In Washington, the reality of the nuclear deal is settling in
Washington - The moment the nuclear agreement was reached between Iran and the P5+1 countries, it became clear that the devil would be in the details. Despite Iran’s testing of ballistic missiles and the additional US sanctions on Tehran during the first 90 days of implementing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), there is no doubt that the nuclear deal is here to stay.
The United States and Iran have made great strides in their political dialogue, a dramatic shift that left each country’s hardliners uncomfortable, to say the least, while moderates continude to struggle in making the case for engagement.
As US Vice-President Joe Biden was visiting Israel in March, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) tested ballistic missiles with the phrase “Israel must be wiped out” written on them in Hebrew.
Not only did the timing of this coincide with Biden’s visit, it also took place on the same day that the International Atomic Energy Agency released the first monitoring report since the implementation of the JCPOA. The report concluded that Iran fulfilled its commitments, which may have encouraged elements of the Iranian regime to shift the attention to the missiles test instead.
Hardliners in Tehran remain convinced that the United States cannot be trusted. This sentiment was echoed by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as well as by one of his closest aides, Mohsen Rezaei, the secretary of the Expediency Discernment Council and a former general in the IRGC, who hinted on April 9th that the Iranian regime has made a concession by merely not broadcasting military drills.
Khamenei publicly stated on March 30th that the United States did not keep its side of the bargain — lifting sanctions and restoring trade relations. However, the most poignant point he made was endorsing further talks with the United States as long as it goes hand in hand with retaining what he calls Iran’s “defensive power”.
In this context, Khamenei is suggesting that the missiles test will continue as a display of Iranian power and that Tehran will not negotiate with the United States unarmed.
Obviously, moderates on both sides are resisting the temptation to revert to confrontation. US President Barack Obama warned on April 1st that the missile tests would discourage foreign businesses from investing in Iran. Under-Secretary of State Thomas Shannon during a US Senate hearing on April 5th said “it is up to Iran to decide the scope and pace of engagement” with Washington.
There is a change in tone on the agreement in the US Congress. During a hearing regarding the implementation of the JCPOA, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Bob Corker, R-Tennessee, affirmed that the committee’s only intention was to enforce the deal, not counter it.
The main contentious point between the Obama administration and Republicans in Congress is over whether the United States should make it easier for Iranians to benefit from the JCPOA. While the White House is willing to take the initiative to explain to concerned foreign banks what is permitted in providing cash access to Iranian entities and individuals, Republicans want to make sure that Iranians do not gain access to the US financial system, in particular with the Iran Sanctions Act expiring at the end of 2016.
There is indeed no indication that the Obama administration will change course on its Iran policy in its last nine months in office and it is expected to continue to manage the balancing act of simultaneously engaging and deterring Iran in a manner that reflects the divide in Washington about the best way to contain Tehran. Khamenei is concerned about Iran’s economic recovery as much as he is about the weakening of its regional posture, prompting him to pursue a policy of meticulously balancing the regime’s moderates and hardliners.
Beyond the rhetoric and the missiles test, the nuclear deal is the cornerstone of a new regional dynamic for the next decade at least where Iran and the United States will have to maintain a dialogue on implementing the JCPOA while simultaneously vying for regional influence. Adjusting to this new reality is a tedious process for bureaucracies in Washington and Tehran; yet for both sides, the cost of walking away from the deal is far greater than adjusting to its consequences.