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Tehran and the perils of a fragile relationship

Relations between the US and Iran have not been good for decades, but they have further deteriorated under the Trump administration and it is not clear how far this deterioration will go.

Trump declared during the election campaign that the Iran nuclear deal — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — was “the worst deal ever.” Later he changed his mind, probably after his advisers explained the implications of scrapping it, and said “canceling the deal would likely cause significant problems.” European leaders who are part of the P5+1, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus the EU, also told him that, despite its deficiencies, it was the best deal that could be achieved in circumstances.

Relations encountered more turbulence on Jan. 27, when Trump announced a visa ban on citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries, including Iran.

On Jan. 29, Iran carried out a ballistic missile test. Since such tests need relatively long preparation time, this has to be regarded as a coincidence rather than an immediate response to the US visa ban.

On Jan. 30, the US complained to the UN Security Council that the missile test was a breach of a Security Council resolution. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif insisted the tests were aimed only at improving his country’s defense capability, and the missiles would never be used unless Iran was attacked.

On Feb. 2, when asked if the US might respond to the missile test with military action, Trump said “nothing is off the table.” Furthermore, during the May 2017 NATO Summit in Brussels, he tried to persuade several European officials not to do business with Iran. Such efforts contravene the US commitment under the JCPOA “not to pursue any policy specifically intended to directly and adversely affect the normalization of trade and economic relations with Iran.”

On Feb. 3, the US enacted new sanctions on Iran that affected 25 individuals and companies involved in the ballistic missile program and those providing support to the Qods Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

US Congressmen who detest the Iran nuclear deal have a range of options to derail it, but each comes with a risk.

Yasar Yakis

Despite this background, on April 19, the State Department certified in its periodical report, issued every three months, that Iran continued to comply with the JCPOA. But Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, hours after his department issued the report, described the nuclear deal as a failure and said it “fails to achieve the objective of a non-nuclear Iran. It only delays their goal of becoming a nuclear state.”

On July 17, the State Department certified, for a second time under the Trump administration, that Iran continued to comply with the JCPOA.

These incidents show that US-Iran relations continue to be fragile and could be derailed by any step taken by the US Congress. The most likely scenario is the imposition of additional sanctions. Republican Congressmen have voted against the ratification of the JCPOA, with no exception. Now the Republicans control the House of Representatives, the Senate and the presidency. They may use this opportunity either to pass new sanctions against Iran or to chip away at the sanctions relief provided to Tehran.

Sanctions relief is a complicated process. For Iran to receive it, the US president has to waive sanctions on the banking, manufacturing, vehicle and energy sectors every six months. If the process falters at one of these stages Iran will not be able to benefit from that waiver. The mechanism of stopping a relief is defined in detail in the JCPOA, but ultimately everything depends on the interpretation of the president.

Some Republican Congressmen are aware that, despite its imperfections, the JCPOA is the only framework that will put a temporary brake on the Iran nuclear program. Furthermore, it gives the P5+1 and the international community the right to keep the Iranian uranium enrichment processing and research facility under the inspection of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) experts.

If the nuclear deal breaks down, Iran may resume its uranium enrichment program. It will also suffer the consequences of new sanctions, but Iran endured sanctions before the deal was signed, and showed resilience.

Israel is in favor of military action against the Iranian nuclear facilities. Destroying the physical facilities is not an easy job, but even if it were achieved, as long as Iran has the know-how it may rebuild them deeper underground. The US Congressmen will keep this in mind when they decide to work for undoing or scrapping the deal or making it inoperable.

Military action against Iran would expand and prolong the crisis in the Middle East. But a war with Iran is a more complicated scenario than a war in which Iran’s role is confined to that of a foreign participant.

Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).