by Derek Davison
The White House announced on Friday afternoon that Donald Trump will extend waivers on sanctions against Iran for another 120 days, under the terms of the Iran nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA). However, in its announcement the administration made it clear that this is the “last time” Trump will issue these waivers unless the deal is substantially renegotiated, something that neither Iran nor the other parties to the deal (Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia) have shown any inclination of doing.
There was a real chance that Trump might have opted not to extend the waivers this time around. In October, when he refused to certify the JCPOA under the 2015 Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA)—despite Iran’s compliance with its terms—Trump said that the agreement would “be terminated” if Congress and the other parties to the deal fail to alter its terms. So far, at least, the deal remains unaltered. Trump’s threat to alter the deal on his own—to scrap it, really, which would be the likely effect of restoring U.S. sanctions in full—may spur some movement toward changing it, but that very much remains to be seen.
Trump’s statement on the waiver extension calls it “a last chance” to salvage the accord. It outlines Trump’s complaints about the JCPOA and highlights the incoherence of his approach to the deal:
I am open to working with Congress on bipartisan legislation regarding Iran. But any bill I sign must include four critical components.
First, it must demand that Iran allow immediate inspections at all sites requested by international inspectors.
Second, it must ensure that Iran never even comes close to possessing a nuclear weapon.
Third, unlike the nuclear deal, these provisions must have no expiration date. My policy is to deny Iran all paths to a nuclear weapon—not just for ten years, but forever.
If Iran does not comply with any of these provisions, American nuclear sanctions would automatically resume.
Fourth, the legislation must explicitly state in United States law—for the first time—that long-range missile and nuclear weapons programs are inseparable, and that Iran’s development and testing of missiles should be subject to severe sanctions.
Iran has allowed inspections at all sites requested by inspectors—if this were not the case, then the International Atomic Energy Agency wouldn’t keep certifying Iran’s technical compliance with the JCPOA. As a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Iran is prohibited, in perpetuity, from possessing nuclear weapons. By requiring Iran to adopt the IAEA’s “Additional Protocol,” the JCPOA imposes strict inspections and monitoring requirements on Iran’s nuclear program that do not go away so long as Iran remains party to the NPT. These provisions have no “expiration date.” Iran has already met these conditions under the existing terms of the deal, yet Trump is either unaware of that or simply doesn’t care.
Trump’s fourth condition is likely to raise Iranian ire. In October, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Mohammad Ali Jafari said that Iran has limited its ballistic missiles to a maximum range of 2,000 kilometers, which is defined as medium-range. However, that is a self-imposed limit that Jafari himself suggested could be lifted if needed. Iranian officials have chafed at past Western criticism of their country’s ballistic missile program, which they regard as a national defense priority, though media reports in the past few months have suggested that Iran might be open to talks about the program. At any rate, though, the United States has continued to sanction Iranian officials and entities over its missile program without violating the deal, so it’s unclear why Trump would suddenly feel the need to link that issue so explicitly to the nuclear one.
Also troubling is the statement’s explicit exclusion of Russia, China, and Iran itself from any planned renegotiation. It is unrealistic in the extreme to expect to renegotiate the terms of a seven-party deal among only, at most, four of the parties. Indeed, Trump’s statement should raise questions about whether he honestly has any intention of salvaging the deal, or if he’s laid out such an impossible scenario on purpose to allow him to scrap the deal in 120 days while retaining the illusion of good faith.
Of course, Trump is nothing if not mercurial. It’s anybody’s guess what he’s actually going to do when the next waiver deadline arrives in May.
In a Friday conference call arranged by Diplomacy Works to discuss Trump’s statement, former U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz stressed the permanent nature of the inspections regime as the most important aspect of the JCPOA:
The heart [of the JCPOA] is the verification regime, and the verification regime does not sunset. All this discussion of sunsets refers, of course, to some of the nuclear constraints—the most important of which, by the way, is the constraint for 15 years [during which Iran is permitted to stockpile] no more than 300 kilograms of very low enriched uranium. But even [when that restriction sunsets], what remains is something that was not in place before and will not be in place if we do not stay the course, and that is the verification regime, which is what provides the international community with the confidence that there is, verifiably, no nuclear weapons program in Iran.
Along with the nuclear sanctions waiver, the Trump administration also issued new sanctions on Friday targeting Iranian individuals and entities for human rights violations and for their involvement in Iran’s ballistic missile program. Most prominent among these was Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani, the head of the Iranian judiciary. Robert Malley, former White House coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf and lead JCPOA negotiator, said on the call that he didn’t “see any [new sanctions] that are clearly violating the [nuclear] deal. There was always the ability to impose new designations based on other behavior that was related to human rights, ballistic missiles, or terrorism.” However Malley seemed pessimistic about the JCPOA’s chances for survival in the long run:
There’s no need to create an unnecessary crisis on the one issue that actually seems to be working, not just in relations between the U.S. and Iran but in the Middle East as a whole. This is an agreement that is actually being implemented by Iran—President Trump and his administration have not denied that. It’s working, so why create an artificial crisis and the kind of uncertainty that we don’t need?
[Trump] is setting up conditions, in order for him to agree to waive the sanctions next time, that are inconsistent with the deal. They’re asking to extend in perpetuity conditions that Iran is not going to agree to extend and that are not provided for in the JCPOA. So in some ways what he’s setting up is a choice: either he’s going to withdraw from the deal or he’s going to get a supplemental agreement that is in violation of the deal. In a nutshell what he’s saying is, either kill the deal with me or I’ll kill it alone.
However, Ambassador Wendy Sherman, former under secretary of state for political affairs and another lead U.S. negotiator for the JCPOA, sounded a slightly more optimistic tone later in the call:
At the time that we worked so hard on the Iran nuclear agreement, we all said to each other—and to the Iranian government—that the deal would only be durable depending on the strength of its details and of the compliance to the deal. What has really sustained this deal is that everyone is complying with it—in particular, of course, Iran…I think this is a durable agreement—but the United States has to stand by it.