After mos. of prevarication on the fate of the 7/14/2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Trump took his first major step to abandon the Iran nuclear deal this quarter. The Iranian govt., for its part, continued to fulfill its obligations under the JCPOA while exploring new strategies to counter Trump’s saber rattling.
Under U.S. law passed during the negotiations to the JCPOA, the president was required to certify to Congress every 3 mos. that Iran was upholding its commitments. Not doing so would trigger a 60-day congressional review period, during which lawmakers would have to decide whether or not to reimpose sanctions on Iran, a move with the potential to significantly increase tensions in the Middle East and internationally. (Despite Trump’s frequent promises on the campaign trail in 2016 to dismantle the deal, U.S. secy. of state Rex Tillerson made the required certifications to Congress on 4/18 and 7/17—see JPS 46  and 47 ). As the quarter opened, however, Trump was increasingly dissatisfied with his admin.’s approach and it remained unclear how he would play his hand ahead of the next certification deadline on 10/15.
In the opening weeks of the quarter, Trump and his deputies tested out some new lines of attack to undermine the JCPOA. Ahead of a meeting with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) officials on 8/23, U.S. amb. to the UN Nikki Haley said (8/22) that the Trump admin. was interested in inspections being carried out at specific Iranian military sites. “There were already issues in those locations, so are they including that in what they look at to make sure that those issues no longer remain?” she said. No details of the 8/23 meeting were made public, but an Iranian spokesperson dismissed U.S. “dreams” of increased inspections on 8/29: “We will not accept anything outside [the JCPOA] from the Americans—especially visits to military sites.”
A few weeks later, IAEA chief Yukiya Amano again verified (9/11) that Iran was adhering to the JCPOA, and Reuters reported (9/12) that Trump was considering a new, more aggressive strategy for dealing with Iran. Defense Secy. James Mattis, Tillerson, and National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster reportedly formulated a package of measures, including plans to counter alleged Iranian cyberattacks, as well as Iran’s support for so-called terrorist groups, and purported nuclear proliferation, and presented it to the pres. on 9/8. Trump deflected and revisited the “waive and slap” approach he had used several times earlier in 2017. On 9/14, his admin. extended the suspension of nuclearrelated sanctions on Iran in compliance with the JCPOA, and had the Treasury Dept. announce (9/14) new sanctions on 11 individuals and other entities alleged to be supporting the IRGC, or cyberattacks against the U.S.
While Trump deliberated, Netanyahu reportedly presented a different proposal during a meeting with the U.S. pres. on the sidelines of the UNGA on 9/18. While details were not made public, Netanyahu had said in Buenos Aires on 9/12, “Our position is straightforward. This is a bad deal. Either fix it or cancel it.” Netanyahu found particularly problematic the JCPOA’s sunset clause, which he said (9/17) would “soon” allow Tehran access to “uranium enrichment on an industrial scale for an arsenal of atom bombs.” Three days after the Netanyahu-Trump meeting, Tillerson said (9/20) that the U.S. pres. had come to a decision about the 10/15 certification deadline.
With the U.S. on a certain, yet undisclosed, path, the Iranians opted for a show of force. In his address to the UNGA, Pres. Hassan Rouhani called (9/20) Trump’s rhetoric “ignorant, absurd, and hateful” and said it would be a “great pity” if the JCPOA was “destroyed by rogue newcomers to the world of politics.” Two days later, in a speech at a military parade, Rouhani pledged to strengthen Iran’s ballistic missile program. “We will increase our military power as a deterrent,” he said, as Iranian forces were showing off (9/22) a new ballistic missile with a purported range of 2,000 km, far enough to reach Israel. The next day, the Iranian press reported that Iranian forces had conducted a successful test firing of the missile. In response, Israeli DM Lieberman called (9/23) the test a “provocation and a slap in the face for the U.S. and its allies,” and Trump tweeted (9/23), “Iran just test-fired a Ballistic Missile capable of reaching Israel. They are also working with North Korea. Not much of an agreement we have!”
After the Washington Post reported (10/5) that Trump was finally planning to “decertify” the deal, there were signs that Tehran was interested in de-escalating the situation. According to Western and Iranian officials, the Iranian govt. was open to talks on its ballistic missile program (Reuters, 10/6). “During their meeting on the sidelines of the UNGA last month, Iran told members of the [international community] that it could discuss the missile program to remove concerns,” an Iranian official said. A former U.S. Defense Dept. official said, “Iran has put feelers out saying it is willing to discuss its ballistic missile program and is using contacts . . . officials who were ‘holdovers’ from the Obama admin.” Later, an Iranian spokesperson dismissed (10/6) the story and insisted the missile program was “nonnegotiable.”
The following week, after the IAEA’s Amano again confirmed (10/9) that Iran was complying with the JCPOA and UK PM Theresa May implored (10/9) Trump to defend it, Trump announced (10/13) that he would not certify the deal by 10/15, triggering the abovementioned congressional review period. “I am directing my admin. to work closely with Congress and our allies to address the deal’s many serious flaws so that the Iranian regime can never threaten the world with nuclear weapons,” he said. Trump also announced (10/13) “tough” new sanctions on the IRGC and urged U.S. allies to “join us in taking strong actions against Iran’s dangerous behavior, including sanctions outside the [JCPOA] that target their ballistic missile program.”
Congress was largely occupied by other issues through the end of the quarter, but a high-profile debate over the future of the JCPOA was expected before the end of the 60-day review period. Meanwhile, Rouhani threatened (10/13) to expand Iran’s ballistic missile program. Netanyahu said (10/15) that Trump’s decision presented an opportunity to “fix” the JCPOA. May, Macron, and German chancellor Angela Merkel issued a statement saying that they “stand committed” to the JCPOA (10/13). And finally, the IAEA published (11/13) its quarterly assessment of Iranian adherence to the JCPOA, finding again that Tehran remained in compliance.
Rebuilding Relations with Hamas
Following talks on a potential rapprochement last quarter, leader of Hamas in Gaza Sinwar announced (8/23) that the group had restored relations with Iran. “The relationship today is developing and returning to what it was in the old days,” he said, referring to Iran’s patronage of Hamas before differences over the civil war in Syria caused their estrangement in 2011. Neither Sinwar nor Iranian officials offered any details on the nature of Iranian support for Hamas. Later in the quarter, after Israel conditioned its participation in any new negotiations with the Palestinians on Hamas giving up its ties with Iran (see “The Palestinian-Israeli Conflict” above), a Hamas delegation arrived (10/20) in Iran. One Hamas delegate said (10/20) that the group hoped to increase cooperation with Tehran and to “secure Iranian financial and logistical support.”