As Tehran distances itself from JCPOA, ex-diplomat takes case to America

Seyed Hossein Mousavian: Tehran will not respond well to ‘bullying’ and ‘disrespect’

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani walks to deliver a speech during the Conference of Government’s Achievements in Developing Rural Infrastructure in Tehran, Iran, August 26, 2019.  (photo credit: PRESIDENT.IR/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani walks to deliver a speech during the Conference of Government’s Achievements in Developing Rural Infrastructure in Tehran, Iran, August 26, 2019.
 [HOUSTON] – Tehran, according to a leading Iranian official, is set to take an additional step away from the constraints demanded by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a 2015 multilateral nuclear agreement aimed at stopping any Iranian drive toward developing nuclear weapons.

“We will probably impose limits on inspections, which means that the International Atomic Energy Agency’s surveillance on Iran’s nuclear activities will be reduced,” Hossein Naghavi Hosseini, spokesman for the Iranian parliament’s National Security Committee, said last week, according to the country’s Mehr news agency.

The steps away from JCPOA’s constraints started during the summer, coming in response to severe economic sanctions imposed by the Trump Administration, which in 2018 withdrew from the accord, calling it insufficiently strict. The first three steps involved surpassing limits on uranium enrichment, stockpile size and the use of advanced centrifuges for enrichment.

Yet a prominent citizen of Iran has been speaking across the United States to deliver the Iranian narrative directly to the American people, saying this narrative is not sufficiently well known. 

“In the absence of diplomatic relations between Tehran and Washington, it is extremely important to help Americans [obtain] a better understanding of today’s reality in Iran,” Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a retired diplomat, ally of President Hassan Rouhani and for many years the spokesman of Iran’s nuclear negotiation team, told The Media Line.

Mousavian insists that the steps being taken by Tehran are solely to give the Islamic Republic leverage in negotiations to reduce or even end the sanctions. But Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, says Iran should pay close attention to the US indictment last week of HalkBank, a Turkish financial institution accused of trying to work around them.

"Whatever Mousavian or Iran thinks that it might be able to accomplish right now has been undercut significantly by the HalkBank indictment,” Schanzer told The Media Line. 

“The indictment was a reminder to the business community of the cost involved in doing business with Iran,” he continued. “[HalkBank] did not acknowledge the restrictions that the US had imposed on the international community and engaged in roughly $20 billion worth of business with Iran. Ultimately, a banker was jailed, the key facilitator was arrested and then eventually turned into a state’s witness, and now the bank itself is facing indictments, so I think it is a clear sign that the United States has the ability to impose its will when it comes to [the] Iran sanctions.”

Dr. Ephraim Kam, a former colonel in the Israel Defense Forces and currently a senior research fellow at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies, told The Media Line that Iran was removing “one by one” all of the limitations of JCPOA.

“Iran is now much closer than it was two and a half years ago to achieving nuclear capability, although it has not said it will break out to the bomb,” he said.

Nevertheless, Kam called it a “significant change in Iranian policy, even though in the end they are saying it is not their fault, but a response to the US decision to withdraw from the pact.”

Mousavian feels that the main driver of US policy is not President Donald Trump, but Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (and – before he was fired as national security adviser – John Bolton), as well as Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. 

“They pushed him to close every door for negotiations,” the Iranian said.

Last month, Netanyahu said that Israeli Intelligence had located a previously unknown site tied to Iran’s nuclear weapons program. He said at a news conference that nuclear experiments had been conducted at a site near Abadeh, and that when Iranian leaders realized it had been uncovered, they destroyed it.

If true, this indicates that Tehran violated both JCPOA and the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, to which it is a signatory.

At about the same time, the Reuters news agency reported that the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN’s nuclear watchdog, had discovered traces of uranium in Tehran’s Turquzabad district, and that Iran had yet to provide an explanation.

In light of these developments, Mousavian told The Media Line that Iran would not respond well to what he called “bullying” and “disrespect.”

David Adesnik, director of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, wrote an opinion piece for Fox News in June stating that the US need not strike Iran militarily, but should stand firm, using sanctions without taking the possibility of military action off the table.

“Our strategy should focus on tightening the economic chokehold now weakening the Islamic Republic,” he wrote. “If and only if the radicals in Tehran recognize that their regime is on the brink of collapse will they come back to the table and negotiate a deal to dismantle their nuclear program and stop their terror attacks and aggression. Trying to appease Iran is a strategy doomed to failure.” 

Dr. Chuck Freilich, a former deputy national security adviser in Israel and currently a senior fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center, says that President Trump is exerting “maximum pressure” to reach a better nuclear deal with Iran.

“The question, of course, is whether the Iranians are, indeed, at the point when they are willing to come to the table,” he told The Media Line. “So far, there have been mixed signals, and the latest word still seems to be Supreme Leader [Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei coming out against it.”

Dr. Alon Ben-Meir, a professor of international relations at New York University, agrees with the importance of President Trump communicating with his counterparts with respect to deescalate rising tensions.

“Since both the US and Iran want to avoid war,” Ben-Meir told The Media Line, “Trump must make it clear that his administration does not seek regime change in Tehran; reiterate his willingness to enter into direct and unconditional negotiations to mitigate some of the deep distrust between the countries; and publicly state that the US’s intent is to have an improved agreement that reflects the interests of both sides, knowing that any new negotiations could not ignore the conditions under the original deal.”

There is also the matter of Israel and how it might react to a renegotiated nuclear agreement.

“If Trump reaches a deal [with Iran], he will put heavy pressure on Israel to accept it, at least not to oppose it,” Freilich said.

“What [Israel] needs,” he continued, “are a few important things, foremost for there to be no so-called sunset clauses. In other words, the nuclear limitations have to be in perpetuity or at least extremely long-term, unlike [JCPOA].”

As far as Mousavian is concerned, Iran has its diplomatic work cut out for it, although public diplomacy on behalf of Iran is not solely for people like him.

“I believe all Iranians who are living in the US should do their best in order to prevent a possible war, to end the US sanctions against Iran and minimize the animosities,” he said.