Uncertainty reigns as US decision on Iran nuclear agreement looms

US Secretary of Defence James Mattis testifies before a Senate Armed Services Committee

A week before a key decision by US Presi­dent Donald Trump that could kill the international agree­ment on Iran’s nuclear programme and trigger a new confrontation in the Middle East, the administration appears divided on the issue.
“With any major Trump decision, prediction is difficult,” said Da­vid Mednicoff, director of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. On one hand, “Trump likes to go with his gut” and could turn his back on the Iran deal, Mednicoff said via e-mail.
On the other hand, there was bipartisan support in Washington for the agreement, which “appears to be working” and “has helped American businesses” after the end of sanctions.
Trump has said he regards the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the 2015 Iran deal is of­ficially known, as a poorly crafted treaty that gives Tehran all the benefits while leaving the United States with scant leverage to curb Iran’s aggressive behaviour in the Middle East. In his address to the United Nations last month, Trump said he was not prepared to “abide by an agreement if it provides cover for the eventual construction of a nuclear programme.”
Trump was considering making a speech regarding Iran on October 12 that could include the announce­ment of an overarching strategy to deal with what the White House considers Tehran’s “bad behav­iour.”
“Not just the nuclear deal as bad behaviour but the ballistic missile testing, destabilising of the region, number one state sponsor of ter­rorism, cyber-attacks, illicit nuclear programme,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said.
The US State Department is obliged to tell Congress by October 15 whether Iran is complying with the JCPOA, which was designed to halt Tehran’s nuclear weapons pro­gramme in exchange for a phase-out of Western economic sanctions. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said his department would present “a couple of options” to the presi­dent but gave no details. The Wash­ington Post reported that Trump would declare Iran to be in viola­tion of the nuclear deal but would stop short of calling for new sanc­tions against Tehran.
The administration stated in two previous reports to Congress this year that Iran was following the accords. But Trump has suggested that those decisions were made against his own judgment. He told the Wall Street Journal in July he expected the October report to say that Iran had violated the agree­ment. “If it was up to me, I would have had them noncompliant 180 days ago,” he said.
While Trump and US Ambas­sador to the United Nations Nikki Haley have voiced strong reserva­tions over the JCPOA, other senior officials propose to keep the treaty alive. Defence Secretary James Mat­tis and US Marine Corps General Joe Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Senate hearing they were in favour of sticking with the accord.
“I believe, at this point in time, absent indications to the contrary, it is something that the president should consider staying with,” Mat­tis said about the agreement. The defence secretary said he believed that sticking with the Iran deal was in the US national security interest.
Dunford told the panel that Iran “is not in material breach” of the JCPOA and that the treaty had suc­ceeded in slowing Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. “I do believe the agree­ment, to date, has delayed the de­velopment of a nuclear capability by Iran,” he said.
Dunford echoed arguments by America’s European allies who concede that the agreement has flaws but are concerned that dis­solution of the treaty could lead to a new crisis in the Middle East. French President Emmanuel Ma­cron has offered to mediate be­tween Washington and Tehran to address US concerns about Iran’s regional activities.
Mednicoff said separating the nuclear issue from other problems would be a good way to proceed be­cause addressing Iran’s behaviour in the Middle East was never part of the JCPOA anyway.
“A better collaborative frame­work between Europe and the US on regional challenges in the Mid­dle East, such as Syria and Yemen, could likely deter or redirect some Iranian regional muscle-flexing,” he said.
Declaring Iran to be in non-com­pliance would not automatically end the international accord signed by Iran, the United States, China, the European Union, France, Ger­many, Russia and the United King­dom.
Following the administration report, Congress would have two months to decide whether to re­impose sanctions against Tehran. Only a vote for new sanctions in the US Congress would take Wash­ington out of the treaty. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told Politico, a Washington publication, that Iran would not tear up the agreement right away if Trump stated that Tehran was vio­lating the deal but would wait for the decision by Congress.
Quoting senators from Trump’s Republican Party, Politico reported that a majority in the chamber for new Iran sanctions is far from as­sured. As the Republicans have a narrow 52-48 majority (counting two independents who caucus with the Democrats), in the Senate and the opposition Democrats are in favour of keeping the Iran agree­ment, a few Republican voices in favour of the treaty in defiance of Trump would sink any hopes of the president for new sanctions.
If Congress does impose new sanctions, Washington could face a situation in which America is the odd one out while Iran restarts its nuclear activities and European countries keep trading with Teh­ran, Mednicoff warned.
“Trump moving to take the US out of JCPOA, as I assume his de­fence secretary knows, would only destabilise global nuclear politics further and enrich European trad­ing partners, without ensuring any negative effects on Iran’s govern­ment,” he wrote. Thomas Seibert is an Arab Weekly contributor in Istanbul.

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.