The Trump administration is stepping up its rhetoric against Iran even as it acknowledges the country is in compliance with a nuclear deal the president has long derided.
Since fulfilling a legal requirement to certify to Congress that Iran is complying with the deal, administration officials have repeatedly slammed Tehran. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson compared the country to North Korea, and President Trump declared that Iran is violating the “spirit” of the deal.
The administration’s actions were to make sure that “the certification wasn’t perceived as a newfound approval of the [deal] as a mechanism for dealing with Iran,” said Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution. “The statements that we’ve seen from Tillerson are reflective of what I see as an emerging focus on Iran as a major priority.”
Trump has long railed against the 2016 deal between Iran and six world powers that requires Iran to curb its nuclear program in exchange for lifted sanctions.
On the campaign trail, Trump repeatedly called the accord the “worst deal ever negotiated" and threatened to tear it up or renegotiate it.
Shortly after taking office, Trump put Iran “on notice” and slapped new sanctions on the country for its ballistic missile program.
But the administration has been relatively quiet on Iran since, as other foreign policy issues, from Syria to North Korea, took center stage.
Now, the administration’s rhetoric on Iran is ratcheting back up.
The Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act passed by Congress in 2015 requires the president to certify to Congress every 90 days that Iran is in compliance with the nuclear deal, referred to as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
That deadline came this week, and Tillerson sent a letter to Congress making the certification Tuesday night.
But Tillerson coupled the certification with an announcement that the National Security Council is reviewing whether lifting sanctions is in the United States's national security interests. Tillerson cited Iran’s sponsorship of terrorists, which is not covered under the nuclear deal.
The next day, Tillerson appeared at a rare, hastily arranged press conference, where he called the nuclear deal a “failed approach” that could lead to Iran becoming the next North Korea.
“The JCPOA fails to achieve the objective of a non-nuclear Iran; it only delays their goal of becoming a nuclear state,” he said. “This deal represents the same failed approach of the past that brought us to the current imminent threat we face from North Korea. The Trump administration has no intention of passing the buck to a future administration on Iran.”
Then on Thursday, Trump reiterated his belief that the deal was a “terrible agreement” and said Iran is violating its “spirit.”
“They are not living up to the spirit of the agreement, I can tell you that,” Trump said at a joint press conference with Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni. “And we’re analyzing it very, very carefully and we’ll have something to say about it in the not-too-distant future. But Iran has not lived up to the spirit of the agreement. And they have to do that. They have to do that. So we will see what happens.”
However, Defense Secretary James Mattis said Friday the deal “still stands.” Mattis was a staunch opponent when it was being negotiated but has since said the United States should not renege on its commitments now that it is done.
“That in no way mitigates or excuses the other activities of Iran in the region, to include its support of the war in Yemen that grinds on thanks to their support — to the Iranian support — or what they’re doing in Syria to keep [President Bashar] Assad in power and continue the mayhem and the chaos and the murder that’s going on there,” Mattis told reporters in Israel on Friday.
“So these are separate issues, but the agreement on nuclear issues still stands.”
Barbara Slavin, acting director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, called the administration’s rhetoric on Iran in recent days “schizophrenic.”
“Is the administration ashamed of the fact that the agreement is working?” she asked. “It’s just unfortunate that we had gotten to a certain place of civility with Iran, and this administration seems willing to throw it all away.”
Maloney, of Brookings, said the administration is likely talking tough because of two upcoming nuclear deal events.
First, on Tuesday, the Joint Commission overseeing implementation of the deal will meet in Vienna. As a member of the commission, the United States will send representatives.
And next month, the administration will have to decide whether to renew the waivers that provide sanctions relief to Iran, which many expect it will do.
“That will have a certain perception, conceivably by [Trump’s] base, and what the administration wants to do is begin to shape the narrative of its approach to Iran,” Maloney said.
Mark Dubowitz, chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said the Trump administration is “threading the needle” pending the completion of its Iran policy review. In other words, it is taking action that continues the status quo — such as certifying Iran’s compliance with the deal and likely renewing the waivers — while employing harsh rhetoric.
“As long the policy review is not finalized, I think the administration will continue to hedge and not box the president in,” Dubowitz said. “From the rhetoric alone, we’ve seen a 180 degree reversal from the previous administration. It’s clear that this administration does not see Iran as a stabilizing influence in the region.”