCPOA can be used as a model for relations and international law,” said Rouhani during his inauguration ceremony, with a not-so-subtle dig at Trump’s political credentials.
Technically, Rouhani is both right and wrong. Most of the UN sanctions against Iran were lifted after the signing of the JCPOA, which saw Iran give up its developing nuclear program in exchange for economic and diplomatic incentives from the European Union and the U.S. However, an arms embargo and a number of sanctions and restrictions referring to missile tests, terrorism support and human rights violations remained out of the framework of the JCPOA, proving to be a slippery convenience and a great source of grievances for Tehran and other vocal critics of the deal.
Whenever there is a batch of sanctions legally and legitimately slapped on Iran under these exceptional rules, Tehran tends to mash all of its complaints into the nuclear deal issue, accusing the U.S. of violating the agreement. On the other hand, whenever Tehran tests ballistic missiles, Washington attempts to lump that issue in with the “nuclear threat.”
Save for emotions running high, what are the facts? The U.S. argues that Iran’s latest test of a rocket capable of delivering satellites into orbit was a violation of the 2015 UN Security Council resolution. U.S. officials claim that Iran can’t undertake these activities because a ballistic missile would be capable of carrying a nuclear weapon, using this justification for renewed sanctions against Iran. The exact words in UN Security Council Resolution 2231 ban Tehran from conducting any activity concerning missiles designed to be capable of carrying nuclear warheads, leaving room for each side to claim that the other is in violation of the agreement.
Ultimately, Resolution 2231 was passed as merely a ceremonial addition to the JCPOA, allowing Iran to test missiles, which was previously altogether banned. Technically, this document exists separately from the JCPOA. It is not legally binding and does not offer any mechanisms for enforcing its implementation.
While many things may be argued about these arrangements, the fact is that the United States and Iran have different interests. To put a very complicated network of enmities, influence zones and goals in the most simple terms, Iran sees the United States’ unequivocal support for Saudi Arabia and involvement in wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Yemen as a destabilizing foreign influence, guilty of facilitating radicalization and terrorism.
The United States see Iran’s growing influence and support for armed groups, including Hezbollah, as a threat to their allies, Saudi Arabia and Israel, and by extension, a threat to the United States. The benefits Iran received from the nuclear deal further emboldened Tehran and made them more assertive in pursuing regional and international alliances with Qatar, Russia, Turkey and China.
But the nuclear deal was never meant to change this. Maybe former U.S. president Barack Obama, who championed it in the first place, had such delusions, but Tehran never gave him any reason to believe so. Unfortunately, Trump is continuing this fallacy, expecting the JCPOA to magically tame Iran and solve problems that go way beyond the scope of nuclear weapons development.
“You cannot bring every problem that the world has with Iran into this deal, then you would never have any deal. The agreement was focused to get Iran to halt the nuclear program and to have it under proper supervision, and all the other elements were left aside, and I think that was the right thing to do. If you want to have sanctions over other issues, you can do it, but that has nothing to do with the nuclear program,” says Zoe Levornik, a postdoctoral fellow at the Stanton Nuclear Security Program at MIT’s Security Studies Program.
Expecting Trump to balance the JCPOA with legitimate U.S. grievances seems to be too much of a nuance to ask from him, as Rouhani kindly pointed out in his inauguration speech. So how is he planning to wriggle, or one might say, stomp, out of the commitments?
Trump’s Search for a Spirit in a Haystack
The U.S. legal position regarding the deal is governed by the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, another document guilty of broad, ambiguous language. Under this act, Trump can stop waiving sanctions on Iran, thereby pulling out of the deal, merely because he considers the deal to be inadequate or endangering American national security interests. But if he wants to do that, he needs receipts, and according to some experts, he’s not going to get any from the key player in this scenario — the intelligence community.
Resident scholar of the American Enterprise Institute Gary J. Schmitt argues that the intelligence community might use this situation as payback at an administration that routinely dismisses and berates it.
“…Even if some within the [Intelligence Community] believe that Iran is not complying with the agreement, just as many, or more, will contest that assessment. Given how little information the IC is likely to have and given how much of that information can likely be read in other ways, there will be more debate, dissents and general uncertainty than judgments supporting the president’s view… Even in normal times, the [Intelligence Community] sees its legitimacy as resting on its independence to call it as it sees it, a stance that often means it leans toward challenging the underlying assumptions of an administration’s policies. Combine that inclination with the tense relationship Donald Trump has created with the IC, and you potentially have a perfect storm brewing,” he wrote.
For now, Trump seems willing to skip the intelligence community and send Haley directly to the UN. But what is he hoping to find? If he wants to declare Iran not in compliance through the joint commission governing the JCPOA, there are other members who need convincing. The eight-member committee includes the U.S., Iran, Russia, Britain, France, China, Germany and the European Union, and decisions require a 5-3 vote. The U.S. and its partners have agreed on red lines that Iran would have to cross in order to be declared non-compliant — and these red lines are hardly minor offenses, let alone offenses that aren’t even part of the deal. A possible “snapback” to sanctions described in the agreement requires a significant violation of terms from the Iranian side, and Tehran has proven that it knows how to carefully tread the line. On top of that, the EU has made it crystal clear that the nuclear deal is in its economic and diplomatic interest, which doesn’t necessarily align with Trump’s feelings and opinions.
“On Iran, I simply reply with the numbers of trade and investments that from the European Union have increased to Iran in terms of double digits, and this will continue. We see a security interest to not only fully implement the nuclear deal, but also engage with Iran. And we see also, obviously, an economic interest on the European Union side. We will make sure — I think together, but particularly personally as someone that has this responsibility to ensure — that the deal is fully implemented, and also as the European Union that is united on this,” EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini reiterated.
So if Trump cannot find any offenses that come close to crossing the red line, is his gotcha move requesting Iran to open its military sites to additional inspection not prescribed by the JCPOA going to work, even if it’s just for the purposes of cornering Iran into breaching the deal, redefining it or adding certain amendments to address what he deems “serious flaws?” Again, it is highly unlikely, for all of the aforementioned reasons.
So ultimately, the U.S. can pull out because Iran is not complying with the “spirit” of the deal, but that is more likely to harm the U.S. than any other signee. That kind of unilateral move would result in a diplomatic crisis with China, Russia and the U.S.’s European allies, but it would also further isolate the U.S. and take away a lot of its maneuvering space with Iran legalized and legitimized by the agreement.
Where Iran Stands
From a political standpoint, it is absurd to argue about who is right and who is wrong. Each of the two sides has its own interests to consider and hoping that would somehow change just because of one signed agreement is delusional. If delusions were Obama’s sin, Trump doubled down on it.
On the U.S. side, concern regarding Iran is absolutely justified. A mere glance at the Middle East news section shows that Tehran is more or less openly clashing with the United States on several fronts and showing all the determination in the world to continue doing so. The latest reports suggest that budget increases will be in place for Iran’s ballistic program and Quds Force, the elite unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, charged with exporting “the revolution,” which is a thinly veiled euphemism for strengthening Iran’s influence in the Middle East. The IRGC already has $7.4 billion at its disposal, a pretty strong signal of what Iran prizes the most.
Although U.S. officials and conservative pundits tend to pout when Iran asserts that these enforcements are needed because of the U.S.’s support for terrorism in the Middle East, from Tehran’s, or even a neutral perspective, a loyal ally of one of the world’s greatest exporters of wahhabism, Saudi Arabia, can hardly accuse someone of fostering radicalization. To be fair, neither side is too concerned with terrorism when it serves its own interests, so Hezbollah’s patron state may serve the “resistance” and “justice” narrative to its domestic audience, but nobody in Lebanon, Syria or Israel is going to buy that Iran cares about either of those things.
What does Iran care about? Unlike most of its Arab neighbors, Iran is not a failed experiment of a state. For whatever it’s worth, it is light years ahead of the rest of the Middle East — save for Israel — and it is pretty indicative of its status and power that Jerusalem feels Iran is the only realistic threat to its interests, and even existence. After the Islamic revolution, the devastating 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War and almost 20 years of isolation, Iran survived holding on to its redefined religious identity, but along the way decided that survival was not enough, and that narrative needed to change. This changed narrative, distanced from stories of martyrs for Khomeini’s cause, required a lot of nuance.
More than 60% of people in Iran are younger than 30, and these people’s formative years were not tied to revolution or war. Quite on the contrary, an entire generation grew up in the internet era of speedy globalization. That generation’s national pride does not necessarily conflict with an open attitude towards the rest of the world. The fact that Khomeini’s successors embraced nuclear weapons, which the ayatollah once prohibited showed this shift in Iranian strategy, constituting an ironic twist in which an object of the Supreme Leader’s fatwa became the savior of his vision.
“For Iran, the nuclear deal was not about making a bomb in order to immediately launch it at its enemies. The message was: ‘look at us; we just want to show you that, even with all the sanctions, all the obstacles, we don’t need the West. We don’t need anyone. We are able to make this bomb, but we don’t have to. It was a road to independence and prestige in the region,” says Levornik.
This narrative was especially important in the midst of the accelerated growth of tension and chaos in the region, and the Iranian message of survival and stability stuck well among its supporters in the neighboring Arab countries. It was a way to bolster Iran’s position internationally — and the gamble paid off with the deal. This gamble could have been expensive, given that it recently came to light that Israeli president Benjamin Netanyahu had to be talked out of going into an open war with Iran by the highest military and defense officials in the country.
“Going to war would have not been possible. It wouldn’t have been a ‘surgical operation’ like it used to be in Iraq and Syria with covert intelligence operations,” says Levornik. “First of all, Iran went too far with the nuclear program by that point. The scope of the operation would have been beyond anything special units or intelligence could guarantee as remaining secret or ending successful. Second, an open war with them would have been terrible, bringing destruction to the both countries.”
Hassan Rouhani’s second mandate-sweeping win is a strong signal that the Iranian people support the nuclear deal.
“It represents the normalization of Iran’s relationship with the international community and hope for a better future,” says Chelsi Mueller, a research fellow at the Alliance Center for Iranian Studies of Tel Aviv University. “While senior military figures followed Khamenei’s lead and endorsed the deal, framing it as an agreement that preserved Iran’s legitimate rights to a peaceful nuclear program, they remain suspicious of a political opening to the West: they fear that it will open the floodgates to American cultural influence and undermine the Islamic mores that underpin the Revolution.”
Mueller points out that Iran sees rights to the Persian Gulf, rights to nuclear power and rights of self-defense as its inalienable sovereign rights. For senior military officials, and by extension, the leadership of the country, all of these rights are “interconnected and interdependent,” she writes. And while this seems worrisome for Tehran’s adversaries for many legitimate reasons, trying to fight them by constantly keeping the nuclear question on the hot stove seems rather misplaced.
“If Iran makes one bomb or a few of them, and it’s not as easy as people presume, it’s a nice symbol, but you cannot really do anything with that, there is no second-strike capability in the scenario of an actual nuclear conflict. You cannot threaten Israel or the United States with those bombs. There is no denying Iran’s destabilizing influence in the region. But they are not ready to lead the whole country on a suicide mission. Yes, Hezbollah members are terrorists and other militia’s members might be terrorists who are ready to die for the ‘cause,’ but these things boil down to the individuals. No leader will lead the entire nation of tens of millions of people into destruction,” Levornik says.
What Should the U.S. Do?
The U.S. doesn’t have to like or accept Iran’s positions. However, grown men and women, presumed to be experienced politicians familiar with Middle Eastern social and political dynamics, shouldn’t be stomping their feet just because Iran is being Iran.
If Washington decides to pull out of the agreement and Tehran follows, the worst-case scenario is that Iran will pick up the nuclear program right where it left off in a matter of a few months. In such a scenario, Trump would have a hard time convincing the American public, military leadership or intelligence community that going to war is the right thing. Netanyahu, riddled with his own scandals and hardly nurturing a good relationship with his own military and intel, would have an even harder time convincing anyone to embark on this zero-sum war.
In the less terrible scenario of the deal continuing with the remaining members, the U.S. would give up its only legitimate channel for limited direct influence on Iran. Washington would also damage its reputation in the eyes of its allies. If Trump wants to renegotiate the deal itself, rather than pull out of it, he will face both Tehran’s unwillingness to compromise and EU partners who repeatedly reiterated that they would not support such a move.
The best thing Trump and Haley could do would be dropping the public rants and discussion about the deal. If there are some doubts about Iran’s compliance, they should be handled quietly and covertly — at least while they are still just doubts. The U.S. has plenty of ways to retaliate against Iran for its provocations or ballistic missiles program, be it on fronts in Yemen, Iraq or Syria, or diplomatically through the use of sanctions. And while Iran is likely to stick to these prized weapons and politics, it might even be a good development to react to Tehran’s transgressions more strictly than Obama, whose constant vigilance of Iranian mood swings shaped much of his policy in the region.
Speaking of the region, Israel should not act like an underdog, given the world’s worst-kept secret: its alleged own nuclear program. Whatever Iran decides to do, or not do, in the following 10 to 15 years — give up the nuclear weapons or reach for the nuclear threshold — Israel might want to serve its own and U.S. interests by reconsidering its multi-decade nuclear ambiguity. “You cannot have a stable balance of power in the region if you’re not willing to admit to having a bomb and discussing red lines — that needs to change,” says Levornik.
Admittedly, the nuclear deal is neither perfect nor eternal, nor capable of solving every problem the entire world has with Iran. No amount of backtracking and attempted renegotiating is going to change this. The train left the station long time ago, and there is no way to go but forward. Trump can either get off or try to take more control of the train, but so far, he seems hell-bent on crashing it.