In T-minus 100 days, US President Donald Trump will decide whether or not to nix the 2015 nuclear deal signed between Iran and world powers, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The American leader has made clear that unless the accord's "disastrous flaws" are fixed, he will re-impose nuclear-related sanctions on Tehran, a move that would effectively kill the pact.
President Trump has highlighted, in particular, the agreement's so-called "sunset clauses" that remove restrictions on Tehran after narrow time frames, including limits on its ability to enrich uranium in just over a decade from now. The US president also has pointed to the deal's failure to address Iran's "nefarious" regional ambitions, manifest in its involvement in the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
Another key point of contention is the Islamic Republic's perceived flouting of a United Nations Security Council resolution related to its ballistic missile program. While the nuclear pact does not specifically cover the matter, prior to 2010 a legally binding UN resolution definitely stated that, "Iran shall not undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons." However, during the JCPOA negotiating process, the parties agreed to replace the existing resolution with a new one that merely "called upon" Tehran to refrain from ballistic missile work for eight years.
Notably, since the signing of the atomic deal, Iran reportedly tested upwards of two dozen ballistic missiles. For its part, Tehran argues that such activity is permitted because the missiles could not possibly be developed with nuclear weapons in mind, as atomic arms are explicitly banned under the JCPOA. Still, most defense analysts disagree with this circular reasoning given that ballistic missiles serve little purpose other than as a delivery apparatus for nuclear warheads.
All of this, meanwhile, comes against the backdrop of a more fundamental debate; namely, over whether Iran is complying with the "letter" of the nuclear deal. Whereas the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) claims that Tehran is, in fact, abiding by its obligations, critics maintain that it is virtually impossible to know exactly what the Islamic Republic is up to due to the agreement's inherent limitations.
According to Dr. Emily Landau, head of the Arms Control and Regional Security Program at Israel's Institute for National Security Studies, the question of Iranian compliance may, somewhat paradoxically, be unanswerable. "As far as Iran's declared nuclear facilities and what it is doing in terms of uranium enrichment, I think they are upholding the deal, however, with regard to military facilities, we don't have a complete picture. One of the problems with the agreement," she elaborated to The Media Line, "is that it has severely curtailed transparency in the public domain. So the IAEA reports have become very thin and we don't have the information we had in the past."
In this respect, Dr. Landau points to multiple accounts claiming that the IAEA is reticent even to ask Iran for access to various suspicious sites because the UN body assumes the answer will be no and is remiss to get into a dispute with the Islamic Republic. Additionally, multiple intelligence reports suggest that Tehran continues to actively procure technologies relevant to the development of nuclear weapons, yet this issue is not under the purview of the IAEA.
As a result, Dr. Landau concludes that "when the IAEA says that Iran is in compliance with the JCPOA, that is partial at best."
Amid the impasse, the White House is pursuing a dual-track policy, insisting that Congress draft new legislation containing "trigger" mechanisms that would snap-back sanctions on the Islamic Republic if it violates as yet undefined elements of the above-mentioned criteria. In parallel, Washington is pressuring European parties to the deal—Britain, France and Germany—to negotiate a "follow-on" accord that would close some of the JCPOA's "loopholes."
To date, neither effort has shown much promise, with Congress having essentially ignored President Trump's demand during the previous 120-day window between deadlines requiring him to, in accordance with American law, certify Iranian compliance with the JCPOA. But as crunch-time approaches, momentum appears to be building with legislators purportedly discussing ways to both keep the US in the deal while ensuring that Iran's atomic capabilities remain, indefinitely, at one-year away from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
As regards the Europeans, cracks in their position may also be appearing. Last week, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson expressed a tentative readiness to work with Washington to address the ballistic missile issue. "We think we can do that—we think we can do that together," he said during a press conference with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. However, Johnson qualified his comments by reiterating that, "it’s important we…don’t vitiate the fundamentals of the Iran nuclear deal, and we’re sure we can do that."
According to Brig. Gen. Lior Akerman, a former division head in the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), President Trump is correct in his assessment of the nuclear accord, as "it is a bad one that allows the Iranians to continue to develop nuclear [competencies]." He thus contended to The Media Line that the White House's approach "will legitimize a global struggle against Iran's arms race and could improve the sanctions imposed on Tehran for its involvement in terrorism."
Akerman predicted that "with regard to the US Congress, there is a great chance that it will approve additional anti-Iranian moves." Not so, however, for the Europeans, "as they have yet to internalize the danger Iran [poses] and, on the other hand, they see it as having great commercial potential."
By contrast, Dr. Landau believes that London, Paris and Berlin may be coming around, as evidenced by their "newfound willingness to admit that there are problems with the deal and to at least consider the missile issue.... Up until now," she noted, "the Europeans had been saying that the agreement is taking care of the nuclear matter while they got back to [forging] economic deals with the Iranians. Only the threat by Trump has caused them to take at least a quarter of a step back. They still don't want to open up the deal or do anything to hurt it, but I think there is an understanding on their part that Trump is serious and if there is no effort on their part he could leave the deal."
Some analysts therefore envision a middle-ground being reached that would allow the US to remain in the nuclear accord in the short-term while simultaneously tightening the screws on Tehran and its proxies. To this end, when President Trump last month reluctantly waived the re-imposition of comprehensive sanctions on Iran he concurrently instructed the US Treasury to blacklist fourteen Iranian individuals and entities accused of supporting Tehran's ballistic missile program or perpetrating human rights abuses. This included the designation of Sadeq Larijani, the head of Iran's judicial system, who is a close ally of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.
At the same time, President Trump also ordered Attorney General Jeff Sessions to revive a Drug Enforcement Agency probe into Hezbollah's illicit activities that was reportedly hindered by the Obama administration in order to clinch the nuclear accord. Already, the US has taken the unprecedented step of placing million-dollar bounties on senior Hezbollah figures with the aim of crippling the Iranian underling's illegal empire.
Such moves have, unsurprisingly, been met by vehement disapproval in Tehran, with senior officials lining up to reiterate the regime's refusal to modify the nuclear deal under any circumstances. But it is difficult to separate Iran's bluster from its actual resolve, as the Islamic Republic, for instance, took no tangible action against Washington despite threatening a "serious response" to the sanctions imposed by President Trump in January. Moreover, recent reports suggest that the Europeans have formally discussed with Iranian leaders the prospect of formulating a side-deal relating to its ballistic missile program.
When announcing his potential pull-out from the nuclear deal, President Trump warned the world not to doubt his words. And while it appears that they are now being taken seriously, it is quite possible that the May deadline will come and go without any progress made. In this eventuality, the American leader may be forced to go it alone, a scenario that, given the precedents set during his first year in office, is likely to be more than fine by him.