On Monday, the White House hastily organized a press teleconference on the Iranian nuclear deal. The accord—brokered by the world’s six major powers two years ago—is to President Trump’s foreign policy what Obamacare is to his domestic policy: he is determined to destroy it, without a coherent or viable strategy, so far, to replace it. It’s also not clear that Trump fully understands its details, complex diplomatic process, or long-term stakes any more than he does health care.
During the White House briefing, I asked the three senior Administration officials whether, after months of inflammatory declarations about the “bad deal” and the “bad” government in Tehran, the Trump Administration is moving toward a policy of regime change. It often sounds like it. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told Congress in June that U.S. policy includes “support of those elements inside Iran that would lead to a peaceful transition of that government.” Last month, the Defense Secretary, James Mattis, described Iran as “a country that is acting more like a revolutionary cause, not to the best interests of their own people,” and added, “until the Iranian people can get rid of this theocracy.” Shortly after Trump’s Inauguration, a memo circulated by hawks within the Administration suggested that Iran was susceptible to “coerced democratization,” a euphemism for regime change. Authored by Mark Dubowitz, of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the memo argued that “the very structure of the regime invites instability, crisis and possibly collapse,” and urged the White House to work against the reëlection this year of President Hassan Rouhani, the chief sponsor of the nuclear deal on the Iranian side.
At Monday’s briefing, an official responded to my question by saying that the Administration wants to “see change in the malign behavior of the regime” and an end to Iran’s “destabilizing” influence in the Middle East. The language was vague, but Trump Administration pressure is intensifying. This week, the President defiantly fought the unified recommendation of his entire foreign-policy and military teams, including Tillerson; Mattis; the Joint Chiefs chairman, General Joseph Dunford; and the national-security adviser, H. R. McMaster, to certify to Congress—as required every ninety days—that Iran is complying with its obligations in the deal. The U.N. nuclear watchdog and the five other major powers party to the deal say it is. Trump certified it once, in April, and finally agreed to do it again, on Monday, but, reportedly, he does not want to do it a third time, in October.
To placate the President, his staff amassed a list of complaints—on Iran’s missiles, support for terrorism, aid to Syria, hostility to Israel, human-rights abuses, and cyberattacks—to show that Tehran is in “default of the spirit” of the nuclear deal. This laid the groundwork for a more aggressive policy. On Tuesday, it began. The Administration slapped new sanctions on eighteen individuals and entities linked to weapons development or procurement and software theft. In a joint statement, the State Department, Treasury Department, and Justice Department denounced Tehran for undermining “regional stability, security, and prosperity.” The Republican-led Congress is deliberating further punitive measures.
For two years, I covered the tortured diplomacy from both Washington and Tehran. I now feel the deal slipping away. The most important non-proliferation agreement in a quarter century, it was a diplomatic breakthrough because no one liked it and every party had to compromise. It succeeded in ending thirty-six years of tension in a way that—even Iran concedes—could have facilitated diplomacy on other flash points, notably Syria’s grisly war. It extended the potential “breakout” to produce a weapon to a year or more. It stipulated in three different ways that Iran will never be allowed to develop a nuclear bomb, and forged an international agreement on automatic “snap back” sanctions if it should try. It allowed Tehran to get some closely monitored capabilities back over time, yet it allowed the United States to maintain sanctions—and leverage—on Iran for other issues.
On Tuesday afternoon, I sat down in New York with Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, first one on one, and then with a small group of American journalists, to discuss the precarious state of play. We met at the elegant residence of the Iranian Ambassador to the United Nations, near the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Zarif has spent a week in New York—on the pretext of a speech at the United Nations—partly to salvage the agreement. He has appeared on American television shows, met with members of Congress and former officials, taken the stage at the Council on Foreign Relations, and talked to the press. He seemed frustrated that he no longer has an interlocutor in Washington. He has not yet spoken with Tillerson. In contrast, he noted, he and former Secretary of State John Kerry “probably spent more time with each other than any two other foreign ministers in history” during two years of intense negotiations.
Zarif rejected suggestions by the Trump Administration that the deal be renegotiated. “It would be extremely dangerous to even contemplate reopening these negotiations, because now we all go into any possible negotiations with even higher expectations,” he told me. “It was complicated enough to reach this deal already, and it would be impossible to reach another deal.”
Zarif said that he does not rule out talks with the Trump Administration. U.S. and Iranian technical experts still meet on compliance; they will do so later this week, in Vienna. “We’re not opposed to the possibility of a meeting between us and Secretary Tillerson if it is necessary for the implementation of the nuclear deal,” Zarif told me. He later told a group of us, “If we succeed in seeing good faith on the part of the United States in the implementation of the nuclear deal, then it would be a foundation and not the ceiling. And it would be possible to engage in other areas. We haven’t seen that yet.”
He added, “I haven’t asked for a meeting, and I don’t think I will.”
Like other nations that are party to the deal, Iran is confused about Trump’s strategy—and whether he wants to scrap the deal altogether, renegotiate, or try to apply so many punitive measures that Tehran will be tempted to walk away from the deal on its own. “It’s not clear what the Administration is planning to do,” Zarif said. “I think now they have come to the realization that scrapping the deal is not something that would be globally welcomed.”
The implications extend to diplomacy well beyond the nuclear deal, he warned. “The message the United States is sending to the rest of the world is that you cannot count on the U.S. being committed to its international undertakings. So, not only is that a bad signal to Iran but also a bad signal to anybody else, whoever contemplates talking to the U.S. or negotiating with the U.S.”
President Obama worked with five other major powers to secure the agreement. He opted to deal with Iran on the single toughest challenge—its nuclear program—when Tehran was on the cusp of the ability to produce a weapon within two to three months. The deal lessened the danger of rogue nations getting the world’s deadliest weapon and, his Administration argued, might open channels for discussions on other flash points.
On Tuesday, Federica Mogherini, the European Union foreign-policy chief, reaffirmed the major powers’ support for the accord. At a joint press conference with the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, she said, “We have the duty to make it clear that the nuclear deal doesn’t belong to one country. It belongs to the international community, to the U.N. system,” she said. “We share responsibility to make sure that this continues to be implemented fully by all.”
Trump is instead focussing on the totality of disputes, all at the same time, and seeking to “neutralize” Tehran to address them. At the White House briefing, a senior Administration official argued that Obama had jeopardized U.S. interests by downplaying the scope of Iranian threats. So far, Trump has garnered the support of Israel and predominantly Sunni countries led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to alter, amend, or end the deal. But no big powers agree with him. At two recent international summits, for NATO and the G-20, Trump urged European leaders to avoid or block new business with Iran. He got little bite. At least three major U.S. allies have sent their ambassadors to Iran to Washington, to try to convince the new Administration to support the accord—and to explain Iran to Trump Administration staffers who were not involved in the diplomacy. Trump appears willing to chart a risky course, whatever the repercussions. For the first time in years, U.S. and European policies on Iran are taking divergent paths.
Now that the U.S. has imposed new sanctions, Zarif said that Iran would reciprocate. Tehran’s parliament responded to growing tensions with the Trump Administration by increasing funds for Iran’s missile program, the Revolutionary Guards, and its élite Quds Force, which has a controversial presence in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen. The move is striking because parliament is dominated by reformers and centrists loyal to Rouhani, who have often split with hard-line elements in the Guards’ leadership. On this issue, they have united.
The cycle of tit-for-tat, which defined volatile relations between Washington and Tehran for more than three decades after the 1979 revolution, is back in play.
As if on cue, Iran’s Judiciary on Sunday announced the conviction and sentencing of an American doctoral student to ten years in prison on espionage charges. A hard-line newspaper, Mizan, leaked the name of Xijue Wang, from Princeton University, who was arrested eleven months ago. The university had been using back channels to quietly win his release.
The executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran, Hadi Ghaemi, said in a statement on Monday that “over and over again, we’re seeing foreigners who were legally allowed to enter Iran being imprisoned as political playing cards by hard-liners who want to use them as hostages in their dealings with Western countries.” Ghaemi said the goal of such cases was to undercut the engagement with the West that Rouhani and other Iranian moderates have sought.
Wang was born in China and is a naturalized American. He is studying nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Eurasian history, including Iran’s former Qajar dynasty. He was poring over historical documents in Tehran libraries. The Iranian government spokesman Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Eje’i described Wang as an “infiltrator” who “entered Iran in a particularly sneaky way” to gather intelligence.
Rouhani, who has championed the nuclear deal since he was elected, in 2013, won a landslide reëlection, in May, by five million more votes than in the first poll. He is due to be sworn in next month. But, on Sunday, Rouhani paid a personal price. Iran’s judiciary announced the arrest of his brother, Hossein Fereidoun—a former Ambassador to Malaysia and a key member of the nuclear negotiating team—on unspecified charges of corruption. Fereidoun was released on ten million dollars bail, reduced from fifteen million—an exorbitant sum in any country.
As tensions steadily rise between Washington and Tehran, the question is whether a defiant American President and Iran’s hard-line factions will succeed in gutting the nuclear deal—and ushering in a new era of confrontation in the Persian Gulf and, potentially, across the Middle East.