The implementation of the Iranian nuclear deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), turned a year old on July 14. President Donald Trump, who promised to “rip it up” when he was still a presidential candidate, is now poised to certify it for a second time. His national security advisor, retired Army General H. R. McMaster, who once spoke at length of how the JCPOA was a bad deal, now believes that Iran is complying with it and claims that recertification is in the interests of national security. These shifts are reminders that the rhetoric so characteristic of American presidential campaigns does not necessarily translate into policies, especially when it comes to international security, diplomacy and complex multilateral agreements.
According to the deal, the State Department must inform Congress every 90 days that Iran is in compliance, making this the second such notification under the Trump Administration. Just last week, Republican senators Ted Cruz (TX), David Perdue (GA), Tom Cotton (AR), and Marco Rubio (FL) sent a critical letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson citing four key reasons for denying recertification: (1) Iran is operating more advanced uranium-enrichment centrifuges than allowed; (2) Tehran has exceeded the limits placed on the production of heavy water, which is crucial to operating plutonium-fuelled nuclear reactors; (3) The Islamic Republic is violating the agreement by procuring missile technology beyond what was agreed upon and (4) Iran is not complying with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors assigned to review its military and nuclear research facilities.
Earlier in April, Secretary Tillerson affirmed that Iran was “making good on its commitment under the (JCPOA) agreement. However, the President directed a National Security Council-led interagency review of the Agreement.” During the same time, Defense Secretary James Mattis confirmed the Administration’s problem with Iran’s excessive influence in the Middle East by saying on April 19, “Everywhere you look, if there’s trouble in the region, you find Iran.”
Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif, who earned a doctorate in international law and policy from the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, is traveling to Western capitals to make a case that Iran is undeniably complying with the nuclear deal and has allowed the IAEA inspectors open access to monitor various facilities seven times since 2016. Attempting to drive a wedge between the Trump Administration and European allies, Zarif criticized Washington for banning travellers from primarily Muslim-majority countries. He explicitly stated that the United States itself is violating the deal because it is, at least potentially, instituting new sanctions and seeking to deter its European allies from trading with Iran during the G20 Summit held in Hamburg on July 7-8.
German foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel agreed with Zarif on June 27 that the deal should be fully implemented by all parties involved. (Germany is a signatory to this accord, along with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and the European Union) He said, “We stand behind this agreement and want to support all the parties in their efforts to fulfill it. As the Federal Republic of Germany and as Europeans, we would oppose any attempts to call it into question.”
Meanwhile, on July 18, the United States unveiled new economic sanctions against Iran over its ballistic missile program and expressed deep concern for what its “malign activities” in the Middle East. The move is a way for the Trump Administration to bridge the gap between its campaign promise and what it can actually deliver. Beyond its domestic political imperatives, this is one way for the United States to maintain pressure on Iran so that the clerical regime does not exploit the nuclear deal in order to pursue its regional ambitions.
Reaching the Nuclear Deal with Iran
Since 2006, the P5+1 (i.e., China, France, the United Kingdom, the United States and Russia plus Germany), have pursued vigorous diplomatic efforts with Iran on its nuclear program. As a result of this approach, along with the usual diplomatic posturing and intense closed-door meetings, the terms of the JCPOA deal had been reached by 2014. Wendy Sherman (at that timeundersecretary for political affairs at the State Department) noted in a meeting with 200 ambassadors based in Washington, DC, that “the [Iran] deal goes beyond that framework in several areas: It cuts off all of Iran’s pathways to fissile material for a nuclear weapon; it ensures the vigorous inspections and transparency necessary to verify that Iran cannot pursue a nuclear weapon; it ensures that sanctions will snap back into place if Iran violates the deal; and it is a long-term deal.”
While serving in the US Department of State during this period, it was a euphoric moment for me and my colleagues to see the JCPOA finally come together, because up to this point it had not been clear if the Iranians were seriously interested in the negotiations or whether their participation was just a symbolic gesture to be at the table. Seventeen months of intense negotiations in Vienna and Geneva by Secretary John Kerry’s team proved to Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s team, and to his ultra-conservative opponents back in Tehran, that the P5+1 Group, and especially the United States,were committed to genuine discussions on lifting sanctions for Iran’s non-nuclear program.
In accordance with the deal’s terms, Iran agreed to reduce its stockpile of low-enriched uranium by 98%, significantly scale back the number of installed centrifuges, and allow transparent monitoring and evaluation by the IAEA. In exchange, the US and the European Union agreed to lift the sanctions that crippled Iran’s economy. Critics, without paying attention theJCPOA’s terms or conditions, initially said that the P5+1 agreement would allow Iran to use the benefit of unrestricted commerce to advance its nuclear program at a later date and that the deal was ultimately a capitulation.
Iranian Geopolitics, US/Iranian Hawks and the Deal
Fourteen years after the Bush Administration’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, “Tehran’s influence is everywhere – from politics to commerce,” wrote New York Times reporter Tim Arango on July 15. Indeed, Iran’s laser-focused policy of making sure that its allies dominate the countries located on its western flank enables it to sustain a sphere of influence that now stretches from Afghanistan to the eastern Mediterranean. Within Iraq, the overseas operations arm of Iran’s elite military, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), is playing a critical role inmobilizing Iraq’s Shia-dominated state security forces as well as militias that recently liberated Mosul from Daesh control. Since the US military is providing crucial air and ground support to the same Iraqi forces, Washington and Tehran are forced to coordinate with each other.
Next door in Syria the IRGC’s overseas operations unit, the Quds Force, along with a far smaller number of Russian military personnel, is backing the forces of Damascus and its allied militias. Although the United States publicly remains opposed to the Assad regime, it does not want to see it collapse because it fears that Daesh, al-Qaeda, and/or other affiliated jihadists would be the biggest beneficiaries of such an outcome. Therefore, hereagain American and Iranian interests tactically align together with a common goal. That said, the United States cannot afford to have Iran take advantage of the fight against Daesh to pursue its own regional ambitions, a policy that our Turkish, Arab, and Israeli allies also oppose.
While both Bret McGurk, head of the State Department’s Global Coalition against Daesh, and Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,continue to oversee the implementation of our anti-Daesh policy, traditional hawks are vying to confront Iran and its proxy forces on the ground in Syria. On June 18, a US Navy fighter shot down a Syrian warplane that had bombed the positions of Kurdish militiamen engaged in fighting Daesh. Ezra Cohen-Watnick, senior director for intelligence on the National Security Council (NSC), and Derek Harvey, the NSC’s top Middle East advisor and a disciple of its former director Gen. Michael Flynn, believe that it is time for Washington to start going on the offensive in Raqqa against the Iranian-backed forces supporting Assad. NSC hawks are banking on one potential scenario in which defeated Iranian-backed forces in Raqqa will test Iran’s resolve to commit its resources to other Assad-controlled areas.
However, even a traditional Iran hawk like Defense Secretary Mattis can see that such a risky move will draw the US into a serious confrontation with Iran, one that will trigger retaliation against US troops deployed in Iraq and Syria, the very place where the Iranians have armed thousands of Shiite militia fighters, deployed thousands of IRGC officers and Hezbollah fighters. Within Iran, even with an executive branch led by a moderate president, vitriolic anti-American hardliners believe that the deal denies the Iranians the right to have a nuclear energy program. Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Movahedi Kermani, secretary general of the Combatant Clergy Association and a close advisor to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, repeatedly gives sermons stating, “Iran doesn’t lack the ability to confront the US and her enemies, but prays for the day when Iran can prove its supremacy.”
If the Trump Administration intends to ratchet up economic sanctions by working with our regional allies to push back and ultimately contain Iran’s growing influence in the region, it will need tomaneuver carefully so as not to undermine the JCPOA or the effort to fight Daesh in Iraq and Syria as well as the broader region. If Washington implements fresh sanctions, Iran will view this as a signal that negotiating with the P5+1, in particular with the US, has been nothing more than a disingenuous symbolic process. Eventually, this will empower hardline elements within the Iranian political establishment to become even bolder in pursuing policies that are detrimental to our national interests and to those of our allies.
Iranian moves are already in play. Secretary Tillerson’s first shuttle diplomacy to the region, in an attempt to negotiate an end to the intra-Arab controversycentered on Qatar, is ultimately based on an awareness that Tehran benefits from the growing chaos in the Arab world. Iran is using the land, sea and air blockade placed on Qatar by its neighbors to deepen its ties with the now-besieged Arab nation while preparing to alleviate any additional pressure due to the imposition of new American sanctions. Tehran’s regional ambitions can be countered in a way that does not undermine the nuclear deal.
The JCPOA is a historic accord and the outcome of difficult diplomacy on the part of our partners. The international community worked hard to find common ground in stopping Iran’s nuclear enrichment program. It also had a great deal to do with reinforcing the IAEA’s stature as the principal international monitoring agency responsible for ensuring that Iran is upholding its end of the bargain. And finally, this nuclear deal strengthens the global nuclear non-proliferation regime.
Irresponsible rhetoric toward the JCPOA, whether from the US or Iran, does not translate into policy. Moreover, established multilateral agreements cannot be cancelled unilaterally. No international agreement is ever perfect and the JCPOA has its share of imperfections, but it is the best available agreement right now. The Trump Administration should seek to build upon it, instead of eroding the tenacious diplomacy of the past decade.
Iran will remain a challenge to our national security interests in the Middle East; however, the key to dealing with this challenge is tominimize the problems that we currently face in the region and not undermine efforts that effectively prevent a nuclear Iran.
The views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the institutional position of the Center for Global Policy.