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Trump Adopts New Iran Policy


The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) concluded in their periodic report published in September 2016 that Iran had exceeded the soft 130-tonne limit on its stock of heavy water for the second time since the JCPOA was put in place in January. The other six signatories to the JCPOA, including the United States, issued statements encouraging the IAEA to make the limit more firm. The IAEA confirmed in early December 2016 that Iran had shipped 11 tonnes of heavy water abroad, bringing their stockpile back under the limit set forth in the JCPOA.

Lawmakers in the United States House of Representatives passed a 10-year reauthorization of the Iran Sanctions Act (ISA) on November 15, 2016, first passed in 1996. The members also voted to impose sanctions on the Syrian government and its supporters, including Russia and Iran, for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed against its citizens. The legislation passed the Senate unanimously in a 99-0 vote, and passed the House with a vote of 419-1.

In response to the reauthorization of the ISA, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani ordered the development of a nuclear-propulsion system for Iranian ships on December 14, 2016. Iran had expressed interest in building nuclear-powered vessels before, most notably in 2012.

President Trump’s administration issued their first sanctions against Iran on February 3, 2017, in response to a recent ballistic missile test during the previous week. The U.S. Treasury Department announced sanctions against 25 individuals and companies connected to and providing support for Iran’s missile program. Administration officials announced that these new sanctions were not placed on any entities or individuals that had their sanctions lifted as part of the JCPOA.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told reports during a press conference on March 21, 2016, that Iran is fully prepared to return to the pre-JCPOA situation or even [to conditions] more robust than that if the US reneges on its promises. Zarif added that Iranian scientists had been continuing work with advanced centrifuges (PressTV, March 21, 2017).

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson confirmed that Iran was remaining compliant with the JCPOA in a report to Congress on April 28, 2017. Although it was confirmed by Tillerson that Iran was indeed complying with the stipulations set forth in the JCPOA, later that day President Trump added that they’re not living up to the spirit of the agreement, I can tell you that. The President’s comments were made during a joint press conference with the Italian Prime Minister.

The president of the Institute for Science and International Security, David Albright, testified before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Oversight and Government Reform that the JCPOA needs to be implemented more effectively and its nuclear conditions strengthened and better verified on April 5, 2017. Albright stated that the implementation of the JCPOA under the Obama administration was too permissive and tolerant of Iran’s violations of the deal, its exploitation of loopholes, and its avoidance of critical verification requirements. The Trump administration needs to strengthen and fix the deal, according to the professionals at the Institute for Science and International Security.

Director of US National Intelligence Daniel Coats testified during a U.S. Senate briefing on May 15, 2017, that despite the nuclear agreement Iran has been hard at work developing Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) technology. Coats stressed that the range and accuracy of Iranian missiles has steadily improved over time, and stated that the ICBMs would be Iran’s “preferred method of delivering nuclear weapons, if it builds them.” The National Intelligence Director also suggested that “progress on Iran’s space program could shorten a pathway to an ICBM because space launch vehicles use similar technologies” (Daily Mail, May 12, 2017).

Despite tough talk on the campaign trail about ripping up the JCPOA, on May 17, 2017, the Trump Administration’s State Department announced an extension of general sanctions relief for Iran as part of the JCPOA. The State Department issued a statement, saying that the United States is continuing to waive sanctions as required to continue implementing the JCPOA. Additionally, the Treasury Department revealed new sanctions to be imposed on Chinese and Iranian individuals for supporting Iran’s ballistic missile program. These sanctions were levied by the U.S. Treasury Department against two senior Iranian defense officials, an Iranian company, a Chinese man, and three Chinese companies (Reuters, May 17, 2017).

The IAEA report released in June 2017 demonstrated that Iran was still complying with all aspects of its commitments under the JCPOA. Iran’s stock of low-enriched uranium remained below the limit set forth in the agreement, and further construction of the Arak reactor has not been pursued, according to the report issued by the nuclear watchdog organization.

Chinese-American Xiyue Wang, a 37-year old graduate student researcher from Princeton University was sentenced to 10 years in Iranian prison on spying charges on July 16, 2017. Wang had been arrested in August 2016 upon trying to leave Iran and return to the U.S.A.

On July 17, 2017, Trump reluctantly certified that Iran was complying with the JCPOA agreement. The certification came with announcements that the U.S. would work to toughen enforcement of the deal, increase sanctions on Iran for its support of terrorists and other destabilizing activities, and cooperate with European powers to increase pressure on the Iranian government. While the administration certified that Iran was following the stipulations set forth in the agreement, one Trump administration official stated that the Iranians are “unquestionably in default of the spirit of the JCPOA” (Washington Post, July 17, 2017).

The day after agreeing that Iran was in compliance with the nuclear agreement, new sanctions against the country were announced jointly by the U.S. Departments of State, Treasury, and Justice. Eighteen individuals and entities involved in everything from missile development to software hacking and theft were designated in the new sanctions. Unlike previous rounds of sanctions levied against Iran, not all of the targets sanctioned were Iranian. A marine equipment supplier based in Turkey and a Chinese procurement agent who allegedly provided material support to an Iranian military electronics company were included in the sanctions as well.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act in a vote of 419-3 on July 25, 2017. In addition to primarily targeting Russian officials in retaliation for their involvement in hacking the 2016 U.S. elections, the act also imposes new sanctions against Iranian and North Korean entities for illegal measures surrounding their missile programs. These new sanctions affected 18 Iranian entities including two businessmen involved in software theft, and were designed to thwart Iranian military activities. An original version of the legislation, Countering Iran’s Destabilizing Activities Act of 2017, was passed by the Senate on June 15, 2017.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi spoke on Iranian television in the days following the passage of the act, promising to continue with full power our missile program, and calling the new sanctions hostile, reprehensible and unacceptable (Los Angeles Times, July 31, 2017). On August 13, 2017, the Iranian Parliament voted 240-4 to allocate $260 million to the country’s missile development program, and an identical amount to the Quds Force.

In a speech to the Iranian Parliament on August 14, 2016, President Hassan Rouhani bragged that a “far more advanced” nuclear program could be jump-started within hours if the U.S. does not hold up its end of the JCPOA deal (New York Times, August 15, 2017). Echoing Rouhani’s remarks, during an interview with Iranian state television the following week Iranian atomic chief Ali Akbar Salehi stated that Iranian scientists would need only 5 days to resume enriching uranium to over 20%. Clarifying his remarks, Salehi went on to assure the audience we are not interested in such a thing happening. We have not achieved the deal easily to let it go easily. We are committed to the deal, and we are loyal to it (Defense News, August 22, 2017).

On August 31, 2017, the IAEA once again certified that Iran was indeed complying with the parameters set forth in the JCPOA agreement.

More than 80 of the world’s top nuclear non-proliferation experts issued a joint statement on September 13, 2017, encouraging the Trump administration to not abandon the JCPOA nuclear deal. The experts, including past IAEA Director-General Hans Blix, stated in the letter that the Iran nuclear deal advances the secutity interests of the United States, and has been proven to be flexible and responsive to implementation problems that emerge (, September 13, 2017).

In October 2017, IAEA chief Yukiya Amano once again certified that Iran was in compliance with all aspects of the JCPOA. The head of the international watchdog organization stated that the nuclear related commitments undertaken by Iran are being implemented, and added that the Iranians have not pursued construction of the Arak reactor (Al-Monitor, October 10, 2017).

The White House laid out their new Iran strategy in a policy paper and remarks by President Donald Trump on October 13, 2017. The new approach focuses on neutralizing the Government of Iran’s destabilizing influence and constraining its aggression, deny[ing] the Iranian regime funding for its malign activities, counter[ing] threats to the United States and... allies from ballistic missiles and other asymmetric weapons, and attempting to ensure that Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon.

In a letter to Congress delivered on October 30, 2017, ninety of the top U.S. experts in atomic sciences urged the Trump administration to keep the Iran deal in place. The experts recommended that Congress act to keep the deal, as scientists who understand the physics and technology of nuclear power, of nuclear explosives, and of long-range missiles; and who collectively bring their experience with nuclear nonproliferation. Earlier in the day, a statement signed by 20 government officials and Iran policy experts expressing their support for Trump’s position on the agreement was released by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (New York Times, October 31, 2017).

Trump’s complaints about the deal, however, resonated with the public. According to a Harvard-Harris poll in October 2017, 60 percent of voters (including most Democrats), said the deal was a bad one for the United States, two-thirds said Iran had not complied with the terms of the agreement and 68 percent favored Congress imposing sanctions on Iran. By a 53-47 percent margin, Americans agreed the U.S. should pull out of the deal and an overwhelming majority, 81 percent, said any new deal should require Senate approval (The Hill, October 23, 2017).

The IAEA certified again in November 2017 that Iran was complying with all aspects of the nuclear agreement. The report said Iran’s stockpiles of enriched uranium have not exceeded the agreed limit of 300 kilograms, and that the IAEA is being granted access to all sites they have requested to visit.

On January 11, 2018, President Trump announced the continuation of sanctions relief for Iran as part of the nuclear agreement.