Iranian President Hassan Rouhani struck a defiant tone during his swearing-in ceremony this weekend, accusing Washington of undermining the nuclear agreement signed between world powers and Iran in July 2015—which removed a range of sanctions on Tehran in exchange for the scaling back of its atomic program. Rouhani went so far as to call on European nations to oppose US President Donald Trump’s signaled desire to either amend, or scrap altogether, “the worst deal ever.”
“The US’s repeated violations of its commitments and the new sanctions…can hamper implementation of the nuclear deal,” Rouhani asserted in reference to a law signed by Trump last week that seeks to ban, among other things, individuals associated with Iran’s ballistic missile program from entering the US For his part, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif—who oversaw the nuclear negotiations with the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany)—claimed that Trump was “trying to destroy the nuclear accord at Iran’s expense, and Europe should be conscious of this.”
To this end, both Rouhani and Zarif met with EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, who attended the inauguration in Tehran, to lobby the bloc to reject any move by Trump to alter the deal. Concurrently, Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called on European countries to “take a more independent policy towards Iran.”
The comments come after Trump last month reluctantly recertified that the Islamic Republic is in compliance with “the letter” of the nuclear accord, while slamming Tehran for being “unquestionably in default of the spirit” of the agreement; citing its continued work on a ballistic missile program and destabilizing activities in the Middle East, especially through proxies in Syria and Yemen. At the time, the US president reportedly sparred with his secretary of state, defense chief and national security head, who all argued that failure to recertify Iran could have harmful effects both in terms of Tehran’s “malign activities” in the region, as well as on diplomatic relations with other signatories to the deal.
Nevertheless, Trump reportedly has tasked a team with drafting a proposal to give him options in the event he chooses to abrogate the accord this coming October, when the White House must again advise Congress whether Iran is complying with its obligations. This initiative coincides with an overall Iran policy review being conducted at Trump’s behest which is expected to be completed by month’s end.
According to Col. (ret.) Eldad Shavit, a Senior Analyst at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies and the former head of the research division in the Israel Defense Forces Intelligence Corps, despite Trump’s past declarations and current inclinations his hands may be tied. “When it comes to actually formulating policy it is complicated,” Shavit explained to The Media Line. “It is not like throwing out lines during an election campaign. There are differences within the Trump administration, and people are trying to explain to him the difficulties. And if he does declare Iran to be in non-compliance, he has to do it with a significant excuse and in a way that does not isolate the US”
In this respect, Shavit alludes to reports that Trump was considering asking the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to visit various nuclear sites in Iran, a request the Mullahs would likely deny. Such a refusal would then, the thinking goes, open the door for Washington to back out of the deal by arguing that Tehran is stonewalling inspections and therefore is in default of its commitments
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The problem, as Shavit notes, is that Trump would need reasonable cause before making such a request to the IAEA in the first place, and that reliable evidence of Iranian infractions may simply be lacking. Moreover, he continued, “The Iranians are not going to play into Trump’s hands—they understand that he wants to push them into a corner and they are unlikely to fall into this trap.”
The larger concern for Trump, however, appears to be Iran’s fomenting of regional unrest, which was left entirely unaddressed by the 2015 accord. “One of the failures of the agreement,” Shavit contended to The Media Line, “was that the Obama administration dealt only with the nuclear program, but the Trump administration wants to combine all the issues. Yet Tehran’s behavior is much more complicated to deal with because the Iranians are already in Syria, very influential in Iraq and trying to increase their presence in Yemen. And it is unlikely Trump will invest resources in dealing with these places.
“The Iranians,” he concluded, “can also challenge the Americans in the region and cause them a lot of problems.”
Much also depends on internal politics within Iran, where there is a constant tug-of-war over the formulation of policy between the so-called moderates, led by President Rouhani, and the hardliners, who are more closely aligned with Khamenei and which includes the powerful Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps. If Trump adopts a more aggressive approach towards the Islamic Republic, even while upholding the accord, Rouhani could be forced to act out of political necessity, thereby raising the stakes in a possible standoff.
Speaking to The Media Line, Prof. Meir Litvak, Director of the Alliance Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University elaborated on this dilemma. “Rouhani is clearly upset because what Trump is doing helps the more extreme elements inside Iran. [As such], Rouhani has more urgency in bringing in the Europeans, as the Iranians are not afraid of them.” Then, invoking an old diplomatic adage, he explained: “European countries used to talk about critical engagement with Iran, which meant the two sides would engage and criticize Washington.”
Such a united front would then make it more costly politically for Trump to annul the nuclear deal.
Nevertheless, according to Prof. Litvak, the fact remains that “Rouhani has limited impact on foreign policy, but rather can only try to maneuver within the boundaries offered by Khamenei.” And the Supreme Leader has long advocated against any rapprochement with the US, with his willingness to even negotiate on the nuclear issue having been viewed as a concession by most analysts; a reality which accounts, at least in part, for why the eventual accord was limited uniquely to this domain.
Overall, then, Trump is liable to soon find himself at a crossroads, faced with a potentially legacy-defining decision. While there is logic in preventing Iran from leveraging the nuclear agreement to sow regional chaos at will, the US president must devise an over-arching policy that weighs these concerns against the consequences of walking away from the nuclear accord. It is a delicate balancing act—a proficiency, in fact—that many observers suggest has been conspicuously absent from the White House so far during Trump’s tenure.
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