Iran nuclear deal hangs in the balance

Iran nuclear deal hangs in the balance

Giuseppe Acconcia | Journalist focusing on the Middle East
Recent statements from President Trump imply a change of stance by Washington over the Vienna nuclear agreement with Iran. France, too, is seeking more guarantees from Tehran. What happens next will be determined on 15 October, when the Trump administration will tell Congress whether Iran is complying with the deal

While Washington has yet to announce its stance on Iranian compliance with the Vienna nuclear deal, President Trump says he has already made up his mind. The United States imposed new sanctions against Tehran in August, in addition to a package of measures adopted by Congress in January. If Trump does not certify compliance, Congress will have sixty days to impose new sanctions. Another major development has been a recent statement by France’s president Emmanuel Macron that his country also favours new measures, due to what he calls "the instability of the region". France was one of the first European countries, alongside Germany and Italy, to resume large-scale investment in Iran after the Vienna agreement was signed in 2015.

Iran escalates its ballistic programme

Tehran has stepped up ballistic testing in response to the possibility that the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany) could suspend the Vienna agreement. On 22 September, it announced the launch of a new Khoramshahr medium-range ballistic missile, capable of striking a target up to 2,000 kilometres away. While the timing of the launch is unknown, it was shown on Iranian state television. This was a clear message from the revolutionary establishment and Iran’s moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, who put compliance with the Vienna deal at the centre of his foreign policy. Rouhani began his second term of office in May, and said in the summer that if other countries failed to keep their side of the deal, Tehran would resume uranium enrichment in a matter of hours. The agreement does not prevent Iran from working on its ballistic programme, but it is not allowed to test nuclear warheads. The missile launch was therefore a warning signal, in case Washington decides not to certify compliance.

Trump's speech to the United Nations

President Trump’s speech on 9 September could spark a new escalation in bilateral relations with Iran. Federica Mogherini, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs, has confirmed Brussels’ commitment to the nuclear deal, but the US administration is following a very different path. It has added Iran to the third version of the so-called Muslim ban, temporarily preventing entry by citizens of Iran and seven other countries: Yemen, Libya, Somalia, Syria, North Korea, Venezuela, and Chad. In his speech to the UN general assembly, Trump included Iran in a "small group of arrogant states" and described it as a "bringer of death and destruction". He also said the Vienna deal was "an embarrassment" to the United States. Many Republicans have accused Tehran, which was itself the victim of an attack by Islamic State jihadists in June, of supporting international terrorism. President Rouhani responded by describing Trump as "the arrogant upstart of international politics" and deploring his speech as "ignorant, absurd and odious rhetoric". Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khameini, expressed sympathy with the people of the United States, who he said did not deserve a president like Trump.

Future of international agreements is in doubt

The verbal escalation between the United States and Iran could have serious and immediate consequences for the lifting of the embargo following the Vienna deal. Although the agreement is embodied in a UN resolution, Washington has yet to unfreeze millions of Iranian dollars held in US banks. Two new factors make a new crisis between Tehran and the international community more likely. Firstly, North Korean aggression is fanning the flames of anti-Iranian sentiment among Republicans. And secondly France, which was more demanding than other European countries during the negotiations with Iran, could favour a revision of the Vienna agreement. This would provoke a strong reaction from Iran, and particularly from radical politicians, and undermine President Rouhani’s moderate foreign policy.