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Is Trump trying to use the IAEA to kill the Iran deal?

The US has been 'encouraging' the International Atomic Energy Agency to conduct additional investigations into Iranian facilities
An Iranian man holds a poster bearing images of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump and Saudi King Salmam during a parade marking al-Quds day in Tehran (AFP)

The United States has been attempting to influence the UN nuclear watchdog into putting pressure on Iran over its duties under the US-Iran nuclear agreement, while the US itself seeks a way out of deal, according to officials and IAEA expert analysts.

US diplomats, in direct meetings with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) representatives, have been pressing the organisation to conduct inspections of Iranian nuclear facilities that are not required by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the agreement commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal.

Trump himself appears to be looking for ways out of it ... but the IAEA continues to say Iran is complying with the agreement, so this makes the case to scrap the deal more difficult

- Dalia Dasse Kaye, RAND Corporation

Speaking to reporters following a meeting with the head of the IAEA, Yukiya Amano, at the organisation's headquarters, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said the US was "encouraging" the organisation to carry out additional investigations in Iran.

"I have good confidence in the IAEA, but they are dealing with a country that has a clear history of lying and pursuing covert nuclear programmes," Haley said in Vienna on 25 August.

"We are encouraging the IAEA to use all the authorities they have and to pursue every angle possible."

The IAEA responded to the US calls by rejecting the additional inspections and stressing its impartiality.

"We're not going to visit a military site like Parchin just to send a political signal," an IAEA official told Reuters in response to the US campaign.

"If they want to bring down the deal, they will. We just don't want to give them an excuse to."

The US leaning on the UN may well reflect President Trump's desire to dismantle the Iran nuclear deal completely, according to Dalia Dasse Kaye, the director of the RAND Corporation's Center for Middle East Public Policy and an expert on the Iran deal.

"Trump himself appears to be looking for ways out of it," Kaye told Middle East Eye, "but the IAEA continues to say Iran is complying with the agreement, so this makes the case to scrap the deal more difficult."

US President Donald Trump and faith leaders pray in the Oval Office at the White House (AFP)

According to former US officials and analysts, in addition to pressing the IAEA the White House is pressuring US intelligence officials to produce a justification to declare Iran in violation of the nuclear deal's provisions.

Trump has repeatedly made clear that he wants to see the end of the Iran nuclear deal, which he dubbed "the worst deal I think I've ever seen negotiated" in an interview with Fox News.

The US president has said he expects to be announcing Iran is non-compliant with the deal by October.

"If it was up to me, I would have had them non-compliant 180 days ago," he told the Wall Street Journal on 25 July.

However, senior national security advisers in the US believe leaving the deal without any clear Iranian violations is a bad idea, according to the Rand Corporation's Kaye.

"I'm not sure there's a clear strategy, but I think we can expect more rhetoric hostile to the deal and increased sanctions focused on Iran's broader regional behaviour even if the agreement survives," she told Middle East Eye.

"The worst case scenario, and it's possible, is that the president doesn't listen to his advisers and pulls out of the agreement. He's done this on other issues, so I think it's a possibility we need to take seriously."

New sanctions

One signal to Trump's intentions may be the US decision, announced on 18 July, to put additional sanctions on Iran. The US waiving its sanctions on Iran was a key part in the run-up to the signing of the nuclear deal.

In its regular assessments of Iranian facilities, the IAEA has consistently found the Iranian side to be in compliance with the deal and it has rejected US claims that it is shut out of certain Iranian facilities.

"The IAEA has access to all locations without making distinctions between military and civilian locations," director Amano told the Associated Press on 31 August.

The organisation's latest report concluded that Iran's stock of low-enriched uranium was well below the quota assigned by the 2015 deal.

The report said Iran's current stockpile of 88kg of uranium represented less than a third of the stocks the deal permits and less than one percent of Iran's pre-agreement levels.

Activist take part in a rally to commemorate the nuclear deal with Iran in front of the White House, on July 14, 2017 in Washington, DC (AFP)

The US has not presented countervailing intelligence or evidence that Iran is violating the deal's provisions. The move also comes after the Trump administration has twice confirmed to Congress that Iran is in compliance with the deal, most recently in July 2017.

Responding to ambassador Haley's statements at the IAEA, Iranian leaders claimed that the manoeuvre was itself a breach of the agreement. Hassan Firouzabadi, a senior military adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, said Haley's calls on the IAEA were in violation of Annex I, Section 74 of the JCPOA.

Undoing Obama's legacy

Under Trump, US policy towards Iran has become erratic and has put the country now completely out of step with its major allies, said Henri Barkey, professor of international relations at Lehigh University and the former director of the Middle East programme at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

"The administration's position is basically schizophrenic because on the one hand the White House is saying this is a terrible deal and we have to get out of it, and on the other the foreign policy bureaucracy clearly doesn't think it's a priority," Barkey told Middle East Eye.

There is a broad consensus among US allies in Europe that the nuclear deal should be maintained.

"The danger in what they're doing is that, unless they produce solid evidence that Iran is cheating on the deal, the US risks alienating its allies, which will do long-term damage to its reputation," Barkey said.

The UK and France are both strongly in favour of maintaining the status quo. French oil company Total is in the process of signing a $4.8bn gas deal in Iran.

Even in Israel, the deal has supporters in high places. The former head of Israeli Military intelligence, Amos Yadlin, said the agreement had reduced the threat of nuclear armament in Iran for "at least the next 10 years".

After the deal was signed, Iran didn't even make the list of the Israeli Defence Force's assessment of threats to Israel.

Professor Barkey said diplomatic machinations to undermine the Iran deal may instead end up undermining the US's own position.

"The more Trump goes bananas like this, the more he increases the resistance of the US allies and the Iranians, especially on basis of no intelligence."

A change of course is unlikely, given how far Trump has staked out his position.

"The president has been trying from the beginning to mess the deal up, but for him its really a question of undoing everything Obama has done on every level, and he's not going to change his mind over this," Barkey said.