U.S. President Donald Trump reluctantly signed the Iran sanctions waiver on Jan. 12—a decision that must be made every 120 days under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—but promised that it would be the last time if the three European signatories (the United Kingdom, Germany and France, or “the P3”) cannot agree on substantial changes to the nuclear deal. That May 12 deadline, when Trump must decide whether to certify that Iran is in compliance, is rapidly approaching as negotiators on both sides try to hammer out a deal.
So will America pull out, or will it cave to European pressure to stay in?
Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told JNS that “at this stage in negotiations, speculation in any direction is going to be moot. But whatever the administration’s final decision, like most tough national security calls, it will likely be close, and only apparent, very late in the game.”
The main new triggers the Trump administration seeks to add to the plan include inspector access to military sites for verification, a ban on intercontinental ballistic missile production and removal of the sunset clause, which currently gives Iran the ability to build a bomb once the deal expires in 2025.
The P3, however, wants these triggers delinked from the nuclear deal in order to avoid having the U.S. pull out.
Ben Taleblu warned that “what the U.S. should not settle for is the mere promise of a fix. It should require the Europeans to take some very public and concrete steps in one of these three arenas to show the U.S. is not alone in presenting these areas as concerning. Ballistic missiles are relevant because they could be, based on U.S. government assessments, a delivery vehicle for nuclear weapons.
“Second, inspections and verification matter greatly because if the U.S. is going to settle for a deal that leaves Iran with some residual nuclear capacity, that material, as well as various nuclear and military sites and research centers, must be thoroughly inspected to prevent not only diversion, but weaponization or related activities,” he continued. “And lastly, if a good deal is the preferred route, then extending the timeline of restrictions on Iran will be key to making sure that caps on Iran’s program don’t lapse.
“In essence, this is a call for a permanent, rather than a temporary fix.”
‘A vehicle to solve Iran’s regional aggression’
Ilan Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council, told JNS that he believes Europe wants to do the bare minimum to satisfy Trump. “You will end up in a situation where fixing the deal isn’t sufficient,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine a set of circumstances everyone agrees to.”
He added that there has been “a lot of obstructionism on the part of the French.”
That was further substantiated this week when French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian visited Iran in an effort to reassure the regime of the European commitment to the joint plan.
Although the world is heavily focused on the nuclear deal, there is more to it than meets the eye. Iran’s hegemonic desires are another great cause for concern.
At AIPAC, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: “I warned that by removing Iran’s sanctions, Iran’s regime would not become more moderate and peaceful, but more extreme and belligerent, much more dangerous. And that’s exactly what has happened. Iran is building an aggressive empire . . . Now Iran is seeking to build permanent military bases in Syria, seeking to create a land bridge . . . from Tehran to Tartus on the Mediterranean [to] be able to attack Israel from closer hand.”
According to the Iranian Fars news agency, which this week highlighted the gravity of the situation, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Brig. Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh said in what appears to be a veiled threat: “Our [missile] production has increased three-fold compared to the past.”
Uzi Rabi, director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, and a senior researcher at the Center for Iranian Studies, both at Tel Aviv University, told JNS that “blocking Iran is not necessarily related to the nuclear deal because what Iran is doing now in Syria is no less than real aggression.”
“Israel wants to come up with something that paralyzes Iran,” said Rabi.
The idea is that Israel wants to talk about the whole pie and not just focus on the nuclear deal, which is “only a vehicle through which to solve the greater issue of Iran’s regional aggression,” he added.
According to Ben Taleblu, “Israel, as well as other U.S. partners in the Middle East, has long-standing genuine concerns about Iran’s malign regional activities. For instance, with the onset of the Syrian civil war, Israel has intervened multiple times in the Syrian conflict to prevent the resupply of Lebanese Hezbollah by Iran. These are the sorts of challenges Iran has long posed even before there was a nuclear deal to be debated. But whether it’s on the nuclear or regional front, these are all measures of the same threat: the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
Berman identified two problems regarding fixing or nixing the deal. “First, we have a nuclear deal on which the bell has already tolled. Iran has already received most of the benefits. And there are nominal constraints on what Iran can do regarding nuclear development. If we get rid of the deal, the benefits remain in Iran’s hands, and they can develop nuclear weapons unconstrained.”
“Second,” he said, “there needs to be a separate strategy to contain Iran. You still have to put Iran back in the box.”
Agreeing with Rabi, who believes the Americans do not have a master plan, Berman said “it doesn’t look like Trump has a strategy because he hasn’t explained how the [joint plan] marries with the need to contain Iran. The real story here is about Trump’s intentional ambiguity.”
Netanyahu has always been less ambiguous of Israel’s intentions. As he asserted at AIPAC, “We must stop Iran. We will stop Iran. … We will never let Iran develop nuclear weapons—not now, not in 10 years, not ever.”