Trump Keeps Iran Nuclear Deal But Still Wants Changes

Ayatollah Khamenei and Donald Trump
Iranian Supreme Leader Office via AP/AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

The Iran nuclear deal survived its latest 90-day review, despite President Trump’s frequent criticisms of the arrangement and requests for alternatives from his advisers, and the Trump administration’s strong criticism of the Iranian government’s crackdown on the recent popular uprising.

The administration announced another sanctions waiver for Iran on Friday, which is the deadline for making a decision. Sources told Reuters the president remains strongly critical of the nuclear deal, but his advisers persuaded him to continue renewing the sanctions waiver.

“U.S. officials and others have said Trump is expected to accept the recommendation of senior advisers that he keep the old nuclear-related sanctions suspended while announcing new ones that would target other aspects of Iran’s behavior such as mass arrests during anti-government protests this month,” the Washington Post reported on Friday morning.

“Those types of sanctions are not covered under the agreement the United States and other world powers reached with Iran in 2015, and President Barack Obama also imposed additional non-nuclear sanctions on Iran after the deal was implemented,” the Post pointed out.

On Friday afternoon, a senior administration official promised “this is the last such waiver” Trump will issue unless Congress is able to strengthen the deal and European allies accept the changes. This official said sanctions against 14 more Iranian individuals and entities for matters unrelated to the nuclear deal are forthcoming.

A lingering question is whether President Trump will formally certify Iranian compliance with the terms of the nuclear deal, something he declined to do at the time of his previous review in October. This theoretically opened the door for Congress to alter or terminate the JCPOA, as it is formally known.

Trump’s other option for scuttling the deal would involve withholding the sanctions waiver he periodically grants under the JCPOA legislation, re-imposing sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program and almost certainly prompting Tehran to declare the nuclear deal null and void. If the sources quoted on Friday are correct, this is what he plans to do when the waiver next comes up for renewal.

The president has said he wants a number of changes made to make the arrangement more favorable to the United States, although some of the changes mentioned by members of the administration would be better understood as sanctions that exist outside the current framework of the JCPOA, such as sanctions against Iran’s ballistic missile program or human-rights abuses. Iran tends to denounce all sanctions as American violations of the nuclear deal.

European parties to the JCPOA have put enormous pressure on Trump to keep the deal in place, insisting that it has effectively slowed Iran’s nuclear weapons program and there are no better alternatives for accomplishing that objective.

“The deal is working; it is delivering on its main goal, which means keeping the Iranian nuclear programme in check and under close surveillance,” European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini said on Thursday after a meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

“The unity of the international community is essential to preserve a deal that is working, that is making the world safer and that is preventing a potential nuclear arms race in the region. And we expect all parties to continue to fully implement this agreement,” said Mogherini.

Another point raised in favor of keeping the JCPOA is that a full “snap back” of sanctions would knock Iran out of the oil market. Citigroup estimates this could disrupt 500,000 barrels a day of crude oil exports to Asia and Europe, swiftly raising prices by at least $5 a barrel. Granted, that might sound more like a feature than a bug of Iran deal termination to companies and countries that would like oil prices to come up a bit.

One of the more curious arguments made by supporters of the deal is that Iran will not race to build nuclear weapons once the JCPOA restrictions expire in a few years because Iran is a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Not only is that a self-refuting argument, because the JCPOA would be unnecessary if Iran honored agreements like the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but the Trump administration is talking about imposing additional sanctions because Iran is flagrantly violating U.N. resolutions against its ballistic missile program.

Iran openly threatened to stop cooperating with the International Atomic Energy Agency this week if the nuclear deal is scrapped. That is not the behavior of a regime sincerely interested in nuclear non-proliferation, or which has no intention of developing nuclear power for anything but peaceful civilian energy. Such threats are fuel for criticism that the JCPOA ended up giving Iran far too much leverage over the West.

JCPOA critics worry that Europe is growing too reluctant to sanction or even strongly criticize Iran for matters unrelated to nuclear weapons, such as its support for terrorism or its human rights violations because the nuclear deal must be preserved at all costs.

Brad Patty at Security Studies Group argues that the complex structure of the Iran nuclear deal – in which the JCPOA is really only one of several moving parts – makes it effectively impossible to “fix” in the manner that President Trump desires.

Most of these complexities work against the United States, as Trump frequently complains, but Patty notes there is one uncomfortable detail for Iran to contend with: if Tehran tries arguing that new Trump administration sanctions against its ballistic missile program violate the JCPOA, because those missiles are linked to its nuclear program and nuclear sanctions are forbidden under the deal, it will have to abandon the pretense that its nuclear program is entirely peaceful and has no weapons applications. That is a key claim Iran has been making, very loudly, since long before the JCPOA was forged. Of course, it is unlikely that many people either inside or outside of Iran really believe the claim, but it is a major component of their diplomacy.

Iran’s missile program could potentially balloon into a foreign policy crisis on par with its nuclear weapons ambitions since as Patty points out, Iranian strategic doctrine is highly dependent upon credible threats to shower its neighbors with missiles if it is attacked. Under the table, Iran exports missile technology to its allies and clients for both profit and strategic gain. The Iranian government simply will not give up on missile research and production in any conceivable scenario, and it could make a credible legal argument that it cannot halt missile production without violating its own constitutional imperatives to defend the nation’s borders.

The Iranian uprising has been folded into arguments both for, and against, keeping the JCPOA intact. Defenders point out that the Iranian people were angry about the poor state of their economy, which would only get worse if the deal fell apart and sanctions were re-imposed. They express optimism that even though the Iranian regime brutally suppressed these protests, the regime was also visibly rattled by the experience and might be moved in a reformist direction over the long term – but those fragile hopes would be dashed if the U.S. cancels the deal and makes it easy for hardline Iranian leaders to blame America for all of the country’s problems.

Another point raised along those lines is that Iran’s “moderate” wing, which includes reformists more willing to embrace liberalization and realignment toward the West than the current “moderate” President Hassan Rouhani, would be crushed if the JCPOA is scuttled in what hardliners would portrayal by the United States, and proof that the judgment of reformers cannot be trusted.


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