US attempts to change the provisions of the nuclear deal with Iran will intensify over the next months, but things are only likely to come to a head in 2019 says Benyamin Poghosyan in this op-ed
Since the election of President Trump, US-Iran relations have deteriorated significantly. The new US administration has ratcheted up pressure against Tehran threatening to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal, also known as JCPOA. The key members of President Trump national security team have accused Iran of supporting terrorism, sowing chaos in the Middle East, and creating a vast network of non state actors vehemently countering US interests in the region. The intensively growing relations with the regional archrival of Iran, Saudi Arabia were another pattern of the US anti-Iranian policy.
President Trump several times certified to Congress the compliance of Iran to the requirements of the nuclear deal. However, in his January 12, 2018 statement the President put forward conditions for further extensions of the waivers for sanctions: Iran should allow immediate inspections at all sites requested by international inspectors; the deal should be amended to ensure that Iran never comes close to possessing a nuclear weapon; and restrictions should be put on Iranian ballistic missile programs.
The US has launched negotiations with Germany, France and UK to explore possibilities to amend the nuclear deal or prepare an additional agreement with Iran which may assuage American concerns. The US lead negotiator with the Europeans, the State Department policy planning director Brian Hook, had several rounds of consultations with E3 representatives. The last meeting was held on March 15 in Berlin a day before the March 16 JCPOA commission meeting in Vienna which brought together representatives of all signatories of the deal. According to Hook, negotiations with his European counterparts were constructive, but much remains to be solved before agreement can be reached.
In this tense atmosphere President Trump's decision to replace Rex Tillerson with CIA Director Mike Pompeo and H.R. McMaster with George Bush era neo-conservative hawk John Bolton was perceived as a harbinger for a much tougher US policy towards Iran. Both Pompeo and Bolton had a record of harsh anti-Iranian statements including Bolton's July 2017 piece in "The Hill" where he called on President Trump to withdraw from Iran's nuclear deal immediately, as well as his January 2018 op-ed in "The Wall Street Journal" where he explicitly called on the US Government to pursue a regime change policy in Iran aimed at bringing down the government of the Islamic Republic before its 40th anniversary in February 2019. Immediately after Trump's victory in November 2016 Pompeo declared on twitter that he looked forward to rolling back the nuclear deal with the world's largest state sponsor of terrorism, and before that, as a member of Congress, he compared Iran to the terrorist group "Islamic State".
Meanwhile, any possible developments in US - Iran policy should be assessed within the overall geopolitical transformations underway in the Middle East. Currently the regional security architecture is in flux, with Russia seeking to re-establish itself as a key regional player, pulling traditional US allies such as Turkey and Egypt outside the US orbit. The Russian's active involvement in the Syrian conflict, and the possible emergence of a Russia - Turkey - Iran alliance, may have serious implications for the dynamics of regional security Growing tensions between Iran and Israel in Syria, and possible Israeli military action against Hezbollah in Lebanon, are only exacerbating the situation. Meanwhile, the US is facing pressure from Turkey in Northern Syria, where Ankara is demanding a halt to US support to Kurdish YPG forces, and for their eviction from Manbij. Simultaneously, the US is trying to keep its influence in the territories liberated from the group "Islamic State" by active involvement of YPG fighters who are the backbone of the US supported Syrian Democratic Forces. The deployment of Russian mercenary forces in Syria complicated the situation even further, as was seen during the February 7 incident between Russian and the US forces.
In the current strategic juncture the main goal of the US should be the restoration of its shattered positions in the Middle East. The reliance only on Israel, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Cooperation Council allies will not provide the US with all the necessary tools. Washington should try to come to terms first of all with Turkey, as well as seeking efficient ways to end the diplomatic crisis over Qatar. It would be almost impossible to contain Iran if Turkey and Qatar are not on board. The Russian factor also should be taken into account seriously. Given the further deterioration of Russia - West relations after the Skripal incident, and the decision on the collective expulsion of Russian diplomats from most EU and NATO states, Russia most likely will continue to use the Middle East as an effective tool to spoil US interests, deepening its relations with Iran and seeking to pull Turkey closer to the Russian orbit.
In the current situation any military action against Iran before the end of 2018, by the US or joint US - Israeli forces, is very unlikely. The most likely scenario is that President Trump, in his May 12 statement, will say that he is not able to certify to Congress that Iran is in compliance with the requirements of the nuclear deal. Washington could than restore some sanctions as a warning to both Tehran and other signatories of the nuclear deal that all should make efforts either to amend the deal, or sign a supplementary agreement dealing with the ballistic missiles issue, inspections in Iranian military facilities, and the so called sunset clauses in the JCPOA. Some of the deal's prohibitions, such as on the number of Iran's first-generation centrifuges and on the research and development of more advanced ones, are set to end in 2025, but Iran's total enrichment capacity will remain where it is now until 2028. Until 2030, the level of enrichment is restricted to 3.67 percent - far below the 90 percent needed for weapons-grade uranium. However, it will be no easy task to bring on board Russia and China, so probably negotiations on a supplementary agreement may well enter into 2019.