Neither U.S. President Donald Trump nor Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu advocated for abandoning the nuclear deal with Iran during a Feb. 15 joint news conference in Washington, DC. But both leaders called for additional sanctions on Tehran and Netanyahu said he welcomed Trump’s “challenging Iran on its violations of ballistic missiles.”
There are no prohibitions on ballistic missile activity in the July 2015 nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), but continued testing of certain ballistic missile systems is inconsistent with UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorses the deal and lifts some UN sanctions on Iran.
Netanyahu also said he looked forward to working with Trump to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons, but when asked about his expectations for the Trump administration dismantling or amending the deal, he did not provide any specifics. Trump said he would “do more to prevent Iran from ever developing” nuclear weapons, but did provide details about his approach.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini also traveled to Washington, DC last week and the nuclear deal with Iran was on her agenda. Mogherini led the nuclear negotiations with Iran on behalf of the EU and the P5+1 states (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States).
She met with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, several members of Congress, and Michael Flynn, who subsequently resigned as National Security Advisor. Mogherini told reporters after her meetings at the State Department that “the United States is committed to the full implementation” of the nuclear deal.
During a public event at the Atlantic Council event Friday, Feb. 10, Mogherini said it “is a priority to preserve the deal, have a strong U.S. commitment to its full implementation.” She also said she passed on the message that the deal is “key for our security” in Europe, given the geographic proximity to Iran.—KELSEY DAVENPORT, director for nonproliferation policy
Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in an interview with Politico published Feb. 13 that there are two pieces of legislation under consideration that “can be very helpful in continuing to push back and push Iran down.”
Several sanctions bills on Iran have already been introduced in the new Congress targeting a range of Iranian activities including ballistic missile activities and support for terrorism, but Corker did not specify if the bills he referred to had been introduced or were still being drafted.
Washington’s negotiating partners have expressed concern about the possibility of new U.S. sanctions and their effect on the nuclear deal. Recently Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said that the Iran deal has been “regulated based on precise and balanced mechanisms,” and that “new obstacles, specifically new sanctions and banking obstacles” are not acceptable to Russia.
The nuclear deal calls for the United States not to reimpose sanctions lifted under the deal and refrain from imposing new nuclear-related sanctions, respective of the rolls of the Presidency and Congress. The agreement notes that Iran will consider any new nuclear sanctions or the reimposition of sanctions lifted under the agreement as grounds to “cease performing its commitments.”
Before moving forward on any new sanctions measures, Congress should carefully evaluate the measures to determine whether they violate the deal and the impact on U.S. policy goals for the region. Congress and the Trump administration should also coordinate with P5+1 partners and clearly message the intent of the sanctions to allies and Iran, while reiterating Washington’s commitment to the nuclear deal. In some cases, it may be prudent to examine alternatives to sanctions that can target Iran’s behavior in the region and activities, such as ballistic missile testing, that run counter to the spirit of UN Security Council resolutions.
Pushing back against destabilizing activities and engaging with Iran on shared areas of concern, all while maintaining the deal that is effectively restricting Iran’s nuclear activities, is in the best interests of U.S. national security and stability in the Middle East.
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Yukiya Amano said Feb. 14 that Iran is continuing to meet its obligations under the nuclear deal and has brought its stockpile of heavy water back under the required limits.
The November 2016 IAEA quarterly report on Iran’s nuclear program said that Tehran had 130.1 metric tons of heavy water in its stockpile. The deal caps Iran at 130 metric tons. Iran shipped out some of its stock to meet the requirements in November. The slight excess in heavy water did not pose a proliferation risk, but did breach the deal’s limits.
Amano, speaking to reporters in Dubai, said that the IAEA has not been contacted by the White House yet, but is “very willing to have interaction” with the Trump administration “as soon as possible.”
He said that the implementation of the deal is a “net gain” because it has reduced Iran’s nuclear activities and that the deal gave the IAEA a “robust verification tool.”
The IAEA Board of Governors will meet again March 6-10. Amano will submit a quarterly report on Iran’s nuclear activities to the board ahead of the meeting.
In response to Iran’s Jan. 29 ballistic missile test, the U.S. Department of the Treasury announced additional designations on individuals and entities for supporting Iran’s ballistic missile activities.
Ballistic missile testing is not prohibited by the nuclear deal, but in UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorsed the deal and lifted most UN sanctions, Iran is “called upon not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons.” While Iran’s decision to continue testing ballistic missiles is unnecessarily provocative and unhelpful, these systems pose less of a risk when Iran’s pathways to nuclear weapons remain blocked by the deal.
While Iran maintains that its ballistic missile tests are allowed under the resolution because the systems are not “designed” to deliver nuclear weapons, representatives from several P5+1 states say that the tests are inconsistent with the “spirit” of 2231. Then-UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon used similar language to describe ballistic missile tests in a report on implementation of 2231.
The press release that accompanied the Feb. 3 designations said that the “action was taken pursuant to Executive Order 13382, which targets proliferators of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery and supporters of such activity.” A subsequent White House press call reiterated that the designations were taken “outside of the JCPOA,” which is limited to Iran’s nuclear program and the United States “continues to implement its commitments under the JCPOA.” The senior official on the call affirmed that none of the entities designated Feb. 3 were on the list of individuals and entities the nuclear deal delisted.
Relisting individuals and entities that had designations removed under the deal could constitute a violation of the agreement.
The announcement of additional designations is an expected response that does not violate U.S. commitments under the nuclear deal. Former President Barack Obama issued similar designations in response to ballistic missile activities Jan. 17, 2016 – the day after the nuclear deal was fully implemented. Congress also called for more sanctions on Iran in response to ballistic missile activities. In a Feb. 2 letter to Trump, a bipartisan group of 22 senators called for “the imposition of additional sanctions on Iran for its ballistic missile program.
Before pursuing additional sanctions that risk undermining—or even violating—the deal, Congress and the administration should consider other options for stemming Iran’s ballistic missile advances. These include:
Congress should also request an updated assessment of Iran’s ballistic missile capabilities. For more on these options, see “Iran’s Ballistic Missile Test: Troubling But Not a Cause for Provoking Confrontation.”
The House Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing on Iran Feb. 16. Committee chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) said that “sanctions can be imposed even while adhering to and strictly enforcing the nuclear agreement—as flawed as it is.” He noted that the administration can “press back on Iran’s support for terrorism, human rights abuses, and missile development” even under the deal. Royce also called for “careful coordination with allies.”
Ranking member Eliot Engel, (D-N.Y.), said that Iranian activities, like ballistic missile testing and transferring weapons to terrorist organizations, does not violate the nuclear deal, but is inconsistent with UN Security Council Resolution 2231. He called for a more cohesive policy toward Iran from the administration and said the United States cannot afford a “half-baked or reckless foreign policy.” While Engel did not support the nuclear deal, he said the U.S. must “ensure that Iran lives up to every bit of its responsibility” under the deal, now that the agreement is in place.
The full video of the hearing is available online.