With Friends Like These, There is Hope for the Iran Deal

The Iran Deal, otherwise known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), has been instrumental in checking Iran’s nuclear program. However, it is not a panacea for Iran’s aggression. Faced with a 120-day deadline to preserve the Iran Deal, European signatories have had to accept Trump’s concerns about the perceived threats Iran poses as their own. They have ramped up their diplomatic efforts to communicate their commitment to addressing Iran’s ballistic missile program and other destabilizing activities. Given the general support among Trump’s advisors and within Congress for the Iran Deal, the author remains cautiously optimistic that European signatories and the U.S. will be able to maintain the Deal while also advancing their security interests.

If it is any consolation to those worried about the future of the Iran Deal, Trump, for all his tweeting, does seem to heed the advice of his policymakers. Though he had on multiple occasions expressed his desire to seek an alternative approach, last Friday’s resolution was the third time he has continued to waive the application of certain nuclear sanctions against Iran, upon the recommendation of advisors like Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis.

However, Trump has managed to add his own flair to each re-approval, escalating worries that he will eventually act on his campaign pledge to renege on “the worst deal ever.” He refused to attest to Iran’s compliance with the deal’s terms in October, “decertifying” the deal while remaining part of it, and then announced his requirement that Congress and America’s European allies work together to force new conditions on Iran. He further ramped up pressure on the Deal’s European signatories by coupling his re-approval with targeted sanctions against 14 Iranian officials and a reaffirmation of his October threat: If Germany, France, the U.K. and the E.U. refused to approve a rewritten nuclear agreement with provisions addressing Iran’s involvement in terrorism and its ballistic missile program, among others, the U.S. would leave the deal.

The Deal, from Iran’s point of view, is not open to revision. Its European signatories have also stressed their commitment to the JCPOA in its current form. “We cannot afford as the international community to dismantle a nuclear agreement that is working,” Federica Mogherini, the EU Foreign Policy Chief, said. As Boris Johnson, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, more bluntly put it “I don’t think anyone has come up with a better deal,” before adding: “I think it is incumbent on those who oppose the JCPOA to come up with a better solution because we haven’t seen it so far.”

The Iran Deal has so far stalled Iran’s nuclear development, but its jurisdiction is limited. Herein lies part of Trump’s problem with it. Iran, while not violating the terms of the deal itself, has violated other measures under the same UNSC resolution 2231, and UNSC resolution 2216 – including developing ballistic missiles which can be used to deliver nuclear weapons and allegedly assisting rebel groups throughout the Middle East. However, European officials have stressed that these issues should be addressed separately from the nuclear deal.

Seemingly, the European signatories and the U.S. attribute different levels of threat to Iran, as has been shown in their disparate approaches toward Iran over the past few months. In September 2017, the U.S. unilaterally requested that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which reports to the UN’s General Assembly and Security Council, pay a visit to Iran’s military sites, which are excluded from routine inspections. Their request was rejected, and critics have seized on what they view as a concession to Iran.

In late October, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation targeting Iran’s ballistic missile program, and continued working with the Senate to strengthen the Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Act – a bill enacted two years earlier to crack down on Iran’s terror proxy. Other members of the Foreign Affairs Committee  introduced a bill targeting Iranian officials implicated in human rights abuses and hostage-taking, as well as a bill meant to target funding sources for Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), who are involved in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Now that Trump has indicated he wants changes made to the Deal, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) indicated that any revisions will focus on the “sunset provisions,” or the temporary nature of the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program, and the aforementioned question of access by international inspectors to possible nuclear sites.

European signatories have repeatedly lobbied to save the Iran Deal each time it has been sent to Trump, but they have not responded to American calls to reevaluate how they frame their behavior toward Iran. In October, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called on them to join the U.S.-led sanctions regime on the IRGC. Though their pursuit of investment in Iran has been relatively negligible so far, and the EU does continue to hold sanctions on Iranian individuals and organizations it believes have participated in human rights violations and terrorism, including against several members of the IRGC, it has not updated the list since December 2016.

Meanwhile,  the U.S. maintains its own list of over a hundred individuals and organizations and seems keen to continue adding. The US is serious about its sanctions; it may even risk a multibillion dollar deal reached by Boeing and written into the Iran Deal in 2015 should it be found that Iran has been using American planes for militant activities like arms trafficking. In October, Tillerson refused to discuss the Boeing deal with the Wall Street Journal. Sigal Mandelker, the Treasury Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, affirmed recently that new economic sanctions would continue raining down on Iran if it refused to stop using aircraft to transport militants and supporting the Assad regime and Hezbollah. 

While the U.S. has ramped up pressure against the regime through promises of support for the Iranian people, sanctions and IAEA requests, over the past year European signatories have remained committed to a diplomatic approach of discourse with the regime that doesn’t produce the immediate outcomes Trump seems to be looking for. The day before Trump issued European parties one “last chance” to fix the Deal,  Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s foreign minister, briefed Rex Tillerson on a meeting he, British and French foreign ministers – along with Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief – had with their Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif in Brussels, where they agreed to hold an “intensive and very serious dialogue” on Iran’s missile program and activities throughout the Middle East. Unfortunately, the future success of such discourse is uncertain; Ali Khamenei, Iran’s clerical leader, has released statements on Twitter that indicate the ballistic missile program, for one, is non-negotiable.

Diplomatic relations between the US and the European signatories have also been better. On January 5, the UN, following the Security Council’s decision to hold a vote on Trump’s Jerusalem Declaration in December, delivered another barb to Trump. The US, requesting a meeting to discuss the Iran protests and the safety of the Iranian people, was criticized for interfering in Tehran’s internal affairs. UN Ambassador Francois Delattre of France said, “As worrisome as they may be, developments in recent days do not pose a threat to international peace and security.”  Russian, Chinese and Iranian ambassadors all stressed that the meeting was an abuse of American power and the Security Council platform.  

The way Trump has articulated his displeasure as regards the Deal – with a unilateral demand that European partners and Iran acquiesce to the rewriting of a Deal which was assumed to be closed to revision – added further diplomatic tension. Trump’s security advisors had previously stressed that supporting the Iran Deal would not impede on his ability to place pressure on Iran in other ways, and Congress was working toward just this aim. Now that there is a deadline,  European and American lawmakers must scramble to produce a suitable outcome.

If there is any silver lining amongst this uncertainty, Trump takes those he trusts seriously when decision time rolls around. This was made all the more evident on January 11 when Trump, caught up in his usual morning tradition of watching ‘Fox and Friends,’ first sided with the hosts to tweet out his criticism of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance program, referencing the dossier that accused him of Russian ties during his presidential campaign. After sufficiently frightening Republicans, he quickly rescinded his previous statement to support the law under question in accordance with the GOP platform.

From media reports, it seems as though Trump has remained on good terms with those advisors most versed on Iran. While Trump has declared his demands, he’s left the fine details of the Deal’s revision to senior advisors and a Congress that overall remains committed to upholding it. U.S. policymakers are willing to apply pressure on Iran, but they are more rational about presenting an option that will not alienate Europe, with both U.S. Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) indicating their desire to work with their allies to present a suitable compromise.

Several European signatories have already begun taking solo stands affirming Trump’s Middle East policy. German authorities on Tuesday raided the homes and offices of 10 suspected Iranian spies, following a lead from the country’s domestic intelligence agency. German politician Reinhold Robbe, who had been spied on for months by an Iranian intelligence agency, on Friday told Deutsche Welle that he believes the extent to which Iran maintains intelligence activities in Germany is underestimated. French President Emmanuel Macron apparently told President of the Palestinian National Authority Mahmoud Abbas to consider Trump’s proposed peace plan, even after Trump’s Jerusalem Declaration, and has remained on relatively good terms with Trump. According to Abdolreza Faraji-rad, Iran’s former ambassador to Norway, Macron is also “deciding to both maintain his policy of safeguarding the JCPOA while launching talks regarding Iran’s ballistic missile program and this regime’s role in the region, all to gain U.S. content.” On Tuesday, the Financial Times noted that the EU was stepping up its pressure on Iran over its ballistic missile program, and an unnamed official announced that action has already been taken to address Trump’s concerns.

There is also hope that Iran is being cowed by European and US pressure, according to Iranian activist Heshmat Alavi who follows Iran’s media. Khamenei knows the finger of blame for economic mismanagement, corruption and repression is a flick away from his direction, and that enough Iranians, like the thousands who shouted “Death to Khamenei” in the streets a few weeks ago, have not been satisfied, and have been promised Trump’s  support “at the appropriate time.” If the EU and the U.S. indicate that they are united on the threats Iran poses, Iran may even be willing to revisit the Deal – anything to keep a lid on further protests.

Lucy Filipac is a recent graduate in International Relations from Leiden University.

Photo by U.S. State Department