Going against international sentiment, U.S. looks for friends at U.N. to scrap Iran nuclear deal

With no evidence of a violation, Trump administration takes fight to IAEA in Vienna as well as the U.N. General Assembly in New York.

Head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization Ali Akbar Salehi said, "“Any move or measure to weaken or undermine the conditions outlined in the nuclear agreement, with any political motive or excuse will mar or endanger this historical achievement." CREDIT: Ronald Zak/AP Photo
Head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization Ali Akbar Salehi said, "“Any move or measure to weaken or undermine the conditions outlined in the nuclear agreement, with any political motive or excuse will mar or endanger this historical achievement." CREDIT: Ronald Zak/AP Photo

Less than a week after the United States announced it would extend sanctions relief in compliance with a nuclear agreement with Iran, President Donald Trump warned that he would scrap the deal if he felt that the UN was not policing the terms of the deal closely enough.

Speaking on behalf of the president, U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry told the IAEA General Conference in Vienna on Monday that the United States “will not accept a weakly enforced or inadequately monitored deal.”

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) — the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency in charge of making sure Iran complies with the terms of the 2015 deal — Iran has complied with the terms of the deal. IAEA Chief Yukiya Amano said on Monday that Iran “is fulfilling the commitments it entered into” under the deal.

Also attending the IAEA meeting in Vienna, Ali Akbar Salehi, the Head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, slammed the “hostile approach of the U.S. government with measures to mar the nuclear agreement and prevent Iran from enjoying the benefits of the agreement.” He added that the U.S. tone and demands are in “in contrast with the spirit and letter” of the agreement.

The agreement Iran struck with the P5 +1 countries (United States, Russia, China, Britain, Germany and France) calls for the curtailing of its nuclear program and allowing for regular IAEA inspections in exchange for sanctions relief. The deal needs to be recertified every 90 days – Trump reluctantly did so in July and has signaled that he’s against doing so in October. In August, he went as far as telling the Wall Street Journal that if it were up to him, he would have found Iran “noncompliant 180 days ago.”

So why does Trump keep allowing the deal to continue while threatening to pull out of it?

“There’s clearly tension inside his administration on what steps to take — with, on the one hand, folks who want to keep the deal but pressure Iran on other fronts and, on the other hand, those who want to pull out of the agreement,” said Ariane Tabatabai, director of curriculum of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Services.

“So, there’s a bargaining game within the administration, in addition to bargaining with the P5+1 partners. Also, keep in mind the administration has yet to formulate a comprehensive Iran policy, and the future of the deal would be the cornerstone of it,” said Tabatabai, answering question via email.

Indeed, Trump has been threatening to tear up the deal throughout his campaign and his presidency, with U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley echoing his sentiments on a regular basis.

In the absence of any evidence that Iran is violating the terms of the deal, Trump has accused Iran of violating the “spirit” of the agreement, applying additional sanctions in July that target the country’s ballistic missile program and using Haley’s voice at the U.N., demanding that Iran open its military facilities to IAEA inspectors.

Although the agreement does not specify surveillance of military sites, the IAEA does have the authority to inspect them and has on occasion — when evidence has called for it. But random, open-ended access to military sites is a red line for Iranian authorities.

As Matthew Bunn, a professor of practice at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government specializing in nuclear proliferation and control told ThinkProgress in August: “It’s not up to the Trump administration where to inspect in Iran. It’s up to the professional inspectors at the International Atomic Energy Agency.”

Next to the North Korean nuclear crisis, Iran is set to top the Trump administration’s agenda as world leaders gather in New York for the U.N. General Assembly this week. But all U.S. allies aren’t on the same page.

French President Emmanuel Macron, reports Reuters, will warn Trump “that weakening or scrapping the deal would not only add fuel to a regional powder keg but deter North Korea from negotiating on its nuclear program.”

Israeli officials, meanwhile, tell Reuters that Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu will again call for “lengthening the 10-year freeze on Iran’s nuclear development program or even making that suspension permanent and destroying centrifuges rather than temporarily halting their operation.” Israel is not a signatory in the agreement.

Iran has indicated that it is willing to continue with the agreement if the United States pulls, out, which, said Tabatabai, is possible, if far from ideal.

“All in all, a U.S. pull out will certainly jeopardize the deal, as it’ll communicate to investors and businesses that the future of the deal is uncertain and that they’d be taking a risk by choosing to do business in and with Iran,” she said.

While Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Sunday said Iran would respond to “any wrong move by the domineering regime [the United States] regarding the [nuclear accord] will face the reaction of the Islamic Republic,” Tabatabai said Iran is unlikely to “rock the boat too much.”

The Trump administration’s constant challenging of the deal, she said, might have long-term consequences.

“The problem, of course, is that the U.S. will lose any ability to bring Iran back to the table for anything for the foreseeable future,” said Tabatabai. “That means no possible cooperation or conflict settlement on a range of regional issues where Iran is a critical player — Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen — its [Iran’s]ballistic missile program, etc..”