As a May 12 deadline for the US to renew sanctions waivers on Iran approaches, there are a number of possible scenarios for the nuclear deal’s survival or demise.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US-based Iran hawks have spoken of a “fix or nix” strategy that would have the Trump administration end sanctions waivers unless Europe embraces tough new sanctions on Iran’s missile program and unilateral changes to the nuclear agreement’s inspections and sunset clauses.
Supporters of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) argue in turn that the world is much better off with the deal than without it and that a US withdrawal could lead to Iran building a bomb and eventually, military action against Iran, leading to another war in the Middle East.
But there are also voices both in the West and Tehran that suggest that Iran should pull the plug first to end chronic uncertainty over the agreement that has already diminished its economic benefits for the Islamic Republic.
With hawkish new officials assuming important positions in the Trump administration and Iran experiencing considerable domestic ferment, pushing for “regime change” has become a growing tendency in Washington. One prominent advocate of this approach is former UN ambassador John Bolton who started work as Trump’s national security adviser on April 9. These hawks see US withdrawal from the JCPOA as contributing to instability in Iran and ultimately the overthrow of the theocratic government that has ruled the country for 40 years.
This hardline approach in Washington seems to be inviting misconduct from the Iranian side, in anticipation that Iran will drop out of the JCPOA before the US does.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his allies have made clear that they will not be the first to ditch the nuclear deal. However, considering that the Iranian system is not unified, this leaves the door open for hardline elements to act.
Iranian hardliners have already shown their ability to jeopardize the JCPOA by testing ballistic missiles, detaining dual nationals and continuing active military intervention in Syria, Iraq and Yemen even while complying with the requirements of the agreement in curbing Iran’s nuclear activities.
Increasing pressure from the US, Europe, Israel and Saudi Arabia to “fix” the JCPOA by making these curbs on the nuclear program permanent – plus new sanctions that would further discourage foreign companies from doing business in Iran – could strengthen hardline elements that recommend Iran seize the initiative and leave the deal before Trump can act.
For Iranians, this will be presented not as an act of desperation but as an act of independence and “not bowing to the demands of the West.”
Hossein Shariatmadari, editor in chief of the hardline daily, Kayhan, and a long-time critic of the JCPOA, says the nuclear deal is an “economic weapon” whose goal was to paralyze the Iranian economy.
In an April 2 editorial , Shariatmadari describe the JCPOA as a “US golden document” and argued that while “dropping out of the deal might be a disastrous for Trump,” it will be a “golden opportunity for Iran to eliminate one of the most important obstacles” on the way to achieving economic prosperity.
Iran’s less than anticipated economic performance and especially, the collapse of the national currency, the rial, are a rising source of frustration. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has criticized the Rouhani government for negotiating a deal that didn’t deliver on its economic promises.
Rising regional tensions with Saudi Arabia and Iran’s involvement in multiple regional conflicts are another reason why hardliners want Tehran to leave the JCPOA.
On April 8, a guest writer for Kayhan, Mohammad Hossein Mohtaram, warned that “hesitating to leave the JPOCA will pave the way for negotiations on JCPOA 2.0.” This referred to negotiations on non-nuclear topics such as regional tensions, which Rouhani had suggested might take place building on the foundation of the nuclear deal. While such talks with Iran have not materialized, France and other European countries that negotiated the JCPOA have been talking to the Trump administration about imposing new sanctions on Iran for its regional intervention and ballistic missile program.
Mohtaram suggested that if the Rouhani government is reluctant to make the decision to leave the nuclear deal before the US does, high-ranking institutions such as the Supreme National Security Council should approve such action. The president chairs the council, which includes a secretary named by the Supreme Leader and the heads of Iran’s military branches.
An Iranian decision to quit the nuclear agreement before the US acts could be a victory for the Trump White House. It would allow Trump to say that he has delivered on yet another campaign promise while putting the onus on Tehran for unraveling the JCPOA. It would also open the door for further destabilization of the Islamic Republic, which regime change advocates seek to promote.
Noah Annan is a pseudonym for an Iranian journalist who prefers to remain anonymous.