After almost two years of Donald Trump railing against the Iranian nuclear agreement, his administration admitted that Iran is complying with its obligations under the deal. And its likely that the United States will do the same — pending further review.
Late on Tuesday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sent a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) informing him that Iran is fully compliant with the 2015 Iranian nuclear agreement, known as Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
The letter marks the first time the White House has certified Iran’s compliance with the deal, under which a review to Congress is required by the administration every 90 days.
Despite noting Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA — which has repeatedly been certified by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) — Tillerson’s statement on Monday said the United States would have to review the agreement and decide whether to continue suspending U.S. nuclear-related sanctions on Iran, a key requirement of the international agreement.
“Iran remains a leading state sponsor of terror through many platforms and methods,” Tillerson’s letter read, adding that Trump has ordered an interagency review to determine whether suspending sanctions on Iran “is vital to the national security interests of the United States.”
The JCPOA limited Iran’s nuclear program, in exchange for relief from sanctions imposed by the United States, the European Union, and the United Nations. It did not address Iranian foreign policy. If the Trump administration chooses not to suspend nuclear-related sanctions on Iran, it could be seen as a U.S. violation of the deal.
“This [statement] is interesting in the way that they have presented it, by focusing on the negative first and kind of burying the fact that Iran is in compliance with the deal,” Trita Parsi, founder of the National Iranian American Council and author of Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy, told ThinkProgress. “It would now be even more bizarre if they first certify that Iran is in compliance, and then decide to put the U.S. out of compliance by not renewing the [sanctions] waivers.”
Making Iranian foreign policy a requirement of future sanctions relief would be seen as a violation of the deal by Iran, says Parsi. “Imagine if the Iranians said we’re not going to dismantle more centrifuges until the United States stops bombing people in Yemen. That would be a violation, that would be read as a violation here in Washington, and it would be correct in being read as a violation.”
Richard Nephew, a senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy and former Principal Deputy Coordinator for Sanctions Policy at the State Department, also expressed concern about the United States basing sanctions relief in the JCPOA on requirements not explicitly mentioned in the agreement.
“I think the statement and the underlying letter is a welcome sign that this administration recognizes that Iran is in fact fulfilling its obligations under the JCPOA,” Nephew told ThinkProgress via email.
With Tillerson’s statement, those “on the more hawkish side of the Iran debate” will have to concede that the Obama administration wasn’t lying about the agreement and its benefits, he said. “It is also a welcome sign that this administration will likely continue — at least for a time — the sanctions relief required under the deal.”
On the other hand, Nephew continued, the statement is concerning “because it suggests the administration believes that it can force Iran to make concessions on its regional policies to keep the JCPOA in place.” That kind of logic will likely be rejected by the Iranian government.
“I am concerned that the result of all of this might be an administration decision to game the JCPOA with Iran at the risk of losing the serious security benefits it affords with respect to nuclear proliferation,” Nephew said. “And, I’m concerned that this administration might prompt an unwarranted, unnecessary, and counterproductive crisis to boot.”
Tillerson’s statement follows a history of anti-Iran posturing in the White House. Trump stocked his administration with several Iran hawks, and in the first two weeks of his presidency, he banned all Iranian nationals from the United States and declared that Iran was officially “on notice.”
During his campaign, he also made conflicting statements on Iran. He held a rally on Capitol Hill firmly against the JCPOA shortly after it was reached in 2015, and has called for renegotiating the Iran deal, as well as accepting it and making sure Iran is in compliance. In one interview, he called for both doubling up on sanctions on Iran and getting rid of them in.
“This is in some ways the mother of all flip-flops, mindful of how strongly he argued he would either renegotiate or scuttle the deal,” said Parsi. “Now he is certifying Iran is in compliance and putting the United States on the path towards extending the deal. Ultimately, that is obviously very good, but I think it’s important to recognize that the deal is still in danger, it is still hanging on a thread.”
Congress is currently considering new sanctions against Iran, and next month, Iran’s presidential elections could also impact U.S.-Iran relations. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who championed the JCPOA at home, is facing a tough challenge, as many are challenging him on the lack of serious economic growth after the agreement. Both of these things could jeopardize the agreement, as well as what the Trump administration does next on sanctions.
“I think it’s important to understand also that it’s not just enough to lift the waivers, the real promise of this deal was that it could put the Untied States and Iran on a path towards transforming [their] relationship,” said Parsi. “That possibility still exists, but it won’t occur unless it is pursued. I think it would a huge miss opportunity, not only if the deal was allowed to collapse, but also if the promise of those additional steps that the deal could yield are not pursued.”