Quarterly Updates for (16 May 2017 — 15 Aug 2017)

Iranian pres. Hassan Rouhani was elected to a second term on 5/19, winning 58.6% of the vote in what many saw as a referendum on his reformist platform and Iran’s 7/14/2015 nuclear deal with the P5+1 (the U.S., UK, China, Russia, France, and Germany). Before and after the election, however, Trump put the deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), under increasing scrutiny, straining U.S.-Iranian relations and reversing the diplomatic advances made by his predecessor, Barack Obama.

Instead of abandoning the JCPOA, as he promised on many occasions during his 2016 campaign, Trump put forth a new, contradictory posture, imposing new sanctions on Iran while affirming Tehran’s compliance with the JCPOA. On 5/17, the Trump admin. formally extended the U.S. sanctions relief provided under the deal and, at the same time, the Treasury Dept. announced new sanctions on 2 senior Iranian defense officials, an Iranian company, a Chinese individual, and 3 Chinese companies for allegedly supporting Iran’s ballistic missile program. An Iranian spokesperson denounced (5/17) the new sanctions, argued that they undermined the JCPOA, and said Iran would “continue its missile program with power and authority.”

This pattern repeated later in the quarter. A day after Tillerson certified (7/17) to Congress, for a 2d time, that although Iran was “unquestionably in default of the spirit” of the JCPOA, it was abiding by the terms of the deal (see JPS 46 [4] for his 1st formal certification), the Treasury Dept. again announced (7/18) new sanctions, this time targeting 18 Iranian individuals and groups allegedly involved in the ballistic missile program. According to the Associated Press (7/17), the Trump admin.’s position reflected internal disagreements. Trump himself was eager to declare Iran in breach of the JCPOA and reimpose sanctions, but his aides reportedly convinced him to stick with the agreement and increase pressure on Iran in other ways. At the same time, senior admin. officials said (7/17) that it was highly unlikely that Trump would recertify Iran’s compliance when the next deadline came up in 10/2017. According to senior admin. officials on 7/27, Trump wanted to push for inspections at certain Iranian military sites, which Tehran would likely refuse, thereby giving the U.S. grounds to abandon the deal and blame Iran. U.S. officials reportedly informed their European counterparts that they should prepare to reopen talks with Iran as well (New York Times, 7/30).

Meanwhile, hard-liners in both Iran and the U.S. prepared new initiatives that threatened to undermine the deal even before Trump had a chance to abandon it. After the 7/18 announcement of new U.S. sanctions, 211 of the 290 mbrs. of Iran’s parliament backed the outline of a bill addressing “adventurist and terrorist” U.S. actions in the Middle East by increasing the funding for the IRGC and the ballistic missile program. In the same vein, Rouhani said (7/19) Tehran would respond to the new sanctions “appropriately,” although he did not elaborate. In the U.S., the House of Representatives (7/25) and the Senate (7/27) overwhelmingly passed a bill directing the president to impose new sanctions against Iran’s ballistic missile program, the sale of arms or related technical assistance to Iran, and the IRGC (see H.R. 3364 of 7/24/2017 at congressionalmonitor.org for details). Trump signed the bill into law on 8/2.

The same day the Senate was passing the sanctions bill, Iranian forces conducted (7/27) a test launch of a satellite-carrying rocket. The U.S. Treasury promptly announced (7/28) new sanctions on 6 Iranian entities involved in the launch, all subsidiaries of the Shahid Hemmat Industrial Group, allegedly “central” to Iran’s ballistic missile program. A spokesperson for Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded by saying (7/29) that Tehran would continue full-tilt with its missile program despite the sanctions and the “hostile, reprehensible, and unacceptable” U.S. legislative measure. On 8/13 Iran’s parliament passed its own bill increasing funding for the IRGC and the ballistic missile program with each program slated to receive approximately $260 m. in new funding.

Rebuilding Relations with Hamas

Iran was a key patron of Hamas until 2011, when the relationship fell apart over the civil war in Syria. Now, with the Saudi-led bloc boycotting Qatar for its support for Hamas, the group renewed efforts courting the support of its former allies in Tehran. According to the Saudi-owned Asharq Al-Awsat on 5/30, representatives of Hamas and Iran had agreed to resume diplomatic relations, including Iranian financial support, during talks in Lebanon earlier in the mo. In a key concession, the Iranians reportedly gave up their demand for Hamas to publicly declare its support for Iran against Saudi Arabia. Later in the quarter, Iranian FM Mohammad Javad Zarif welcomed (8/7) a delegation of Hamas officials to Tehran. “[Iran is] ready to put aside all disagreements for the sake of supporting Palestine and the Palestinian people as well as the unity of the Muslim world,” he said. In a statement, Hamas said that the visit “opened a new page in bilateral relations with Iran aimed at confronting the common enemy and supporting Palestine.” No further details of their meeting were made available.