The Trump administration has been quickly ratcheting up tensions with Iran over the last few weeks.
On Tuesday, Iran dismissed a U.S. request to have U.N. inspectors look at its military sites. According to local media reports, Ali Akbar Velayati, Head of Iran’s Center for Strategic Research of the Expediency Council, said the United States needs to abandon this “wish.” He added that such inspections — to be carried out by the International Atomic Agency (IAEA) at the request of U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley — would “not be allowed under any circumstance.”
“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,” said Matthew Bunn, a professor of practice at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government specializing in nuclear proliferation and control.
The 2015 Iranian nuclear agreement monitors and limits Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. The agreement does not say anything about surveillance of Iran’s military sites.
Bunn dismissed any potential influence President Donald Trump might try to exercise in the U.N. with Haley’s request. “That and $6 will get Ambassador Haley a cup of coffee,” he said. He added that the other signatories to the agreement — France, Russia, China, United Kingdom, and Germany — as well as the European Union could stick with the agreement, despite what Trump administration says. (Iran, for its part, has said that it will continue with the agreement if the United States withdraws, as long as other signatories remain.)
“Certainly this kind of statement from Iran puts additional pressure on the agency inspectors not to try to inspect its military facilities. They know that if they tried that in Iran, it would be a major political confrontation,” said Bunn, adding that if the IAEA needs to inspect Iran’s military facilities, it will do so, as it has in the past. The IAEA can request that a military facility be inspected if it has information that such an inspection is required.
Trump has repeatedly called the nuclear agreement “the worst deal ever” – which is how he describes a host of other deals, including the North American Free Trade Agreement and the U.S. agreement to accept 1,200 refugees stuck in an offshore, Australian immigration prison. He has been trying to persuade the international community that Iran is violating “the spirit” of the agreement, but has thus far been unable to prove this claim, and ultimately, recertified the agreement on July 17. But the deal is up for recertification every three months, and there are reports indicating that Trump is trying to make a case for not certifying the deal in October.
Trump told the Wall Street Journal in July that he was convinced Iran was “noncompliant.”
“If it was up to me, I would have had them noncompliant 180 days ago,” he said, adding, “I mean, we’ll talk about this subject in 90 days. But, yeah, I would be — I would be surprised if they were in compliance.”
Before Trump took office, 76 national security experts signed a report compiled by the National Iranian American Council urging him to stick with the nuclear agreement and ease tensions in the Middle East. Among the signatories was author and Iran expert Stephen Kinzer, who told ThinkProgress that, “The idea of ‘walking away’ from the nuclear deal with Iran is part of the wider American fixation on the Iran as our eternal enemy.”
“Driven by emotion, distorted historical memory, and lobbying pressure in Washington, we are unable to see that the deal is good for all parties,” Kinzer said over email.
Meanwhile, former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton — a staunch critic of the nuclear deal and a top Trump ally — has re-upped his call to ditch the deal. In 2015, while the administration of President Barack Obama was hammering out the deal, Bolton repeatedly advocated for war against Iran.
In a Sunday op-ed in the National Review, Bolton wrote that he has a five-page guide to breaking the deal. Calling his guide simple, yet expandable, “like instant coffee,” Bolton also lamented that Trump declined to take a meeting with him.
“It’s interesting in that it provides a procedural road map, which in most administrations, you would not need to acquire from outside the administration,” said Bunn. But this, he said, speaks to the overall lack of experienced diplomats in the administration. “I think it’s unfortunate that [Trump has] called alliances into question; that the president has allowed fiery rhetoric, like ‘fire and fury’ to take the place of careful diplomacy.”
Things are about to get worse on the diplomatic front. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Monday told Congress that 36 of the 66 diplomatic envoys — including the position of coordinator for the Iran nuclear deal — will be cut.
Still, Bunn was optimistic that Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis have tried to “open the door to potential negotiation” with North Korea. On Iran, though, Bunn said he’d like to see “a more active approach.” The deal, he said, bought everyone time — between six and 15 years for varying provisions.
“The United States and its partners need to figure out how to use that time to reduce the risk that Iran’s nuclear program would otherwise pose,” said Bunn. Ending the deal would only free Iran “to pursue a more advanced nuclear weapon sooner.”
Kinzer said that U.S. security interests would be best served by preserving the deal. “But selling that idea inside the Washington echo chamber is difficult indeed.”