On Sunday, September 17, Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani left Tehran for New York to participate in the 72nd Session of the UN General Assembly. The specter hanging over the trip is, of course, President Donald Trump’s repeated threats to tear up the nuclear agreement or, as it is officially known, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
The nuclear agreement is seen as the biggest achievement of President Rouhani’s first term, so it would only be natural for him to feel nervous. But as he was leaving for New York, he tried to express his misgivings with a satirical twist, comparing the JCPOA and benefits emerging from it to a dinner table. “Opposition to the JCPOA is limited to two or three countries,” he said, and includes “a number of people in the US who think they have been shortchanged and feel that a dinner table has been set up, but they have been prevented from eating at the table.” But, he said, “they, too, can have dinner at the JCPOA table if they stop misbehaving.”
Prior to this, Rouhani had attributed the same profit motive to domestic opponents of the JCPOA, saying that those who benefited from the sanctions are now unhappy because their businesses are not doing well. This argument against critics was effective at the start, but as the implementation of the JCPOA has encountered roadblocks and the US has imposed new sanctions on individuals and entities from the Islamic Republic, the critics now feel somehow vindicated.
On September 13, the US House of Representatives adopted measures to prevent sales of commercial aircraft to Iran, despite warnings from some Democrats that it would undermine the international accord to curtail the country’s nuclear weapons program. If the measures are passed by the US Senate and are signed into law by President Trump, Boeing’s deal to sell Iran $3 billion worth of jetliners will not go ahead.
It Begs the Question…
Rouhani’s insistence that opponents of the nuclear deal are motivated by business concerns raises one important and inevitable question: If the Americans are unhappy that they are not at the “dinner table,” then why are they working so hard to exclude those American companies that are already sitting at the table?
It seems that Rouhani is missing the bigger picture — knowingly or unknowingly. On September 14, in a joint news conference with the UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson repeatedly emphasized that the US decision about whether to end the nuclear agreement will be based on a wider assessment of Iranian behavior, including in Yemen and Syria, and not just on whether Tehran is complying with the strict terms of the deal. Tillerson quoted the agreement’s preamble, which says the signatories “anticipate that full implementation of this JCPOA will positively contribute to regional and international peace and security.” He claimed that Iran was in default of that clause by “propping up the Assad regime, by engaging in malicious activity in the region, through its cyber activity and by aggressively developing ballistic missiles.”
The Spirit of the Agreement Past
On September 14, just days before Rouhani boarded a plane to New York, US Department of State Spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Iran had not complied with “the spirit” of the JCPOA. President Trump, she said, has made it clear “that we must take into account the totality of Iranian threats, not just Iran’s nuclear capabilities…I think if one revisits the preface to the JCPOA…Iran would need to contribute positively to international peace and security.” And on the same day, President Trump essentially made the same point. “The Iran deal is one of the worst deals I've ever seen, certainly at a minimum the spirit of the deal is atrociously kept,” he said. “They've violated so many different elements and they've also violated the spirit of that deal."
On September 15, U.S. disarmament ambassador Robert Wood reiterated President Donald Trump’s view that Iran was not fulfilling the spirit of the JCPOA. “If you look at what Iran is doing with regard to ballistic missile activity ... when you look at the support it is giving to the Assad regime in Syria, to Hezbollah, to Hamas, their funding and support for the Houthi rebels in Yemen ... Iran is not in any way, we think, fulfilling the aspirations of the JCPOA,” he told a news conference in Geneva.
On September 15, the Israeli newspaper the Jerusalem Post supported and gave further ammunition to this view: “Two years after the nuclear deal was signed by Iran and world powers, the Islamic Republic is reported to have boosted its financial support to Hezbollah to $800 million a year, a dramatic increase from $200m,” reported the paper. “Tehran, which froze its financial support to Hamas in the Gaza Strip after the group refused to support the Assad regime in 2012, is now reported to be providing the Gazan terrorist group some $60m to 70m.” The Jerusalem Post article sees a direct relation between this jump in Iranian financial support for the enemies of Israel and the nuclear agreement. “The US and European countries lifted sanctions against Iran in January 2016, releasing roughly $100 billion in assets after international inspectors found that Iran had dismantled large parts of its nuclear program,” the article said.
Taken together, these statements show that Rouhani’s analysis of opposition to the JCPOA is very different from how the Trump administration views the consequences of the nuclear agreement. And no one can expect that the Iranian president to narrow this divide while in New York. Under pressure from its allies in the Middle East, the American government wants Iran to change its behavior in the region. But Rouhani’s government is unable to bring about such a change, even if it desperately wants to. It doesn’t have the power. Instead, Rouhani resorts to trying to change the question by referring to the “dinner table”. It seems certain, however, that the other side will decline the invitation.