Tough Words and Dangerous Scenarios Between the US and Iran

Gregory Aftandilian

Despite having certified twice to the US Congress that Iran is in compliance with the Joint Com-prehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), US President Donald Trump and his UN ambassador, Nikki Haley, seem determined to deny certification in October, even if evidence of Iranian non-compliance is lacking.
Under US law, the president must report to Congress every 90 days on whether Iran is complying with the terms of the nuclear deal.
Trump seemed to put aside his strong opposition to the Iran nuclear deal — a key issue in his campaign for president — and focus instead on Iranian behaviour in the region that Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other Sunni Arab countries, as well as Israel, had long worried about.
At some point over the summer, however, Trump refocused on opposition to the nuclear deal. In July, he very reluctantly certified to Congress, based on advice from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and national security adviser H.R. McMaster that Iran was in compliance.
Tillerson and McMaster told Trump there was no strong evidence that Iran was not in compliance and to claim otherwise would damage US relations with its allies and be in violation of a UN Security Council resolution that has strong international backing.
Shortly after certification, Trump told the Wall Street Journal that he “did not expect” Iran would be considered to be in compliance by October and, in August, he said Tehran was not “living up to the spirit of the agreement.”
Haley supported this position and said the nuclear deal should not be “too big to fail” and that Iran must be held accountable for its missile programme, its support for terrorism and its human rights record. In the meantime, Trump ordered an interagency review of the nuclear deal.
The tough words were matched by equally harsh rhetoric coming out of Tehran. Iran warned Trump not to apply additional sanctions on their country, with one official claiming that Tehran could restart its nuclear programme in five days if the deal broke down. (This comment was more bravado than reality because of current restrictions.) Even Iranian President Hassan Rohani, who wants the deal to succeed, was defiant, probably to protect his political flank inside Iran.
In late August and early September, Haley was in Vienna for a meeting with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN body charged with monitoring the nuclear deal. She tried to convince the IAEA to “pursue every angle possible” to monitor Iran’s activities, including inspections of military sites. However, under the terms of the deal, the IAEA can only visit military sites if there is credible evidence of activity related to the nuclear programme at those locations.
In its latest quarterly report, the IAEA said Iran was following the terms of the deal, including limiting uranium enrichment to a low level. The State Department, under Tillerson’s stewardship, has stated that the United States has “full confidence” in the IAEA and its “highly skilled and professional inspectors.”
Nonetheless, after returning from Vienna, Haley said Congress should debate whether the nuclear deal was in US national security interests — even though Congress did so. She said if Trump finds that Iran is not in compliance, “we would move beyond the narrow technicalities” of the deal and “look at the big picture.”
Such a move could take the United States and the Middle East region down a very slippery slope. A report of non-compliance, even if based on dubious assertions from Trump, could lead Congress to reimpose US sanctions on Iran that were lifted under the terms of the agreement.
Although the other members of the P5+1 countries — the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany — which were part of the deal could still adhere to it, hardliners in Iran who never liked the deal to begin with because it severely restricts Tehran’s nuclear capabilities could pressure the Rohani government to pull out of the agreement and restart the nuclear programme.
Under this scenario, Trump or the Israeli government might launch strikes at Iranian nuclear targets and military bases, prompting Iran to retaliate by attacking US targets in the Gulf or by using proxy forces such as Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad to attack Israel.
It is unclear whether Trump has thought through the consequences of such a scenario. Cooler heads such as Tillerson, McMaster, Defence Secretary James Mattis and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly may prevail and convince Trump not to take such a rash step. Kelly reportedly blocked former Ambassador John Bolton, a hawkish right-wing ideologue, from sending a memo to Trump on why he should scuttle the nuclear deal.
Trump, however, wields enormous power as both chief executive and commander-in-chief and may overrule his more pragmatic advisers — a dangerous scenario indeed.

Gregory Aftandilian
is a lecturer at the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University and is a former U.S. State Department Middle East analyst.
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