Dangers in US-Iran relations over nuclear deal
New US sanctions against Iran will have less of an effect on its leaders than leaked news of just how close US President Donald Trump came to upending the 2015 agreement — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — limiting Tehran’s nuclear programme in return for eased international economic sanctions.
Trump was dissuaded by other US officials at the last minute from declaring Iran in breach of the deal only by a formula allowing the United States to let it continue without clearly confirming Tehran’s compliance. The administration slapped sanctions on 18 Iranian individuals and groups linked to Iran’s military, including a Turkey-based naval equipment supplier and a China-based electronics procurer.
In response, Iranian President Hassan Rohani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif gave holding replies. Rohani said Iran would “stand up to” the United States and Zarif accused Washington of “trying to poison the international atmosphere” while violating the “spirit” and perhaps “the letter” of the deal.
Even Mohammad Ali Jafari, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) commander, said little new in advising Washington to remove its military bases within 1,000km of Iran.
Trump, under a congressional requirement, is next scheduled to certify Iranian compliance with the JCPOA in October. Iran’s leadership will likely discuss its response and an interim strategy should Trump abandon the deal.
Rohani will argue Iran should deepen relations with the other JCPOA signatories — Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia — to stick to the deal. This approach was evident July 21 at the quarterly meeting of JCPOA signatories in Austria.
“In Vienna, Iran complained publicly to set the stage in case Trump decides to walk away,” said Farideh Farhi, of the University of Hawaii, “but Iran didn’t lodge an official complaint to the joint committee, whose communiqué acknowledged the economic benefits of the agreement to Iran ‘despite challenges.’”
Some in Tehran will argue Iran should expand its nuclear programme if the United States introduces further sanctions or effectively abandons the JCPOA. There is a precedent of resuming frozen nuclear work. In 2005, Iran began nuclear enrichment after two years of suspension during talks with the European Union.
Iranian domestic politics are in a different balance to 2005, however, when faltering reformist President Mohammad Khatami had seen overtures to the United States rebuffed by President George W. Bush. Shortly after enrichment resumed, fundamentalist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won a landslide victory in the presidential election.
Today, the pragmatists are stronger. Rohani comfortably won a second term in May. With Trump in the White House, Tehran has clear scope to court the other JCPOA signatories, which agree the nuclear agreement works. Rohani’s critics present little alternative to the JCPOA, even if the United States walks away.
Europe, Russia and China are expanding economic links. Total’s $5 billion deal for the South Pars gas field was followed by fellow French company Alstom agreeing to a 60% share in a $1.3 billion venture with Iranian companies to make 1,000 subway cars.
Iran can respond in other ways to US pressures. New sanctions make it more likely Tehran will hold its line over Syria, Qatar and other regional issues. The security services are more likely to arrest dual nationals and the IRGC to challenge the US Navy in the Gulf.
A more dangerous response would be to step up testing ballistic missiles, defying the US argument that this violates the JCPOA. “Given the US difficulty in walking away from the agreement, in the case of more sanctions, Iran can react by remaining in the agreement but reciprocating in other areas,” said Farhi. “For instance, if the United States imposes further sanctions on Iran’s missiles programme, Iran will quicken the pace of that programme or at least pretend to publicly.”
This may already be happening. Days after new US sanctions were announced, Iran proclaimed a fresh production line for the Sayyad 3 missile, which it said can climb 27km, travel 120km and target planes, drones and cruise missiles. “Iran may feel such a strategy worked over the nuclear issue itself,” said Farhi. “It introduced more centrifuges [for enriching uranium] and enriched to higher levels in response to sanctions. I assume it will try this again.”
A military agreement with Iraq signed July 23 in Tehran came with Iranian Defence Minister Hossein Dehghan denouncing US efforts to “destabilise the region.”
Alongside defiance, there is a weary tone in Tehran. Zarif has bemoaned that his developing relationship with John Kerry, President Barack Obama’s secretary of state, was replaced by a lack of even telephone contact with Rex Tillerson, Trump’s secretary of state.
The absence of communication makes any provocation — even if carefully calibrated as a response to the United States or to make clear to Trump the costs of any military attack — dangerous. With no contact, much less confidence, between the two sides, any action runs the risk of being misread.