Trump’s New Iran’s Policy Will Put an End to the Normalization Project

Trump’s New Iran’s Policy Will Put an End to the Normalization Project
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Tension is building in Washington and Tehran as the US president Donald Trump refused to certify Iran as compliant with the nuclear agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). As I argued in my previous analysis published by the Atlantic Council, the certification of the JCPOA by the White House is not part of the agreement, but rather, it was imposed on the Obama administration by Congress to keep Iran to a strict accounting schedule. Although President Trump certified Iran twice, in his remarks on October 13, the U.S. president refused to recertify Iran’s compliance with the nuclear accord. Though Trump disavowed the JCPOA without calling for the U.S. to abandon the agreement, he asked Congress to establish “trigger points,” which could prompt Washington to reimpose sanctions on Iran if Tehran crosses thresholds set by Congress.

In his remark, Trump stated that “as I have said many times, the Iran deal was one of the worst and most one sided transactions the United States has ever entered into.” “Worst of all,” Trump went on, “the deal allows Iran to continue developing certain elements of its nuclear program. And importantly, in just a few years, as key restrictions disappear, Iran can sprint towards a rapid nuclear weapons breakout.” Thus, the US president announced that he will not certify that Iran is complying with the nuclear agreement to ensure that Tehran will never acquire nuclear weapons. Trump also did not roll out the possibility of cancelling U.S. participation and terminating the deal in the future in the event of Iran making a minor violation.

Moreover, Trump unveiled a new strategy to address the rise of Iranian influence across the Middle East or as the president put it, “the full range of Iran’s destructive actions.” The core elements of Trump’s new Iran’s strategy focus on neutralizing Iran’s destabilizing influence and constraining its aggression, particularly its alleged support for terrorism. In other words, Washington’s proposed strategy is to contain the Revolutionary Guard and to counter the Quds force, responsible for its extraterritorial operations. As a pillar of the new strategy, the U.S. Department of the Treasury designated the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) under Terrorism authority (E.O. 13224) and targets the IRGC and military supporters, its officials, agents and affiliates for its activities in support of the IRGC-Quds Force.

Although new strategy slaps more sanctions on the Revolutionary Guards Trump, however, stopped short of designating the organization as a terror group due to the belief that the designation contains risks and complexities. As the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson noted, such a designation would "put in place certain requirements where we run into one another in the battlefield and it would trigger actions that are not necessarily in the best interests of our military actions.” Though omitting a terrorism designation for the Revolutionary Guard disappointed critics of Iran, observers noted that Trump’s changing mind came after receiving counsel from his top advisors in the White House.

Perhaps the change in strategy came after the top IRGC commander Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari warned that his organization will target American soldiers in the Middle East if Washington labelled it a terrorist organization. Farsi media quoted Jafari as saying "If the scattered news about the stupidity of the U.S. government regarding the IRGC as a terrorist group is correct, the Guards will also consider the American military all over the world, especially the Middle East, as equal to Daesh.” Jafari said his organization is ready for confrontation and to target American bases in the region. “as we have announced in the past, if America's new law for sanctions is enforced, this country will have to move its regional bases outside the 2,000 km radius of the Iranian missiles' range."

Similarly, the Quds Force telegram channel issued a statement and warned that the organization will seriously take targeting American soldiers into its consideration, if the White House label the IRGC as a terror group, a threat that apparently had an effect on Washington’s reconsidering its decision. American analysts also noted that the designation would put the lives of American troops in jeopardy in Southwest Asia. Other Iranian officials warned the U.S. against designation of IRGC in its terror list, saying that Washington’s action against the revolutionary Guards is considered by the Iranians as a “declaration of war,” which will be responded to forcefully.

Still, Washington’s new strategy will place additional sanctions on Iran “to block its financing of terrorism.” Moreover, the proposed measures aimed at punishing Tehran for its ballistic missile program. The new measures call for Congress to pass legislation that will trigger automatic sanctions in the event of future Iranian missile activities. The final pillar of the new strategy will be “denying the regime all paths to a nuclear weapon.”

Though Trumps decertification will not translate to Washington’s pulling out of the agreement, but it would give 60 days to the Congress to decide whether to re-impose economic sanctions against Iran. In essence, Trump kicked the ball to the Congress court to pull the trigger. However, given the fact about how dysfunctional the congress is, it is highly unlikely that the law makers will reinstate sanctions.

Trump’s move is considered as checkmating the congress due to the fact that they have been opposing the agreement from its very beginning in July 14, 2015. Under the current situation, Congress will face with two choices; if the law makers refuse to reinstate new sanctions, they must explain why they opposed the deal since the agreement was signed by Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the U.N. security council plus Germany). If they decide to re-impose new sanctions, they will be held responsible for any potential problem going forward.

Predicting Iran’s response to Trump’s new Iran’s policy has been the subject of a considerable debate among Iranians. In reaction to Trump’s negative decision, the Iranian media have increased their coverage of the issue. An analysis of the articles in Farsi media provides some clues to understand whether Iran will continue to stick to the nuclear agreement especially since Trump’s new Strategy is considered by radicals in Tehran as a violation of the nuclear agreement by the United States.

According to the Farsi media, Tehran has a broad range of counter-measures in dealing with Washington’s new strategy. Under pressure from hardliners, moderates warned the U.S. that Iran will react proportionally. Significantly though, the normalizers have not threatened to quit the agreement. Javad Zarif, Iran’s Foreign Minister said that Tehran has a “very broad” range of options for any breach of the JCPOA and would “end all its commitments in this regard if deemed necessary.”

Similarly, President Rouhani took a soft tone and maintained that Iran will adhere to the deal as long as other sides do so. Rouhani noted that “Iran is committed to its given promises and will continue to keep its commitments. If the other party withdraws from its commitment, in fact, it will damage its own credibility.” However, the president continued by saying that Iran has many options and it will choose the one that best serves its national interest.

Iran newspaper, an outlet that belongs to the presidency, noted that Trump’s remarks do not have any effect on Iran’s position towards the nuclear agreement. According to the daily, despite the fact that there are disagreements between the different factions over many issues, they are united over sticking to the agreement and over defending the IRGC by all means. The daily called on officials to avoid any uncalculated and hasty policies.

The hardliners, however, were more ready to threaten a harsh reaction to Trump’s decertification. Kayhan newspaper, considered the mouthpiece of the Supreme Leader, noted that Tramp’s speech was an indication that “the United States is afraid of Iran's missiles.” Thus, according to the daily, the most effective response should be forcefully continuation of the ballistic program, and dedicating more resources to the country’s “inter-continental ballistic missile” program. Kayhan did not miss the opportunity to attack moderates and connected Washington’s new policy towards the Revolutionary Guards to Rouhani’s undermining the IRGC’s testing missiles or the organization’s involvement in economic activities. The daily noted “if one day someone sarcastically said that ‘the concentration of guns, money and media in one institution would lead to corruption,’ or ‘they want to torpedo the nuclear agreement by testing missiles,’ he sent a clear signal to Washington to pressure the Guards.”

Regarding Trump’s decertifying of Iran’s compliance with the nuclear agreement, Kayhan noted that “as predicted, Trump did not abandon the deal; an agreement whose limitations are for Iran and its privileges for the United States. Trump’s speech showed that he only wants to push Iran to the limits. We repeatedly said that, but nobody listened to us. We will repeat it again with the hope that our message can be heard. The JCPOA has benefits for all its parties except Iran.” Kayhan attacked Zarif for insisting on remaining committed to the deal while the other party is already violating it. According to Kayhan, Tehran’s best response is to withdraw from the deal “that is too costly and useless” for Iran.

It will be a difficult decision for the hardliners to withdraw from the nuclear agreement, however, one thing is for certain; Trump’s move was a victory for Iran’s Principalists, a radical faction that the United States has been seeking to contain since its formation. As one analyst noted, “Trump’s move to challenge the 2015 nuclear deal has given the hardliners an unanticipated victory.” 

Moderates have paid a considerable price in their long fight with hardliners as well as with the Supreme Leader to convince them to agree with entering into negotiations with the United States over the controversial nuclear program, and to agree to serious restrictions. While hardliners opposed any opening to the United States for the reason that Washington cannot be trusted as a partner, the moderates have publicly announced that the nuclear agreement could be the floor for additional cooperation between the two countries. Trump’s new Iran policy will provide the ground for the Iran’s radicals to accuse Rouhani and his allies of being naïve for trusting the Americans. Immediately after Trump’s speech on October 13, Hossein Shariatmadari, Khamenei’s representative in the Kayhan institute noted, “we said we should not trust the United States, but they [moderates] used to reply that the deal is not based on trust.”

Trump’s new Iran policy will eliminate the very opportunity - at least for the foreseeable future - that the nuclear agreement created for the normalizers, to improve relations between Iran and the United States. In other words, the new Iran policy will put an end to Rouhani’s normalization project. Hardliners will use Trump’s new approach to discredit Rouhani and his normalization agenda.

The Supreme Leader will probably wait to see how Congress will act. Then he will decide whether to team up with the hardliners or with normalizers. The reaction of the European Union and other JCPOA signatories matters in Khamenei’s future decision. If Khamenei is persuaded that the JCPOA can continue to function to Tehran’s benefit without Washington, Iran may not withdraw from the pact.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of IRAM.