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ANALYSIS: Nuclear deal or no nuclear deal, US-Iran standoff continues

The Iran nuclear deal stays for now, but experts warn that another showdown is on the cards
Iranians celebrate the nuclear deal in Tehran on 14 July 2015 (AFP)

NEW YORK – While visiting the United States this week, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif admitted he was flummoxed. Figuring out US foreign policy under President Donald Trump was like reading tea leaves.

“We receive the same signals as you see in the press, the tweets,” Zarif told a crowd at the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York think tank, in reference to Trump’s penchant for 140-character diplomatic salvos.

“But, the point is, we received contradictory signals. We don’t know which one to interpret in what way.”

To say that Trump blows hot and cold is an understatement. During his election campaign, the billionaire vowed to “rip up” the nuclear deal that the administration of his predecessor, Barack Obama, painstakingly brought to fruition in July 2015.

"Not one attempt at resolving tensions diplomatically has been made."

- Trita Parsi, National Iranian American Council president

This week, he stuck with the pact by re-certifying that Iran had abided by the terms - if not the spirit - of the deal. Hours later, however, the administration slapped sanctions on 18 Iranian people and entities linked with the republic’s ballistic missile programme. 

The State Department criticised the “malign activities” of Iran’s military and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, citing its support for Lebanon’s Hezbollah party, the Palestinian Hamas group, the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad and Houthi rebels in Yemen.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders bemoaned Iran’s “destabilising influence”. Officials were hatching a “comprehensive integrated strategy” to check Iran and bypass “serious flaws” in Obama’s nuclear pact with the revolutionary mullahs, she said.

It re-ignited debates about whether Trump would come good on his bluster over Iran, and whether the growing threat of flashpoints between Iranian and US-backed troops in Iraq or Syria could spark a full-on military confrontation.

Ash Carter, the US defence secretary under President Barack Obama, told MEE the deal still makes sense (MEE/James Reinl)
Ash Carter, the US defence secretary under President Barack Obama, told MEE the deal still makes sense (MEE/James Reinl)

According to Ash Carter, the US defence secretary under President Barack Obama, the deal, which traded sanctions relief for curbs on Iran’s uranium-enrichment and other nuclear work, still makes sense if it is being “verifiably implemented”.

“It’s important to stick with it, if it’s being abided by, because it’s in our interests to do so,” Carter told Middle East Eye.

The Obama administration worked hard to use United Nations Security Council sanctions to pressure Iran to the negotiating table, and then broker a seven-nation deal alongside France, Britain, Russia, China and Germany, he said. 

“It is not in the interests of the US to unilaterally break the agreement so long as Iran is in essential compliance with it. We would isolate ourselves, not Iran,” Richard Haass, a former White House official, told MEE.

With security woes in the shape of Syria’s civil war and North Korea’s missile tests, Trump’s West Wing has enough to deal with, he said. “The inbox is sufficiently full without bringing this issue to the fore,” Haass added.

Others are less sanguine and point to rifts in the West Wing. Trump’s desire to nix the deal and confront Iran has reportedly been tempered by top officials – Defence Secretary James Mattis, National Security Adviser HR McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. 

There are already plenty of tensions in the Middle East, warned Trita Parsi, founder and president of the National Iranian American Council. As the Islamic State (IS) group loses ground in Iraq and Syria, Iranian troops are more likely to run into US-backed Kurdish and Arab forces.

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Trump’s Gulf visit in May likely gave a “green light” to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and others to launch a blockade against neighbouring Qatar and open the deepest rift between the region’s US allies in recent years, he added.

All the while, the US-Iran communication channels that were forged during the nuclear negotiations are now closed. Zarif has never spoken with Tillerson. During the Iranian envoy’s US visit, he was not received by any high-ranking American official.

“With turbulence in Iraq and Syria and sabre-rattling by the Saudis, many unforeseen crises risk bringing the US and Iran into direct confrontation,” Parsi, author of Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran and the Triumph of Diplomacy, told MEE.

“Despite the significant risk of war, not a single phone call has taken place between Tillerson and Zarif. Not one attempt at resolving tensions diplomatically has been made. It’s time the former ExxonMobil CEO placed a call.”

Even though Tillerson, Mattis and others - who analysts have dubbed the “adults in the room” - have a moderating influence in the West Wing, they are nonetheless too hawkish on Iran, said Reza Marashi, a former State Department employee.

“All of them want to escalate vis-a-vis Iran because they believe that Iran only responds to pressure,” Marashi told MEE. “How can anybody say with a straight face that this administration is interested in anything resembling diplomacy with Iran given the statements made thus far?”

There is also a flip-side to the nuclear deal. While the US has re-certified Iran’s compliance, Tehran has accused Washington of violating its terms - and warned that it, too, could walk away from the agreement.

Speaking on CNN, Zarif said that Trump’s efforts to talk other leaders out of doing business with Iran at this month’s G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, was a “violation of not the spirit but of the letter” of the nuclear deal.

A review session of the accord, technically called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), in Vienna on 21 July, will more likely focus on Trump flouting Iran’s right to trade than gripes over Tehran’s actions, said Marashi.

While they concluded that Trump’s White House will likely dodge a face-off with Iran in the short term, Haass and Carter warned that another showdown is on the cards thanks to the lifespan of the JCPOA.

Clauses of the deal start lapsing after 10 years, allowing Iran to step up uranium enrichment and develop advanced centrifuges from October 2025. Should Trump win a second term, he would leave office in January of that year. 

“The agreement did not solve the Iranian nuclear challenge, it parked it for a number of years,” Haass told MEE.

“We had better think about what the multilateral response is, because we don’t want an Iran that’s unconstrained and we don’t want it to set in motion a proliferation cycle. Just when you think the Middle East couldn’t get any worse, trust me, it could get worse.”