Tension is building in Washington and Tehran as the date for re-certifying Iran as compliant with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nears.
Certification of the agreement every 90 days by the American administration is not part of the JCPOA. Rather, it was imposed on the Obama administration by the Republican-led Congress, which passed the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA) in 2015 to increase leverage on Iran to stick to the deal’s requirements. President Trump certified Iranian compliance twice, but he appears reluctant to do so again by an Oct. 15 deadline.
In his recent remarks at the UN General Assembly, Trump called the JCPOA “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into” and “an embarrassment to the United States.” Nikki Haley, the US Ambassador to the UN, has suggested that Trump may not consider the deal in US national security interests because of perceived limitations on inspections and expiration of some limits on Iran’s nuclear activities. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, testifying before Congress on Oct. 3, disagreed with Haley on whether the JCPOA remains in US interests. He said it did. But Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently called the JCPOA “flimsy” and said that “the President will have to make that decision [about certification]; ultimately, it’s what he wants to do.”
Iranians believe that Trump leans towards a “decertification and renegotiation” option, a strategy of applying pressure on Iran to bring it back to negotiating table. Ray Takeyh, a senior analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations, was one of the first to suggest this idea. Other advocates of this approach assert that the US cannot certify that Iran is fully implementing the JCPOA because military sites are off limits to routine inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
In anticipation of the decision in Washington, Iranian media have increased their coverage of the issue. An analysis of the articles provides some clues on the possible reaction in Tehran if the US decision is negative.
As is well known, the Iranian regime is deeply divided along sectoral and ideological lines. On one side are moderates, also known as the normalizers, who, under President Hassan Rouhani, hope to use the JCPOA to “normalize” Iran and integrate it into the family of nations. On the other side are the hardline Principalists, largely concentrated in the parastatal sector such as the Revolutionary Guards, the big foundations, and the ultraconservative Haqqani Circle of clerics. The Principalists have objected to the nuclear deal and reject international reintegration. While Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is essentially a hardliner, he was anxious about the legitimacy crisis triggered by international sanctions and empowered the normalizers to negotiate the JCPOA.
For the moderates, the response to looming possible decertification has been a difficult balancing act.
Under pressure from hardliners, Rouhani was forced to warn the United States that Iran would not stay silent if Washington exerts more pressure on Iran. In an interview with CNN on Sept. 19, Rouhani said that Washington will pay a “high cost” if Trump makes good on his threats. The Iranian president also stated that his country would not enter new negotiations. His foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, warned that Washington would lose credibility if it walks away from the JCPOA and urged European countries to uphold the agreement if the US does not.
Significantly though, the normalizers, have not threatened to quit the agreement should Trump decline to re-certify it. Sharq, a moderate newspaper, wrote that Iran should not give the United States an excuse to scrap the JCPOA. The daily noted that it’s easy to understand why the Trump administration would use all its diplomatic and economic power to fashion a new approach towards Tehran. But Iran should not play into his hands by threatening to abrogate the agreement. The paper pointed out that absent the JCPOA, it would be difficult for Iran to attract foreign investment.
The Principalists, however, have been much less reluctant to threaten a harsh reaction to “decertification and renegotiation.” Kayhan, considered a mouthpiece of the Supreme Leader, argued that “the JCPOA imposed massive constraints on Iran’s nuclear capability in exchange for lifting all sanctions on the first day of its implementation. Not only sanctions have not been lifted, but … the ground has also been provided for imposing new sanctions,” the paper said.
Kayhan called for the government to withdraw from the deal and restart the nuclear program forcefully as a response to US pressure. “The only practical and decisive countermeasure against America’s rudeness is the one that has been specified in Article 3 of the resolution ‘Iranian Government’s Reciprocal and Proportional Action in Implementing the JCPOA Act,’ ” approved by the Majlis on October 15, 2015, Kayhan said.
Hossein Shariatmadari, the hardline editor of Kayhan, went further. He echoed those among the Principalists, including Ayatollah Mohammed-Taqi Mesbah Yazdi, the leader of the Haqqani Circle, who want to abrogate the JCPOA and withdraw from the nuclear Proliferation Treaty (NPT). North Korea quit the NPT in 2003 when the Bush administration stopped sending fuel oil required by the 1994 Agreed Framework. Shariatmadari quoted North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who, in response to recent threats from Trump to destroy North Korea, said he would make the US president “pay dearly for his speech.”
Speaking through his foreign policy representative, former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati, Ayatollah Khamenei sounded less categorial than Shariatmadari. But Velayati strongly rejected any suggestion that Iran would allow inspection of military sites or curtail its missile production, two key points on Trump’s grievance list.
Khamenei will have to decide whether to side with moderates or the Principalists if Trump or the US Congress take the US out of the JCPOA. In making this decision, the Supreme Leader will take into consideration the reaction of the European Union and the other signatories to the JCPOA, including Russia and China.
Federica Mogherini, the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, has already announced that the Europeans are satisfied with Iran’s compliance and will not seek any revisions.
Europeans, notably Italy, France, and Germany, have increased trade with Iran since the JCPOA was implemented and are eager to see the deal survive. Russia, under Iran’s “pivot to the East” policy, has also developed a flourishing trade relationship with the regime. The Chinese, meanwhile, have designated Iran as a major player in its enormously ambitious “One Road, One Belt” program to link China more firmly to Central Asian, Middle Eastern and European markets.
If the Supreme Leader is persuaded that the nuclear agreement can continue to function to Iran’s benefit without the United States, Iran may not abrogate the JCPOA.
Farhad Rezaei is a research fellow at Center for Iranian Studies (IRAM) in Ankara where he researches Iran’s foreign policy. His writings have appeared in Harvard-Iran Matters, Atlantic Council, and the National Interest among others. His new book is Iran’s Foreign Policy after the Nuclear Agreement: The Politics of Normalizers and Traditionalists, Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming. He tweets at @Farhadrezaeii