WASHINGTON — As the US faced another critical deadline on Iran, former officials from the Obama administration were increasingly concerned about the fate of the landmark nuclear deal under US President Donald Trump’s stewardship.
On Thursday, Trump must choose whether to waive economic sanctions on Tehran, a requirement under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the official name of the nuclear accord.
If he does — as he’s expected to — it will be the second time Trump takes such action since assuming office, in a procedure he is mandated to consider every 120 days. If he doesn’t, it would be a US violation of a pact he’s repeatedly lambasted as the worst ever negotiated.
(The US imposed new sanctions on multiple Iranian entities and individuals in February after Tehran defied a UN Security Council resolution by testing ballistic missiles.)
But with Trump having recently sent less-than-subtle signals that he aims to ditch the agreement, those who played an outsize role in brokering it were issuing dire warnings about what that would mean for both US credibility and regional stability.
“Either directly or indirectly, ripping up this deal by the United States is the worst thing we could do for American national security,” said Wendy Sherman, a former undersecretary of state who was the chief negotiator of the deal.
“If the deal fell apart, because we either were in material breach or we took actions where Iran decided it needed to leave, obviously Iran would be back on the march to getting potential for a nuclear weapon and the [International Atomic Energy Agency] would lose all visibility into the program.”
Last month, shortly after Trump grudgingly certified the Islamic Republic as abiding by the deal, reports emerged that he was directing his aides to develop a case for why the regime violated the agreement come the next October deadline. He also told The Wall Street Journal that he “does not expect that they will be in compliance.”
Those remarks have led to intense speculation over what may transpire if Trump willfully attempts to unravel the deal, despite the assessment of IAEA investigators and America’s own intelligence community that the Iranians are holding up their end of the bargain.
Iran’s vice president and head of its nuclear agency, Ali Akbar Salehi, told the German daily Der Spiegel last week that if Trump walks away from the deal, his country will uphold it with the other P5+1 countries.
Rhetorical pressure on the international community’s handling of the Iranian challenge is expected to heat up next week during the United Nations General Assembly, where both Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are slated to speak. Each are likely to devote substantial portions of their speeches to Iran’s malfeasance.
Netanyahu on Tuesday said Israel’s position is that the nuclear deal must either be revised or abrogated altogether.
“In the case of Iran, there have been some news stories about Israel’s purported position on the nuclear deal with Iran. So let me take this opportunity and clarify: Our position is straightforward. This is a bad deal. Either fix it — or cancel it,” he said from Argentina, where he is on a Latin American swing before making his way to New York for the world body’s confab.
Other world leaders party to the accord, however, have indicated they are not open to renegotiating. “France doesn’t support the reopening of the deal. It should be rigorously implemented as it is now,” the French envoy to the US, Gérard Araud, tweeted on Tuesday. “How many times should we repeat it?”
France doesn't support the reopening of the deal. It should be rigorously implemented as it is now. How many times should we repeat it? https://t.co/fhKmTEKLGB
— Gérard Araud (@GerardAraud) September 13, 2017
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani is also scheduled to speak at the UN General Assembly.
“I think it will be very interesting to see what happens next week at the UN General Assembly, when everyone will be in the same place at the same time — and whether there’s further discussion in this regard about where the agreement is,” Sherman told The Times of Israel on Wednesday.
“Many of us have talked with [the Iranians] in different venues since the agreement and they certainly follow what happens here quite closely.”
Colin Kahl, who served as an assistant to former US president Barack Obama and national security adviser to former US vice president Joe Biden, characterized Iran’s “near-term strategy” of responding to Trump’s bluster as trying to drive a wedge between the US and Europe.
“Ultimately, that could serve Iranian interests,” he told The Times of Israel on Wednesday. “But I think the question becomes, even if that’s their near-term strategy, whether it is politically sustainable over the long-term?”
If America is seen as purposely sabotaging the agreement, Kahl said it would provide “lots of ammunition for Iranian hardliners to bludgeon Rouhani and discredit reformists and pragmatists within the Iranian system.”
“Their own domestic politics,” he went on, “may make staying in the deal unsustainable, or may require them to take reciprocal steps in a kind of tit-for-tat fashion to retaliate — and that puts added stress on the deal — and that ends up unwinding it.”