TEHRAN, Iran — When it comes to Iran, Oct. 13 was the moment of truth for the president of the United States. Although Donald Trump had twice certified Iran's compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) since taking office, he decertified the nuclear deal, saying it didn’t meet congressional requirements. While he technically did not scrap the JCPOA, the move has sparked different reactions among Iranian academic elites.
Although Trump claims that his new strategy is the culmination of nine months of deliberation with Congress and US allies, many Iranians believe that it lacks any kind of discernible strategic thinking.
In this vein, Mohammad Jamshidi, a professor of international relations at the University of Tehran, told Al-Monitor that in spite of Trump's claim, Iranians do not see his approach as a strategic endeavor. “It is merely a tactic in order to intimidate Iran and put more pressure on Tehran. But officials and policymakers have not taken it seriously. Indeed, it is not a new strategy; it lacks any new initiative to solve the old and permanent problems between Tehran and Washington," Jamshidi said. Trump has repeatedly stated that the JCPOA is "the worst deal” the United States has ever entered.
Nasser Hadian, a prominent professor of international relations at the University of Tehran, thinks that one of the purposes of Trump's recent declaration was to show that he has stood firm on Iran and that he is seeking to unravel his predecessor Barack Obama’s foreign policy legacy as much as he can. But Hadian also told Al-Monitor that it is an oversimplification to think that his new Iran policy is just a politicized decision, saying, "After all, it is the result of over eight months of reviews. It is a policy for the long term. The main purpose of this strategy is to maintain the uncertainty about Iran's future situation so high that investors do not dare to enter Iran."
As part of the new US strategy, and with the rationalization that the Islamic Republic has violated the “spirit” of the JCPOA, Trump on Oct. 13 also authorized the US Treasury Department to further sanction the entire Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and to apply sanctions to its officials, agents and affiliates because of their support for the Syrian government and groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas. However, the Treasury stopped short of designating the IRGC as a terrorist organization.
Jamshidi said that the aim of these sanctions is to diminish Iran's regional role, "The US has strategic problems and weaknesses in the region and this strategy is a sign of these weaknesses — and not its strength. They are using the JCPOA as a tool in order to put more pressure on Iran and to achieve their regional interests." Noting the recent warnings by IRGC commander Mohammad Ali Jafari in the case of intensifying US sanctions on the IRGC, Jamshidi argued that Iranian officials and people want a decisive response in such an event, adding, "These sanctions can negatively impact the complex equations of the Middle East."
Legislation being drafted by Republican senators Bob Corker and Tom Cotton seeks to have the United States unilaterally add new requirements to the JCPOA, including measures related to Iran’s ballistic missile program. Jamshidi said that the Trump administration wants to obligate Iran to accept a renegotiation of the nuclear deal by expanding the restrictions against it, warning that any intensification of the pressures on Tehran means Washington’s departure from the nuclear deal and that Iran in such a scenario will no longer see itself as committed to the accord.
After Trump’s measures on Oct. 13, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini quickly moved to express public support for the JCPOA as an international agreement. As such, the European Union's 28 foreign ministers also unanimously urged the full implementation of the JCPOA and called it a key pillar of the international nonproliferation architecture. Against this backdrop, Seyyed Jalal Dehghani Firouzabadi, a professor of international relations at Allameh Tabatabai University, believes that there is an unprecedented international consensus against Trump and his stance on the nuclear deal because the latter is not only a multilateral plan of action, but also endorsed by UN Security Council Resolution 2231.
In contrast to Dehghani Firouzabadi, Foad Izadi, a professor of North American studies at the University of Tehran, believes that there is no consensus among the Europeans on the proper reaction to Trump's new strategy. He told Al-Monitor, "Considering previous experiences, the Europeans have shown that they are not trustworthy. However, the JCPOA serves the Europeans' economic interests and is their first international achievement since the end of World War II."
Also noting the past, Jamshidi believes that the EU's policy will become consonant with US aims. He said, "We had this experience in the beginning of the nuclear negotiations, too, and they are going to repeat the same process again in the domain of regional policy."
Amid all this, it should be noted that the nuclear deal’s fate would wholly change if the United States decided to enforce secondary sanctions on European firms that do business in Iran. Asked about the possibility of this scenario, Hadian said, “I do not think that Congress would do this. In return, the EU will cooperate with the United States in putting more pressure on Iran on issues like ballistic missiles, regional behavior and human rights.” Izadi said that Iran expects the Europeans to complain against the United States in accordance with World Trade Organization rules in case the United States enforces secondary sanctions on European investors who wish to engage with Iran.
Another important issue is how Iran may react to the new broad restrictions designed by the US Congress. Izadi believes that Iran won’t accept more restrictions or being deprived from the economic dividends of the nuclear deal, "There is a range of possible reactions, from an exit from the JCPOA to even departure from the NPT [Non-Proliferation Treaty]. I think the most prominent choice for Iran is to intensify its activities in the domains that are not included in the nuclear deal, like regional influence." In contrast, Hadian said, “It depends. It all depends on Iran's cost-benefit analysis. It depends on the reactions of the European powers, too. So far, their reactions have been really good."