Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
WASHINGTON – Two years ago, when six world powers concluded a landmark deal with Iran over its nuclear program, the Obama administration emphasized that its scope was restricted to nuclear matters and that Tehran’s designs on the region – long of concern to the US and its closest allies – were separate problems to be handled independently.
Barack Obama siloed the nuclear debate believing it was the only way to reach a deal: he concluded that Tehran would never budge under sanctions pressure on its fundamental foreign policy goals, much less admit that its nuclear work – a point of national pride across Iran – was in fact an insurance policy for an ambitious and outward-looking Islamic Republic.
But his decision marked a significant shift in US policy, which through 2013 had treated these two challenges from Iran as intertwined. The Nuclear Iran Prevention Act passed that year and signed by Obama declared it a policy of the United States to prevent a “nuclear capable” Iran, based on the belief that Iran’s nuclear work was not only a technical effort to acquire fissile material for atomic bombs, but also a strategic effort to achieve de facto nuclear deterrence – a status that would shield Iran from retaliation for its activities region-wide.
Democrats and Republicans agreed that Iran sought this Goldilocks status: That its government had chosen to park itself at the point at which it could quickly construct a nuclear weapon, without actually building one, in order to secure all of the benefits that nuclear bombs bestow on states without suffering all of the costs. US policy was thus about preventing an Iran emboldened by nuclear deterrence from projecting its power with newfound aggression across the Middle East.
In July 2015 and to this day, critics of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action
have feared the deal ultimately secures for Iran this nuclear-threshold status.
They believe Iran will stay in compliance of the JCPOA because, after less than a decade under strict supervision, it will glide to this threshold with full international legitimacy, able to grow its nuclear program to an industrial scale. And thus critics continue to conflate the nuclear issue with Iran’s other, nonnuclear behavior.
Herein lies the “spirit” of the JCPOA, which Obama and Iranian leaders often referenced in the weeks and months after its passage. The spirit of this technical agreement in fact has little to do with Iran’s technical nuclear infrastructure, and has everything to do with Iran’s role in the world and the role Iran’s nuclear program plays in getting it there.
In Washington, the “spirit” of the deal refers to all of the ways in which Tehran has in their eyes chosen to weaponize nuclear technology through policy – whether it be through the development of an intercontinental ballistic missile program, its funneling of sanctions relief to proxy militant organizations or its strategic use of its nuclear program as a protective shield for its “malign activities.”
In Tehran, the “spirit” refers to Iran’s ability to normalize relations with the Western world regardless of its nonnuclear actions, and yet leveraging its nuclear progress: New sanctions against Iranian banks and individuals that were once involved in the nuclear program and are now facilitating Quds Force operations are all at once illegitimate, and equally in noncompliance of the nuclear accord.
The JCPOA encourages economic normalization between Iran and the international community, while at the same time allowing the US and other nations to continue sanctioning Iran for its “nonnuclear behavior.”
The difficulty of this language is that it leaves open for interpretation which new US sanctions would amount to a JCPOA violation, and which do not; and indeed, we are already seeing the confusion ensue.
After verifying that Iran was complying with the letter of the nuclear accord, the Trump administration declared this week that Tehran was also in “default” of its spirit, and slapped on new nonnuclear sanctions designations.
“The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action states the anticipation of JCPOA participants that ‘full implementation of this JCPOA will positively contribute to regional and international peace and security,’” State Department spokesman Heather Nauert said in a statement. “However, Iran’s other malign activities are serving to undercut whatever ‘positive contributions’ to regional and international peace and security were intended to emerge from the JCPOA.”
In turn, Iran declared Trump’s move a JCPOA “spirit” violation.
“It’s become a rather tired routine,” Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told American journalists in New York this week, according to Al Monitor’s Laura Rozen.
“Each time they want to certify [Iranian compliance] they make sure to do something negative. It is obviously a sign of bad faith.”
A new, nonnuclear sanctions bill on Iran is making its way through the Senate – a development that will surely test the durability of the nuclear accord and resurface debate over America’s policy goal with respect to Iran.
The Trump administration, meanwhile, continues to “fully review” its Iran policy.
“We also note Iran’s continued malign activities outside the nuclear issue undermine the positive contributions to regional and international peace and security that the deal was supposed to provide,” Nauert continued. “The United States will continue to use sanctions to target those who lend support to Iran’s destabilizing behavior and above all, the United States will never allow the regime in Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon.”