Iranian nuclear deal in trouble as Tillerson tries to avoid collapse

September 10, 2017
Mixed messages. US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley speaks about the Iran nuclear deal at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, on September 5. (Reuters)

Washington - Amid signs that US Presi¬dent Donald Trump is looking to scrap the Ira¬nian nuclear deal, the United States’ European allies are throwing their weight be¬hind US Secretary of State Rex Till¬erson, a prominent supporter of the agreement within a divided admin¬istration.

Trump is obliged by US law to tell Congress every three months whether Iran has been following the rules of the Joint Comprehen¬sive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the 2015 landmark treaty designed to prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons. The next report is due October 15. US officials critical of the agreement between Iran and the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain, Germany and the European Union say the deal puts US security interests at risk.

In the two most recent reports to Congress, the State Department cer¬tified Iran was complying with the agreement but the upcoming report could be different. Trump has been very critical of the Iran deal, which some officials say has emboldened Tehran to embark on disruptive ac¬tion throughout the Middle East, flush with money coming to the country because of a phase-out of sanctions under the treaty.

Trump told the Wall Street Jour¬nal in July he expected the next State Department report to say that Iran had acted against the agree¬ment. “If it was up to me, I would have had them non-compliant 180 days ago,” he said, adding that Till¬erson did not share his view. “It’s easier to say they comply. It’s a lot easier but it’s the wrong thing. They don’t comply,” Trump said.

Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations and a vocal critic of the Iran deal in Trump’s cabinet, said the Iran deal had “so many flaws that it’s tempting to leave it.” Speaking September 5 at a panel of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a conservative think-tank in Washington, she warned Iran could become “the next North Korea” if Tehran’s nuclear ambitions were not checked.

Haley accused the Iranian govern¬ment of banking on the fact that the international community regarded the nuclear agreement as essential for world peace. “They are threat¬ening the entire world because the entire world thinks the JCPOA is un¬touchable but it’s not,” she said.

The UN ambassador admitted that America’s European allies wanted to save the agreement but said the United States had to look out for itself. “Our job is not to make sure that Europeans are happy with us,” she said. “Our job is to make sure we’re keeping the American public safe.”

In contrast to Haley, Tillerson, Secretary of Defence James Mattis and national security adviser H.R. McMaster argue that the United States should stick with the Iran agreement. Their position received a boost in late August when the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog said in a report that international inspectors did not find evidence of Iranian violations of the agreement.

“The administration is divided,” said Allen Keiswetter, a former dep¬uty assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs and a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Wash¬ington. Keiswetter warned that de¬claring Iran to be in non-compliance carried the risk of separating the United States from its allies in Eu¬rope. “This opens all sorts of oppor-tunities for the Iranians to play the allies against the US,” he said.

European officials, concerned that a collapse of the JCPOA could lead to an international nuclear cri¬sis, are keen to support Tillerson. “If he wants to make the Iranians adhere to every last comma [of the treaty], he will have the British, the French and us on his side,” a senior German official said under condi¬tion of anonymity. “We have to pre-vent the agreement from blowing up in our faces.”

Keiswetter said that, while there was no doubt the Iran deal had its shortcomings, an exit by the United States could enable the Iranians to strike a deal with Russia, China and the European powers. “The US would be standing alone,” he said.

Haley’s AEI speech offered a glimpse at a possible way for the administration to move forward despite its inner divisions and the pressure from allies. She said a re¬fusal by Trump to confirm that Iran followed the deal would not au¬tomatically mean that the United States would turn its back on the agreement as a whole. If Trump declares Iran in non-compliance, Congress has two months to decide whether to reimpose unilateral US sanctions against Tehran. This proce¬dure would buy the admin¬istration time.

Keiswetter said he did not believe such a course would pro¬vide a way out for the Trump admin¬istration. “The agreement would not be dead” after a declaration of non-compliance by the United States, he said, but the United States would still break with its al¬lies in an impor¬tant question.

In essence, Keiswetter said, it was better for Washington “to ac¬cept what we have and move on to seek to im¬prove it.”