The Trump Challenge to the JCPOA
US President Donald Trump announced a new Iran strategy on October 13, 2017. An essential element of the new strategy was the decision not to re-certify Iranian compliance with the provisions of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — negotiated by the Barack Obama administration along with the other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and Germany in July 2015. The US President was required to certify every 90 days that continued sanctions relief pursuant to the JCPOA was in the national security interests of the United States, that Iran was implementing the JCPOA and not in material breach of it or pursuing covert nuclear activities. This was in tune with the provisions of the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA) of May 2015. Trump had previously given the certification twice after taking over as president – in April and July 2017.
Divide within the Trump Administration
Even prior to becoming president, Trump labelled the JCPOA as the ‘worst deal ever’ and vowed to dismantle it if he got elected. At an American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) event in March 2016, for instance, Trump had insisted that his ‘number one priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran’. In contrast, General James Mattis, Trump’s Defense Secretary, had noted in an April 2016 speech that while the JCPOA was an ‘imperfect arms control agreement’, it was ‘not completely without some merit’. Mattis, along with some other senior cabinet members of the Trump administration, continued to hold such favourable views of the Iran nuclear deal even January 2017. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, for instance, agreed during a press briefing on September 20, 2017 — in the aftermath of a ministerial-level meeting of the P5+1 countries in New York – that Iran was in ‘technical compliance’ with the JCPOA. Earlier, on August 1, 2017, he had admitted to ‘differences of views’ on the JCPOA with President Trump. And after Trump’s October 13 statement, Tillerson noted in an interview to CNN that although Iran had committed a ‘number of technical violations’, it subsequently ‘remedied’ those violations, thus bringing it back into ‘technical compliance’.
The Charges against Iran
Trump’s October 13 statement followed a National Security Council led inter-agency review of the JCPOA launched by the administration in mid-April to evaluate whether continued sanctions relief pursuant to the JCPOA was ‘vital to the national security interests of the United States’, given that Iran was a ‘leading state sponsor of terror’. Administration officials (like US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley) as well as analysts critical of the deal highlight Iran’s ‘violations’ – the possession of quantities of heavy water in excess of those prescribed by the JCPOA, the maintenance of more numbers of advanced IR-6 centrifuges than allowed, concerns that Iran might not provide access to military sites where nuclear-related activities could have taken place, among others.
Other analysts however note that such criticisms ‘omit context and perspective’, pointing out that Iran briefly exceeded the limits on heavy water production twice in 2016 (February and November) and, on both occasions, the issue was amicably resolved fairly quickly. In his policy statement, Trump charged that Iran was not complying with all the provisions of the deal and highlighted the above two occasions when Iran produced more heavy water than permitted under the JCPOA. Those two violations, which happened in 2016, did not prevent Trump from certifying that Iran was in compliance twice in 2017.
Trump also alleged that Iran was placing restrictions on the work of the inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the sole agency involved in ensuring that Iran complies with the terms of the JCPOA. Reports however note that Iran has allowed over 400 IAEA inspections, and over 80 short-notice inspections, to various parts of its nuclear programme. The IAEA moreover has daily access to Natanz, the only location where Iran is permitted to enrich uranium, for nearly 15 years, apart from many other significant transparency measures.
Trump however insists that Iran was reluctant to give IAEA inspectors access to military installations which were part of Iran’s ‘clandestine nuclear weapons programme’. While Iran has said it will not permit IAEA access to ‘sensitive’ military sites, the JCPOA has provisions to seek such access from Iran, and the P5+1 will have to provide the reasons for seeking such access. The JCPOA also contains provisions to resolve any contentions relating to such access issues, via the mechanism of the Joint Commission. Without invoking these provisions (and information if any regarding such access requests being not in the public domain), Trump in his October 13 statement has charged Iran with ‘multiple violations of the agreement’.
The most significant charge that Trump lays at Iran’s doorstep is that it ‘is not living up to the spirit of the deal’. Tillerson argues that Iran is not fulfilling the ‘expectations of the agreement’ that it will play a positive regional role as a result of the JCPOA, while admitting at the same time that the agreement ‘set aside, obviously, a serious threat to the region …’ Trump flags Iran’s activities from Syria to Yemen as destabilising the region and in direct opposition to the terms of the Iran deal, which, in his view, was supposed to contribute to ‘regional and international peace and security’.
In the first paragraph of its Preface, the JCPOA notes that the P5+1 ‘anticipate that full implementation (emphasis added) of this JCPOA will contribute to regional and international peace and security’. Trump and his officials therefore surely cannot justifiably lay the blame for lack of progress towards regional and international peace and security at the doors of the 10-year JCPOA which is only in its second year of implementation. More importantly, the JCPOA was only designed to contain the threat posed to regional and international peace and security arising out of Iran’s nuclear concerns.
Trump announced a tightening of sanctions on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and vowed to take measures in consort with the US Congress and America’s allies to prevent Iran from developing an inter-continental ballistic missile, and address concerns emanating from the ‘sunset’ clauses of the deal which gradually remove restrictions on Iran’s nuclear programme. Earlier, in February 2017, the administration had imposed sanctions on 25 individuals and companies connected to the IRGC-Qods Force (QF) and the missile programme in the immediate aftermath of Iran’s test of a 1000 kilometre range ballistic missile on 29 January—its first missile test after Trump took over.
Tillerson argues for the imperative need to negotiate a ‘secondary’ agreement that would seek to address concerns emanating from such Iranian activities relating to its missile programme and its regional role, issues which are not dealt with by the nuclear-specific JCPOA. It is not certain how such a process would begin or shape up, with the other members of the P5+1 expressing concern at Trump’s October 13 policy statement.
Further, Iran was under UNSC sanctions between December 2006 and July 2015, and concerns regarding Iran’s nuclear programme were shared by all of Iran’s negotiating partners. But the same does not hold true, for instance, on issues pertaining to Iran’s regional role. Iran meanwhile has been careful in fulfilling its end of the bargain until now, knowing fully well that a violation of the JCPOA provisions would lead to a re-imposition of the punitive sanctions measures which affected its economy quite adversely.
Now the focus has shifted to the US Congress and the possible contours of the legislative steps it could take in tune with the INARA provisions. Trump’s decision not to certify Iranian compliance could meanwhile lead to the increased politicisation of IAEA’s safeguards implementation activities in Iran, with negative consequences for the health of the JCPOA mechanisms designed to deal with such issues. The IAEA’s ability to provide a ‘broader conclusion’ that all nuclear activities in Iran are for peaceful purposes — a possibility the JCPOA alludes could occur in eight years from Implementation Day or even earlier — could subsequently be severely impacted. Trump’s policy statement has enveloped the UNSC-approved JCPOA in a shroud of uncertainty that could lead to further instability in conflict-ridden West Asia.