On Jan. 12, Donald Trump is scheduled to decide whether to sign the first of a series of sanctions waivers as part of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Now more than ever, Iran considers it likely that the United States may leave the nuclear deal, thus imposing new conditions on both Iran and the rest of the world.
Speaking at the annual Tehran Security Conference on Jan. 8, senior Iranian nuclear negotiator Abbas Araghchi spoke about the consequences of a US exit from the accord, saying, “During the past year, Trump has tried very hard to destroy the Iran deal and might do so in the near future. The international community should be ready to deal with the consequences of such action.” Araghchi added that Iran is ready for every future scenario, whether or not the JCPOA is saved.
Meanwhile, during his weekly news conference on the same day, Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi displayed great caution in answering questions regarding Iran’s possible reaction to the US’ possible refusal to renew the sanction waivers. “We don’t want to judge [things] beforehand. Under the JCPOA, the president of the United States is required to renew the waivers for US sanctions against Iran. If he refuses to do so, we are prepared for any scenario. If the United States decides to withdraw from the JCPOA, Iran’s reaction will make the US government regret its decision.”
Also on Jan. 8, another Iranian official, this time atomic chief Ali Akbar Salehi, issued a warning. Speaking with International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Yukiya Amano, Salehi warned about the consequences of a US breach of its obligations. The next day, Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior aide to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, also reacted similarly, although cautiously, regarding the possibility that Trump would refuse to issue the waivers. While noting that Iran has all options on the table, Velayati also expressed criticism of European countries: “Some of the allies of the United States insist on upholding the JCPOA, yet the United States acts differently. Basically, one side is benefiting from the JCPOA, but it is only Iran that is upholding the promises it had made. This is not acceptable.”
But beyond these almost categorical statements, what do Iranian officials really think about what Trump may do? One high-ranking Iranian diplomat told Al-Monitor on the condition of anonymity, “Trump has shown the world that he is more unpredictable than we all thought he was. So far, he has shown a great deal of interest in withdrawing from the JCPOA, but the legal mechanisms of the JCPOA as well as the pressure coming from Europe, in addition to the consequences of pulling out of the agreement, have resulted in his advisers and ministers convincing him not to pull out of the agreement yet. Does this mean that the JCPOA will survive? We need to wait and see, since we cannot make a prediction.” He added, “As far as Iran is concerned, a series of multilayered responses are on the agenda. Iran is still hopeful that Europe will continue its efforts to save the JCPOA, but it is not putting all its eggs in Europe’s basket either. Iran’s first reaction will be to expand its [mastering of] nuclear technology. It will naturally do so without violating the terms of the agreement, but the expansion will nonetheless equip the country with more advanced nuclear technology.”
Iran has been looking to Europe for support ever since Trump started to threaten the nuclear deal. However, it is doing so while still wary of the prospect that the European Union might fold under US pressure, as in its earlier negotiations with Iran in 2003-2005. The latter scenario is constantly propagated by radicals inside Iran, who accuse the Hassan Rouhani administration of being naive for trusting the Europeans.
Comments made by Kamal Kharazi on the sidelines of the Tehran Security Conference on Jan. 8 highlight this view. Kharazi served as foreign minister under Reformist President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) and currently heads Iran’s Strategic Council on Foreign Relations. He told reporters, “If the United States refuses to renew the sanction waivers, it means that the United States has pulled out of the JCPOA. Then we have to see how the Europeans react to Trump’s policy. If they maintain their independence and resist the US pressure, then a new situation will develop. If, on the other hand, the Europeans decide to cave under pressure and comply with the policies of the United States, then the situation will change. Iran will only comply with the JCPOA for as long as it is in our interest — and [it will] not [do so] if we receive no benefits from it.”
Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif touched on the same theme during his Jan. 10-11 trips to Russia and Belgium to hold talks with his European and Russian counterparts as well as EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini. Zarif, no doubt, once again raised what Iran expects from Europe in his meetings in Brussels on Jan. 11.
Azizollah Hatamzadeh, an expert on Iran-US relations, told Al-Monitor, “The United States is trying to force Iran to act first and leave the JCPOA. … Iran should be smart and react wisely. Considering Trump’s multiple tweets regarding the recent protests in Iran, it is obvious that the US president is trying to take advantage of the situation and is attempting to look for a reason, any reason, to put more pressure on Iran.” Hatamzadeh also said, “If the United States withdraws from the JCPOA, Iran should expand its nuclear technology while continuing its cooperation with the Europeans.”
As such, it appears that Tehran continues to harbor hopes that Europe can prevent Trump from completely abandoning the JCPOA. However, it does so while also considering the efforts of the Europeans to keep the deal working to be insufficient and thus wants Europe to be more active, especially when it comes to financial and banking sanctions targeting Iranian banks. Therefore, Iran’s response to Trump’s next move will in essence have less to do with his reaction and more to do with what Europe may do next.