One way or another, this week will be a turning point in the Iran nuclear deal saga, including its impact on Israel.
Kelsey Davenport of the US Arms Control Association and others have contended that the administration is likely to waive sanctions against Iran on Wednesday or Thursday this week.
That would mark the first time the Trump administration not only declined to torpedo the nuclear agreement, but actually proactively boosted and owned the deal by agreeing to the periodic sanctions waiver that is part of the agreement.
The idea, Davenport explained, is that the sanctions waiver must be renewed every 120 days and that the Obama administration’s last renewal came just before he left office on January 20. Hence, the next waiver would be this coming week.
Israel has mixed feelings about the sanctions waiver.
It does not like any action that frees up Iranian funds to meddle more in Syria, Lebanon and Gaza, all of which endanger Israeli security. But it does not want the deal to fall apart prematurely (or if it does, only due to an Iranian violation, not a US failure to meet an obligation), lest Iran be free to dash to the bomb even sooner than Israel worries it will.
Also, later this week, on Friday, there are Iranian elections, both presidential and local.
Israelis do not trust President Hassan Rouhani. But at least they believe he will likely continue to fulfill Iran’s obligations under the nuclear deal for the foreseeable future.
Iran's Rouhani defends nuclear deal in election debate (credit: REUTERS)
This may only be to buy time for an economic recovery, followed by a dash to the bomb a few years later, but Rouhani staying in power at least puts off D-Day.
Rouhani’s predicted main opponent, Ebrahim Raisi, is much less committed to the deal and may work to indirectly undermine it.
Raisi’s constituency is the hard-line clerical class; he is allied with the Revolutionary Guard Corps and he may even be in line as a successor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Iran’s president himself on May 5 expounded on the dangers of his opponents, when he accused the Revolutionary Guard Corps of trying to undermine the deal’s stability by writing anti-Israel messages on ballistic missiles it test-fired.
Israelis mostly prefer a non-trustworthy but stable Rouhani to a possible new version of the hard-line and chaotic former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
So whether or not the US president waives sanctions is important in signaling a final transformation for Trump in which he owns the deal as well as for its impact on Iran’s elections.
Declining to waive sanctions or delaying the decision until after Iranians vote may have the US in violation of the deal and may help Raisi and Iran’s other hard-liner candidates, said Davenport. Renewing the sanctions waiver before Friday means Trump is trying to help and may help Rouhani, she added, though noting that hard-liners could still argue that the “US timing is designed to support Rouhani and paint him as” pro-American.
Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya Iran expert Meir Javedanfar said, “President Trump will have to renew the waivers. He has no other choice, simply because, whether we like it or not, Iran has lived up to its part of the deal, and as the sanctions are related to the nuclear program, any sanctions that are part of the deal” must be waived.
As for the Israeli perspective on Trump’s decision about waiving sanctions, Javedanfar said it was safe to assume that the security establishment "believes that the continuation of the nuclear deal is very important.
I would say that the security establishment in Israel wants Trump to renew the sanctions waivers because if he doesn’t, then it would be America who has broken the nuclear deal.”
He said this would be bad for Israel, “because Iran can use that as an excuse to restart its nuclear program.
And we don’t want to give the Iranian hard-liners any excuses.”
Regarding the impact on Iranian elections if Trump does not waive sanctions, he said, “That will be a late present to the hard-liners who are currently struggling against Rouhani... the hard-liners would appreciate that. It would be a boost for them and I think it would have at least a marginal impact on the elections, but an important, symbolic impact.”
Moving to the relationship between Iran’s behavior in the region and the nuclear deal in threatening Israel, Javedanfar had a more subtle message.
On one hand, he said, “Iran’s behavior in the region is problematic, but that is a separate case,” adding that the nuclear deal distinguishes between Tehran’s nuclear actions and its other activities, and does not allow the US to drop the deal because of other activities.
On the other hand, he said, “If President Trump wants to help Israel’s security, it’s important that he focuses more on” Iran’s presence in Syria and makes sure “to minimize or remove completely” that presence, if possible.
“It is very important that President Trump pressures [Russian President Vladimir] Putin to make sure that Iran cannot in the future use Syrian territory to threaten Israel.
This is a much more present and realistic threat than Iran breaking the nuclear deal,” Javedanfar added.
Dr. Emily Landau, an Iran expert at the Institute for National Security Studies, took the discussion in a different direction.
“I cannot predict what will be decided” regarding the sanctions waiver, but for Israel and the West, “what is important is what we can say about the emerging approach to Iran... and I believe that regardless of the waiver decision coming up, [US Secretary of State] Tillerson’s April 19 statement is what is important to focus on,” Landau said.
“In a nutshell: There is a coherent approach in Tillerson’s statement and it hinges on understanding that for the administration... that Iran was complying with the deal, is not equal to the administration saying that the deal is ‘working,’” Landau continued.
“What it indicates is that Iran is, not surprisingly, more or less complying (and there actually have been some violations) with a deal that is not too bad from its point of view. The Trump administration thus continues to believe it’s a bad deal...
and the fact that the deal actually emboldened Iran as far as aggressive regional behavior obviously makes that all the more so,” she added.
Landau said this approach is different than that of the Obama administration, which “erroneously claimed that the deal stopped Iran in the nuclear realm.”