President Trump’s policy on Iran is still to be shaped. The signals sent are more than contradictory. During the election campaign, the president used to say that the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, was a bad deal which he would rip up when in power.
Indeed, the agreement endorsed by Resolution 2231 is not legally binding. The US can withdraw from it any time it wishes. President Trump could unilaterally decide to remove the presidential waivers that have implemented most of the US unilateral sanctions relief. He could also trigger the snapback procedure stipulated in Resolution 2231 in order to re-apply the now removed UN Security Council sanctions.
The certification of Iran's compliance must be sent to Congress every 90 days. On April 18, the State Department reported to lawmakers that Iran abides by the agreement and the US had extended the sanctions relief given to the Islamic republic in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program. Despite that, tensions are running high.
According to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the administration is looking at whether Washington should break with the deal because of Iran's alleged support of terrorism. «Iran remains a leading state sponsor of terror through many platforms and methods», he wrote in a letter sent on April 18 to House Speaker Paul Ryan.
On April 19, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said President Donald Trump was directing an interagency review of Iranian compliance over the next 90 days, and will have more to report at the end of that period. The National Security Council-led review will evaluate whether the agreement is vital to the US national security interests. This review might be a preview to some future action which could undermine the agreement. At the April 19 press conference, Secretary Tillerson suggested that the current nuclear agreement «fails to achieve the objective of a non-nuclear Iran and only delays their goal of becoming a nuclear state».
The administration is considering taking a harder stance on the deal – implementing the agreements in an «incredibly strict» way – or expanding sanctions against Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – an Iranian military branch intended to protect the country's Islamic system. It may expand sanctions in response to Iran’s ballistic missile testing and its funding for terrorist acts. The Treasury Department still maintains Obama-era sanctions aimed at Tehran’s support for terrorist groups and its ballistic missile program, and those conceivably could be tweaked. Sanctions were introduced in early February for testing a missile.
Whatever decisions may be taken in the future, at present President Trump is obviously backtracking on the position he took before. This is yet another iteration of a now-familiar pattern – he has already backtracked on Syria, Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan and other faraway conflicts, shifting from «America first» to «America omnipresent».
So, the administration views Iran as a prime threat but has no justification for snapping the penalties back or the use of force as the nuclear deal is complied with. Additional sanctions wouldn’t necessarily have the immediate relation to the deal, they could be imposed to penalize it for the ballistic missile program or the alleged support for terrorism. But these punitive measures and the Iran nuclear deal are separate issues.
Strengthening unilateral penalties could provoke Iran into dropping out of the agreement to pave the way for continuation of the much feared nuclear program. The IAEA inspector teams will not monitor Iran’s facilities anymore.
The IAEA said that Iran had reduced its uranium stockpile by 98% and removed two-thirds of its centrifuges, which can be used to enrich uranium. Upon leaving the deal, Iran would be free to exploit its own uranium enrichment capabilities. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei both have threatened retaliation if the United States extended the sanctions. Iranians have also been frustrated by the pace of economic improvement after the lifting of sanctions, and officials have frequently blamed the United States.
The Iran nuclear deal is multilateral not to be undone unilaterally. Five other world powers will not join in. With additional US sanctions in place, Iran could get much of what it needs elsewhere. Defying other global powers will make Washington the odd man out while the rest of the world would continue to trade with Iran. It should not be forgotten that American companies also want to make profits as they eye the Iranian market.
The more hostile Washington is toward Iran, the stronger become the positions of fundamentalists in Iranian politics.
The United States and Iran face the same enemy – the Islamic State (IS). A US-Iran standoff benefits the extremists. A conflict will make the Islamic State group the biggest winner.
These aspects of the problem cannot be ignored while the administration’s position on Iran is taking shape. Tearing up the Iran nuclear deal is easy to do but it will hardly benefit the US or the international community. The United States has more to lose by pulling out than it has from staying in.
Diplomatic means for a peaceful solution of the crisis are far from being exhausted, including efforts within with the framework of the UN Security Council. Adding the problem of Iran to the Russia-US agenda could contribute into finding a settlement to the problem.