By Ladane Nasseri and Golnar Motevalli
The Iran nuclear deal, struck in 2015 after countless late nights and serial missed deadlines, is running into trouble just six months into Donald Trump’s presidency.
Trump has indicated he’s unlikely to again certify Iran’s compliance, as required under U.S. law every 90 days, arguing its missile program and foreign policy are an affront to the spirit of the pact. Separately, Congress has approved broadening sanctions through legislation awaiting Trump’s signature. The pressure has put Tehran in a bind: It sees the American actions as an infringement of the agreement, and factions that have consistently rejected it are pushing for a more aggressive Iranian riposte. Delivering one would risk allowing the U.S. to blame Iran for any subsequent collapse of the accord.
1. Will the U.S. blow up the deal?
As a candidate, Trump variously promised to scrap or renegotiate the Iran deal. Last week, he seemed to be veering toward attempting the latter, with an official saying the administration wanted to work with allies to build a case that the agreement has serious flaws. The Associated Press reported that the U.S. wants to push for more inspections of Iranian military sites that it deems suspicious, an inflammatory move. European nations — along with Iran — have so far ruled out reopening the hard-won text. With five other sovereign signatories to the agreement with Iran, a unilateral American exit wouldn’t necessarily spell the end. But it would deal a heavy blow and damage further Iranian hopes of securing the funding it needs to rebuild its economy.
2. How do others see the accord?
Three European signatories — France, Germany and the U.K. — remain committed to the agreement, and European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini is scheduled to attend the Aug. 5 inauguration of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani for a second term, in a clear show of support for the moderate cleric who has championed diplomacy. Ali Vaez, an Iran analyst at International Crisis Group, said the backing offers Iran a chance to protect the accord but such a strategy would depend on the appetite in Paris, Berlin, Brussels and London for a transatlantic confrontation. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif will push the message that the U.S. is “rocking the boat” — and risking European business interests in the Islamic Republic — at a time when international monitors agree that Iran is adhering to commitments to curb its nuclear program, said Ariane Tabatabai, an Iran expert at Georgetown University.
3. Are there other friends out there?
Iran has deepened economic and military ties with the two other powers that signed the pact, Russia and China, both veto-wielding members of the United Nations Security Council. That allows Iran to signal to the U.S. that “we are everywhere you have an interest in,” said Tabatabai. But neither country can unlock the financing Iran requires, nor are they likely to persuade Trump to back off.
4. Is Iran likely to respond militarily?
Parliament has already approved the outlines of a bill that would increase funding for the country’s missile program — which Iran considers essential for its defense — and the Revolutionary Guards, the premier security force. Under Trump, the U.S. has expanded sanctions on both. More flashpoints are likely. Iran said July 27 it had successfully tested a rocket for sending satellites into space, a move immediately denounced as provocative by the U.S. for its use of long-distance technology. With Iranian and American forces in proximity in Syria and Iraq, as well as the waters of the Persian Gulf, Iran could look to “raise the cost” in the region for the U.S., said Vaez. However that’s very risky, he said, and the nuclear deal could end up as “collateral damage.” Unintended clashes are a possibility. The U.S. 5th Fleet and Iran’s Guards gave contesting accounts of a July 28 incident in which American helicopters shot warning flares.
5. Can Iran appeal to the law?
Iran argues that the U.S. is contravening the nuclear deal by taking steps that undermine the normalization of trade with the Islamic Republic. Just like any other signatory to the agreement — known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — Iran can take a complaint over non-compliance to a Joint Commission, which has representation from all parties. The commission would have 35 days to resolve the dispute, including possible referral to the seven nations’ foreign ministers. Action through an international judicial agency would be difficult, said Will Breeze, a partner at London-based international law firm Herbert Smith Freehills. The U.S. is targeting issues, such as Iran’s missile development, that aren’t covered by the nuclear deal. “These are just U.S.-driven sanctions and it’s a sovereign right,” he said. “Many might not like the extra-territorial nature of U.S. sanctions, but they can’t do anything about it.”
6. Might Iran expand its nuclear activity?
Countering what Iran sees as U.S. bad behavior with some of its own would likely bring retribution. Accelerating its nuclear work beyond what’s allowed under the accord could invite U.S. or Israeli strikes on its facilities, said Vaez at Crisis Group. It would also put the supportive Europeans “between a rock and a hard place,” he said. In an interview in late July, Zarif said that as long as the deal was functioning, the Islamic Republic would not give Trump a “gift” by leaving it. Iranian leaders see Trump as the “unreasonable” party and want to portray themselves as the “grown-ups in the room,” according to Amir Handjani, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. Iran’s unlikely to walk away unless the Trump administration does something that fundamentally changes the equation, he said.
7. How could that happen?
The U.S. could unilaterally trigger a process to reinstate broad United Nations sanctions. The Security Council would then have 30 days to pass a resolution to continue sanctions relief and halt the deal’s so-called “snap-back” mechanism. A failure to do so, Iran has asserted, would leave it with no option but to stop abiding by the accord.
The Reference Shelf
• A guide to the Iran nuclear deal by the Belfer Center
• Bloomberg News has published a QuickTake on Iran’s nuclear program, including a map of its major atomic facilities.
• Federation of American Scientists overview of the effectiveness of applying sanctions on Iranian nuclear facilities.
• A Bloomberg story on Middle East battles where Iranian and U.S. forces operate in close proximity.