Iran calls new U.S. sanctions a violation of nuclear deal

IranPolitik’s Farzan Sabet was recently featured in an article by the Washington Post on Iran’s response to new U.S. sanctions:

Iran survived some of the toughest sanctions “through a combination of the power of diplomacy and deterrent defensive power,” the Associated Press quoted Rouhani as saying. During his second term, Iran will “insist on constructive engagement more than before.”

But it is unclear how long Rouhani will maintain his pro-diplomacy rhetoric, which has already “become increasingly more critical of the Trump administration,” said Farzan Sabet, a fellow at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation.

His complete comments, not featured in full in the the article, can be found below:

Q: First, what is the US strategy here – with the statements and the rhetoric and the sanctions, is the administration trying to back Iran into a corner so that it either violates the deal or withdraws completely? If this is the case, given what we know about how the Islamic Republic conducts foreign policy/responds to threats, is this strategy likely to work?

The U.S. strategy at the moment appears to have at least three main elements. The first is to “radically enforce” the JCPOA by, among other things, emphasizing what the IAEA has called “minor” infractions and asking for inspections of Iranian military facilities where the U.S. suspects violations are happening. This not only allows the Trump administration to say it is improving on what it sees as “serious flaws” in the JCPOA, but reinforces the second element of this strategy, which is to put Iran in a position where it will either violate or withdraw from the deal. The final element of the strategy is to build on or go beyond the JCPOA by, for example, working with other P5+1 members to extend restrictions on the Iranian nuclear program in the deal that expire in a few years. For the foreseeable future, I think Iran will have enough discipline to avoid this trap. And I’m not sure the United States can successfully execute this strategy at the moment by, for instances, getting the European on board. There is also a question for me about how this U.S. strategy factors into the ongoing U.S. comprehensive Iran policy review.

Q: How can Iran currently respond to the general atmosphere of pressure? There’s a lot of talk of reciprocal sanctions, etc. But if neither the US nor Iran have actually violated the deal, what can Iran do? Can it (or will it) push some of the technical limits of the deal? Or does it respond by harassing the US navy in the Gulf or having its proxies advance on US forces in Syria?

There are two types of pressure at play right now. The first is pressure centering around the JCPOA. Both Iran and the United States are likely to continue complying with the text of the JCPOA, but will also dance around it and try to pressure each other by doing violence to the so-called “spirit” of the agreement. One way Iran can and has responded in this context is through ballistic missile tests and, most recently, the launch of the Simorgh space launch vehicle. The United States, in turn, has passed new sanctions whose legitimacy have even been questioned by some P5+1 members. Such actions may not technically be violations of the JCPOA, but can be viewed as being against its spirit, and are thus means for the United States and Iran to apply pressure on one another or respond to pressure in the context of the nuclear deal.

The second type of pressure has to do with non-nuclear issues. Depending on the type and intensity of the U.S. pressure applied against Iran, it could provoke different types of reactions. For example, both the head of the Iranian Armed Forces Major General Mohammad Bagheri and head of the Revolutionary Guards Major General Mohammad-Ali Jafari have warned that new sanctions against the IRGC could put U.S. troops in the Middle East at risk. My sense is they are not talking about targeted sanctions, but rather designation of the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization and/or comprehensive sanctions against it. There are already a lot of sanctions in place making it risky to do business with the IRGC, but an FTO designation and/or stronger sanctions could make the IRGC and Iranian economy even more radioactive for foreign business than they already are. Since Iran can’t seriously respond with reciprocal sanctions, they could find other ways to lash out, as Bagheri and Jafari’s comments suggest.

Q: If the US decides to reject certification in October, what happens next? Would Iran wait to respond, and weigh its options, or could there be an immediate response? What might each scenario look like? What does Iran have to lose by withdrawing from or violating the deal? What would it have to gain?

If the United States decides to reject certification in October, we could face a number of different scenarios depending on whether this rejection leads to the full snap-back of sanctions or not. For example, the United States might snap-back sanctions, but not be willing or able to enforce them very strongly. In such a scenario, long as the benefits it gets from the deal are greater than the benefits of withdrawing, Iran will likely respond by taking action seen by some as against the “spirit” of the JCPOA, but not violate or withdraw from the deal. By staying in the deal, Iran is better positioned to isolate the United States by playing the other members of the P5+1 against the Trump administration. A lot of the impact of sanctions depends on getting U.S. allies on board with implementing them. If the United States is isolated, it could face a backlash from important partners who see U.S. policy as illegitimate or heavy handed. This was recently hinted at by the French Foreign Ministry.

Q: How does the Rouhani government balance its own (likely) moderate positions on how to respond with those of the hardliners/IRGC? Is it possible that we will see multiple responses from Iran (diplomacy on the one hand, for example, and regional aggression on the other?

Trump administration action and rhetoric will increasingly make it more difficult for Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to credibly advocate in Iran a less confrontational foreign policy toward the United States. We’ve already seen the Rouhani administration rhetoric become increasingly more critical of the Trump administration and the United States. This is now pretty low cost for the Rouhani administration, since there does not appear to be any prospect of improving U.S. ties in the foreseeable future. This more harsh rhetoric will, on one hand, allow them to somewhat placate the more hardline and IRGC voices pushing for confrontation with the United States. On the other hand, and more importantly, it can used as part of a diplomatic strategy by the Rouhani administration to try and isolate the United States from the other members of the P5+1.