U.S. President Donald Trump and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani exchanged blows at the UN General Assembly in New York this week – taking aim at both the Iran nuclear deal, and each other’s leadership styles.
Rouhani on Wednesday called the Trump Administration “rogue newcomers” to the world of politics and said it would be a “great pity” if the nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), is destroyed by these ‘newcomers.’
Trump, in his speech before the UNGA on Tuesday, said that “the Iranian government masks a corrupt dictatorship behind the false guise of a democracy.” He called the government led by Rouhani a “murderous regime” and said “we cannot abide by an agreement if it provides cover for the eventual construction of a nuclear program,” referring to the JCPOA.
When pressed by reporters on Wednesday if he has made a decision about the Iran deal, Trump replied, “I have decided,” adding, “I’ll let you know. I’ll let you know.”
Under U.S. law, Trump has until October 15 to verify that Iran is in compliance with the deal, which he has already done twice since taking office. If Trump does not give his certification this time around, then Congress has 60 days to decide whether to re-impose sanctions on Iran – a move that would effectively mean the U.S. is pulling out of the agreement. International sanctions on Iran were lifted when the deal was implemented in 2015, in exchange for Iran curbing its nuclear program.
The International Atomic Energy Agency, which monitors Iran’s compliance with the deal, has consistently confirmed that Iran is not in violation of the agreement.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson acknowledged that Iran is meeting all of the technical aspects of the JCPOA, in a press briefing Wednesday evening, after a meeting between Tillerson and his counterparts from the other countries that brokered the nuclear deal – Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China – and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
However, Tillerson said that “in the broader context the aspiration has not” been met. He was referring to what Trump has previously called the ‘spirit’ of the deal, namely, the expectation from the parties involved that the agreement “would allow the parties to seek a more stable, peaceful region,” said Tillerson.
“And regrettably, since the agreement was confirmed, we have seen anything but a more peaceful, stable region,” he said.
Tillerson cited Iran’s recent ballistic missile tests – the country tested the medium-range Khorramshahr ballistic missile in January, “in defiance” of UN Security Council Resolution 2231, according to the United States. He also noted Iran’s continued engagement in “malicious cyber activity,” its support for the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, “provocative operations” in the Gulf “against our naval and coalition vessels,” and Iran’s destabilizing activity throughout the region in places like Yemen and Iraq, where Iran has “provided weapons and [trained] forces to deploy.”
Still, there is no indication that the U.S. will scrap the deal completely, even with Trump’s harsh rhetoric and announcement that he has made a decision – which Tillerson said he is not privy to.
Tillerson told Fox News on Tuesday night that “the president really wants to redo that deal” but also that the U.S. would need “the support, I think, of our allies, the European allies and others, to make the case… to Iran that this deal really has to be revisited.”
So for now, the U.S. strategy is to convince its European allies that the deal should be reworked, which is having some success.
French President Emmanuel Macron – whose country was one of the toughest negotiators during the talks on the Iran agreement – said on Wednesday it would be an error to scrap the deal, but also noted that there could be room for negotiation.
“Is this agreement enough? No. It is not, given the evolution of the regional situation and increasing pressure that Iran is exerting on the region, and given increased activity by Iran on the ballistic level since the accord,” he said.
Iran’s ballistic missile arsenal is the largest in the Middle East. “This underscores the urgency and need to deal with the threat,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, the senior Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington.
Iran’s ballistic missile program, which is not part of the nuclear deal, does violate the ‘spirit’ of the deal, said Tillerson. That has been a sticking point with the Trump Administration, along with the ‘sunset clause,’ which allows some provisions of the JCPOA to expire after 10 years.
Macron said he would be in favor of adding “two to three other pillars” to the deal, and he cited ballistic missiles and the deal’s expiration dates.
“I hope that President Macron of France’s comments can be used to solidify the trans-Atlantic community on Iran’s missile program and push for more international pressure on Iran to end its missile tests and roll-back elements of its arsenal,” Taleblu told The Cipher Brief.
But Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, who led the Wednesday meeting with Tillerson and his counterparts, is less convinced that the deal should be reworked.
“This is an agreement that prevented a nuclear program and potentially prevented military intervention. Let’s not forget that,” she said, adding, “There is no need to renegotiate parts of the agreement, because the agreement is working.”
As for doing away with the deal altogether, Mogherini reiterated, “The international community cannot afford dismantling an agreement that is working and delivering.”
Taleblu said he thinks “at a minimum, the U.S. would seek to vigorously enforce the JCPOA, and at a maximum, move towards establishing a predicate to renegotiate the accord’s more problematic clauses.”
Former CIA Acting Director and Cipher Brief Expert John McLaughlin also said he doubts the deal is dead. “There is no great enthusiasm for it among Trump’s senior advisors but even Defense Secretary Mattis has said we should not break out of it, recognizing, I believe, that Iran would then have every reason to press ahead with a more robust nuclear program for which the Trump administration would rightly be blamed.”
In the event that come October, Trump refuses to certify that Iran is in compliance with the JCPOA, Michael Rubin, an AEI scholar and former Pentagon official who focused on the Middle East, said “that’s not the same as tearing up the JCPOA.”
“It just means the question of Iran’s behavior gets debated in Congress with the result being either nothing or a snap back of some sanctions,” Rubin told The Cipher Brief. “And, what’s wrong with a little debate if the JCPOA is really working as well as its cheerleaders say?”
If Trump does recertify Iran’s compliance, while continuing to push ahead on reworking the agreement, it will be an uphill battle.
Rouhani, at a later news conference on Wednesday, said the JCPOA could not be amended, reopened, or renegotiated. And should the agreement unravel, he said, one option “may be to start enrichment” of uranium.
Moreover, it is unlikely that China or Russia – the two non-European signatories to the JCPOA – would ever get on board with a renegotiation.
Russia is “extremely concerned” by Trump’s comments questioning the Iran nuclear deal, said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in New York on Wednesday, and Russia strongly disagrees with the U.S. stance.
The only country that seems to be strongly backing the U.S. on this is Israel. “Change it or cancel it. Fix it or nix it,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said of the deal this week at the UNGA. But Israel takes no formal part in the JCPOA.
Kaitlin Lavinder is a reporter at The Cipher Brief. Follow her on Twitter @KaitLavinder.