Will Iran Accept Changes in the Nuclear Agreement?

Will Iran Accept Changes in the Nuclear Agreement?
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Absent the U.S. Congress amending the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA), on January 12, 2018, U.S. President Donald Trump restated his strategy of threatening to withdraw from Iran’s nuclear agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The President indicated that this will be the last time that the White House waves nuclear sanctions in order to give the Congress and Washington’s European allies another chance to “fix the flaws” of the deal or face U.S. abandonment of the accord. “Despite my strong inclination, I have not yet withdrawn the United States from the Iran nuclear deal. I have outlined two possible paths forward: either fix the deal’s disastrous flaws or the United States will withdraw,” Trump said in his written statement published by the White House.

Trump’s statement suggests that he envisions a process in which Washington wants to impose additional one-sided terms on Tehran. As Trump puts it, the deal should include Iran's agreement to open all off-limits military sites to the inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), cover the country’s ballistic missiles program, eliminate the sunset clauses for key provisions, and limit its nuclear breakout period indefinitely. Observers noted that Trump is fully aware that the JCPOA is a robust arms control agreement and Iran continues to comply with the deal obligations as confirmed by the IAEA, the UN designated nuclear watchdog.

The question then arises whether the Islamic Republic will accept the new circumstances demanded by the Trump administration to rewrite the nuclear agreement within 120 days. An analysis of the articles published by the Farsi media, which have increased their coverage of the issue, provides some clues on the possible reaction in Tehran.

For the moderate forces, the response to Trump’s possible upending the pact has been a difficult balancing act, but they have not threatened to abandon the accord should the U.S. President abrogate it. IRNA, Iran’s official news agency, published a statement issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, underlining that Iran will not accept any changes in the nuclear agreement, nor will it commit itself to anything beyond its JCPOA obligations. The statement read, “The Islamic Republic of Iran explicitly stresses that it will not carry out anything beyond its obligations in the JCPOA and will not accept any changes in this agreement now or in the future. Moreover, it will not allow that the nuclear accord would be linked to any other matter,” a reference to Washington’s demand for the linking ballistic missiles program and Iran’s regional policies to the nuclear accord.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif wrote on January 12, 2018, in a message on Twitter that “rather than repeating tired rhetoric, the U.S. must bring itself into full compliance -just like Iran.” The Minister reminded the American officials that “In the talks, Iran emphasized that all parties, including the United States, should remain committed to the nuclear agreement and implement the deal completely so that Iran does the same.” While he did not spell it out, Zarif said that “the Islamic Republic of Iran has several options,” if Washington decides to withdraw from the pact.

The hardline media, however, has been much less reluctant to threaten a harsh reaction to “renegotiation and fixing flaws.” Tasnim News Agency, an outlet close to the Revolutionary Guards, accused the United States of implementing destructive policies and wrote that “any move leading to the destruction of the JCPOA or a change in it would be unacceptable” for Tehran. Kayhan Newspaper, considered as the mouthpiece of the Supreme Leader, argued in an article titled “Do Not Tie the Country's Economy into Trump's Lunatic Games,” that connecting Iran’s economy to Trump’s “foolish game” is an imprudent strategy that is largely pushed by Israel and its lobby in Washington to inflict damage on the country’s economy. As the daily noted, “Trump wants both the deal and the sanctions at the same time. Simply put, the continuation of such a deal will never be harmful to a party who promises the earth only.”

To recall, during the nuclear negotiations, and as a passage of the agreement reads, all parties to the JCPOA, particularly the United States, agreed to “refrain from any policy specifically intended to ... affect the normalization of trade and economic relations with Iran”. While initially it was met with optimism, the Trump administration challenged the effectiveness and potential benefits of the pact to the Islamic Republic. Furthermore, as Kayhan put it, “BARJAM (Persian acronym for the JCPOA) was supposed to halt all the sanctions immediately in exchange for limiting Iran’s nuclear program. But now it became, Iran’s undertaken actions against the other party’s pie in the sky.”

The constant uncertainty that the U.S. President had put over the nuclear agreement has discouraged foreign investment in Iran and inhibited the economic benefits that Tehran envisioned in return for curtailing its nuclear program. Trump’s dislike of the JCPOA and his decision to wave nuclear sanctions every 90 days, has left global investors worried about the prospect of him abruptly pulling the United States out of the deal. Lack of assurance from Washington forced international investors to calculate that the benefits of investment in Iran do not outweigh the risks. Seen within this context, Trump may not carry out his threat to rip up the nuclear agreement but only wants to prevent global investors to reach agreements of any sort with Iran, a policy that has been largely pushed by the right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israel lobby in Washington.

Anticipating no economic benefit for Tehran, Hossein Shariatmadari, the editor of Kayhan, rejected any changes in the nuclear accord and called for the government to withdraw from the deal and to restart the nuclear program forcefully. According to Shariatmadari, the ultimate objective of the United States is to weaken Iran’s components of power including the development of the ballistic missiles program and Iran’s regional influence. “Withdrawal from the JCPOA will close the path of negotiations over Iran’s other pillars of power,” Shariatmadari argued.

Kayhan reminded its readers that the countermeasure against Trump’s tough policies has been specified in Article 3 of the resolution “Iranian Government's Reciprocal and Proportional Action in Implementing the JCPOA Act,” approved by the Iranian Parliament on October 15, 2015. Article 3 of the Act states that “should the other side show lack of commitment to the effective lifting of sanctions, move to restore lifted sanctions, or seek to impose new sanctions for any reason, the Government of Iran ‘must take reciprocal steps’ to preserve Iran’s rights, halt voluntary cooperation, and rapidly expand the country’s peaceful nuclear program so that ‘within two years the country’s uranium enrichment capacity increases to 190,000 SWU (separative work units).”

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader who makes the final decisions on important matters, is still willing to endure. However, he will have to decide whether to side with the hardliners if Trump takes the U.S. out of the JCPOA or opt for tougher measures. In making this decision, Khamenei will take into consideration the reaction of the other JCPOA signatories, especially the European trade partners. Moreover, if the Ayatollah is convinced that the nuclear agreement cannot continue to function to Iran’s benefit, he may eventually lose its incentive to comply with it.

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