IranInsight|Showcasing a Multifaceted Iran

April 21, 2017
At a press conference on Thursday with the Italian Prime Minister, President Trump was asked by a Fox News reporter whether Iran had cheated on the landmark nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration and other world powers in 2015.

Trump hesitated, then declared that Iran had violated the “spirit” of the accord, which sets verifiable limits on Iran’s nuclear activities in return for sanctions relief.

It was an odd answer, given that Trump’s own State Department had certified barely 24 hours earlier that Iran is complying with the agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Trump, who during the campaign, called the JCPOA one of the “worst contracts of any kind I have seen,” appears to be hedging because he realizes that the agreement is working and he has no better alternative.

Unlike Obamacare, which Trump is still attempting to repeal and replace, there is no ready substitute for a complicated accord negotiated over several years by Iran, the United States, the other permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany.

Codified into international law by the UN Security Council, the agreement put in place a number of requirements – on Iran to immediately cut back its nuclear activities and on the United States to periodically waive nuclear-related sanctions that inhibited other countries from normal trade with and investment in Iran.

The Trump administration seems to be almost disappointed that Iran has given it no cause to withdraw and that the US will be obliged to issue new sanctions waivers or itself be in noncompliance.  How else to explain a State Department notice to reporters headlined, “Iran Continues to Support Terrorism,” whose first paragraph contained the certification to Congress that Iran is abiding by the JCPOA?

It is certainly true that the US and Iran have many other differences and grievances but they were not addressed by the JCPOA. In fact, they were expressly excluded from the negotiations – otherwise, there would have been no deal.

It is also true that there were hopes among some in the Obama administration and Iran that the JCPOA would lead to improved US-Iran relations. That hope was dashed initially when Iran continued to imprison Siamak Namazi, an Iranian-American businessman and scholar, and then arrested his octogenarian father, a widely respected former UN official. 

The Trump administration then proceeded to take harmful actions of its own, most prominently the visa bans that disproportionately affect Iranians and Iranian Americans. The bans have been stayed by the courts, but have already had a chilling affect on travel and people-to-people exchanges.

Another unfulfilled hope was that the nuclear agreement could be a template for discussions on regional issues, among them the civil wars raging in Syria and Yemen and the continued instability in Iraq. Unfortunately, the Trump administration appears uninterested in talking to Iran about these problems. While Iran bears some responsibility for exacerbating them, they cannot be resolved without Iranian buy-in.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who issued his own blistering critique of Iran this week and inaccurately compared the JCPOA to the Agreed Framework – a bilateral deal with North Korea that the George W. Bush administration aborted in 2002 -- has shown so sign of seeking contact with his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif.

Zarif formed a good working relationship with Tillerson’s predecessor, John Kerry. This not only facilitated the nuclear deal but also led to the quick release of American sailors who strayed into Iranian waters accidentally last year.

There appears to be only one remaining diplomatic channel between the long-time adversaries. Both Iran and the US will be sending representatives to a scheduled meeting next week in Vienna of the Joint Commission set up to resolve disputes about the JCPOA. The other members of the P5+1 and a senior representative from the European Union will also be there.

European leaders who have been coming to Washington since the Trump inauguration have strongly urged the administration to uphold its commitments under the nuclear agreement.  Abandoning the JCPOA would cause a new US crisis with Europe, which had already been unnerved by Trump criticisms of NATO as “obsolete.” The president has since changed his mind on that topic and he should also listen to the Europeans on Iran.

Long-time observers of Iran-US relations have learned that neither side reacts well to provocations and threats. While the two countries have legitimate differences, their interests coincide in key areas such as the need to defeat the Islamic State group.

For the Trump administration, a much more immediate threat comes from North Korea, which has nuclear weapons and has openly threatened US forces in the region and the US homeland.

It is time for both Washington and Tehran to put aside name-calling and to focus on pragmatic solutions to real problems.

Barbara Slavin is Acting Director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council.

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