Iranian nuclear deal in trouble as Tillerson tries to avoid collapse

Middle East Online– While there is no doubt the Iran deal has its shortcomings, an exit by the United States could enable the Iranians to strike a deal with Russia, China and the European powers, says Thomas Seibert.

Amid signs that US President Donald Trump is looking to scrap the Iranian nuclear deal, the United States’ European allies are throwing their weight behind US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, a prominent supporter of the agreement within a divided administration.

Trump is obliged by US law to tell Congress every three months whether Iran has been following the rules of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the 2015 landmark treaty designed to prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons. The next report is due October 15. US officials critical of the agreement between Iran and the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain, Germany and the European Union say the deal puts US security interests at risk.

In the two most recent reports to Congress, the State Department certified Iran was complying with the agreement but the upcoming report could be different. Trump has been very critical of the Iran deal, which some officials say has emboldened Tehran to embark on disruptive action throughout the Middle East, flush with money coming to the country because of a phase-out of sanctions under the treaty.

Trump told the Wall Street Journal in July he expected the next State Department report to say that Iran had acted against the agreement. “If it was up to me, I would have had them non-compliant 180 days ago,” he said, adding that Tillerson did not share his view. “It’s easier to say they comply. It’s a lot easier but it’s the wrong thing. They don’t comply,” Trump said.

Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations and a vocal critic of the Iran deal in Trump’s cabinet, said the Iran deal had “so many flaws that it’s tempting to leave it.” Speaking September 5 at a panel of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a conservative think-tank in Washington, she warned Iran could become “the next North Korea” if Tehran’s nuclear ambitions were not checked.

Haley accused the Iranian government of banking on the fact that the international community regarded the nuclear agreement as essential for world peace. “They are threatening the entire world because the entire world thinks the JCPOA is untouchable but it’s not,” she said.

The UN ambassador admitted that America’s European allies wanted to save the agreement but said the United States had to look out for itself. “Our job is not to make sure that Europeans are happy with us,” she said. “Our job is to make sure we’re keeping the American public safe.”

In contrast to Haley, Tillerson, Secretary of Defence James Mattis and national security adviser H.R. McMaster argue that the United States should stick with the Iran agreement. Their position received a boost in late August when the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog said in a report that international inspectors did not find evidence of Iranian violations of the agreement.

“The administration is divided,” said Allen Keiswetter, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs and a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington. Keiswetter warned that declaring Iran to be in non-compliance carried the risk of separating the United States from its allies in Europe. “This opens all sorts of opportunities for the Iranians to play the allies against the US,” he said.

European officials, concerned that a collapse of the JCPOA could lead to an international nuclear crisis, are keen to support Tillerson. “If he wants to make the Iranians adhere to every last comma [of the treaty], he will have the British, the French and us on his side,” a senior German official said under condition of anonymity. “We have to prevent the agreement from blowing up in our faces.”

Keiswetter said that, while there was no doubt the Iran deal had its shortcomings, an exit by the United States could enable the Iranians to strike a deal with Russia, China and the European powers. “The US would be standing alone,” he said.

Haley’s AEI speech offered a glimpse at a possible way for the administration to move forward despite its inner divisions and the pressure from allies. She said a refusal by Trump to confirm that Iran followed the deal would not automatically mean that the United States would turn its back on the agreement as a whole. If Trump declares Iran in non-compliance, Congress has two months to decide whether to reimpose unilateral US sanctions against Tehran. This procedure would buy the administration time.

Keiswetter said he did not believe such a course would provide a way out for the Trump administration. “The agreement would not be dead” after a declaration of non-compliance by the United States, he said, but the United States would still break with its allies in an important question.

In essence, Keiswetter said, it was better for Washington “to accept what we have and move on to seek to improve it.”

Thomas Seibert is an Arab Weekly contributor in Istanbul.

Copyright ©2017 The Arab Weekly

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