Trump Waives Iran Nuclear Sanctions but Deal Remains at Risk
President Donald Trump once again waived sanctions against Iran last week in compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), despite decertifying the deal in October. When Trump decertified the agreement last year, citing U.S. national security interests, he punted future action to Congress but warned that he could scrap U.S. participation in the deal altogether. “They may come back with something that's very satisfactory to me, and if they don't, within a very short period of time, I'll terminate the deal,” he said at the time. Congressional leaders discussed plans to unilaterally alter the terms of the deal, but those plans stalled quickly and have been on the back burner since Congress pivoted to the tax bill passed in December. “This is a last chance,” Trump said on Friday in a statement on the decision to waive sanctions.
Trump’s statement on Friday was the first time, after a year of criticizing the deal, that the administration issued substantive demands for maintaining the JCPOA. The four conditions laid out range from vague—Iran must “never even comes close to possessing a nuclear weapon”—to redundant—like Trump’s demand that the provisions of the deal “have no expiration date,” which has been fulfilled by Iran’s acceptance of the Additional Protocol under the JCPOA. The only novel aspect of Trump’s statement is the fourth condition, that “legislation must explicitly state in United States law—for the first time—that long-range missile and nuclear weapons programs are inseparable, and that Iran’s development and testing of missiles should be subject to severe sanctions.” Hawkish critics of the JCPOA have long argued that the United States should be sanctioning Iran’s ballistic missile development in connection with its nuclear program, but the years of negotiations that led to the JCPOA deliberately separated Iran’s conventional weapons development and its nuclear program in order to reach an agreement. Trump’s fourth condition would undo this distinction—and the deal itself.
The other parties to the JCPOA have warned against Trump’s push to alter the terms of the agreement. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Monday that Moscow will not support revisions to the deal, and worried that the Trump administration’s threats to renege make the possibility of a negotiated settlement with North Korea more remote. The foreign ministers of Britain, France, and Germany, and the European Union’s foreign policy chief joined together last week to praise the effectiveness of the agreement and reaffirm Iran’s compliance. British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said that it is “incumbent on those who oppose the JCPOA to come up with that better solution because we have not seen it so far.” It is doubtful that Johnson and the others would consider unilateral congressional legislation a “better solution.”
While waiving nuclear sanctions on Friday, Trump also authorized a new tranche of non-nuclear sanctions targeting 14 Iranian individuals and businesses, including the head of the Iranian judiciary, Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said the new sanctions “crossed all red lines of conduct in the international community and is a violation of international law and will surely be answered by a serious reaction of the Islamic Republic.”
Erdogan Threatens U.S.-backed Forces in Syria
Turkey may be preparing for a military drive into eastern Syria to challenge U.S.-backed Kurdish forces there, even as it tries to ward off an advance by Assad regime forces farther west. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said earlier this month that he intends to continue Operation Euphrates Shield, the Turkish intervention along the Turkey-Syria border in Manbij and Afrin provinces; Turkish and Turkish-backed militias flooded the border area in 2016, preventing Kurdish forces from uniting their western and eastern enclaves. The Kurds’ political and military consolidation in northern Syria—which has been abetted by the United States as it leans on the Kurds as a cornerstone of its anti-Islamic State coalition—has been a source of ongoing concern for Ankara. Turkish forces have reportedly been ramping up for a new offensive in recent weeks, and have been shelling Kurdish forces along the border in Afrin.
Those threats escalated over the weekend as the United States said it was initiating a long-term project to build up a “border force” of approximately 30,000 local troops to maintain order in eastern Syria as a bulwark against the return of the Islamic State. The plan is a sharp departure from the cut-off of support to Kurdish forces Trump allegedly promised Erdogan in November. On Monday, Erdogan said that Turkey would intervene “to stop this army of terror before it is born.” Just a day earlier, he had called on the United States to support the upcoming offensive in Afrin. U.S. defense planners declined to comment to the Associated Press on Erdogan’s remarks and stressed Turkey’s role as a coalition partner.
As Ankara looks east in Syria, it is also trying to preserve a portion of the Syrian opposition in western Syria. Assad regime forces have seized dozens of villages and towns in Hama and Idlib provinces over the past month, advancing toward the Abu al-Duhur airbase. Rebels launched a counterattack last week. Recent rebel attacks have targeted Russian military positions, including its headquarters in Latakia. Rebels are believed to have launched swarms of commercial drones at Russian bases and damaged several aircraft in mortar strikes. Moscow has called on Ankara to restrain the rebels, and Erdogan reached out to Russian President Vladimir Putin last Thursday to try to de-escalate the latest round of fighting.
The violence is relatively constrained compared to the worst days of Syria’s civil war. The clashes and political maneuvering reflect Syria’s post-Islamic State reality, as the parties to the conflict and their foreign backers try to position themselves to maintain the gains made as the caliphate receded. A similar process has also played out across the border in Iraq, starting with the Kurdish independence referendum and failure of Masoud Barzani’s plan for secession. The presence of a legitimate government in Baghdad has enabled more swift action in Iraq than in Syria—perhaps too swift. Hundreds of people, many of them foreigners, are being rushed through what the Washington Post has called “rapid-fire trials” for terrorism charges. Many of them receive only cursory hearings before being sentenced to death by hanging. Meanwhile, Iraqi troops are forcibly returning thousands of the 2 million Iraqis displaced by the Islamic State to their homes, despite lingering fears about booby traps left by the terrorist group and bands of predatory vigilantes. The threat of terrorism has abated but not ended: Just yesterday, two suicide bombers attacked Tayaran Square in central Baghdad, killing at least 27 people. It was the first attack in the capital since Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory over the Islamic State last month, and comes as he begins his campaign for re-election in May.
U.N. Report Accuses Iran of Violating Yemen Arms Embargo
A new U.N. report has found that Iran violated the arms embargo imposed on Yemen in 2015, but stopped short of accusing Iran of providing new missiles to the Houthi rebels. The report has not been released publicly, but its conclusions were reported by Agence France-Presse and the New York Times. The report follows months of accusations from U.S. officials and an elaborate press conference last month at which Amb. Nikki Haley, speaking in front of the wreckage of a missile recovered in Saudi Arabia, said that the United States had “undeniable evidence” that Iran was responsible for the Houthis’ new arsenal of missiles. A U.N report at the time noted that the missile was similar in design to Iranian Scuds, but that it also included a U.S.-made component.
Last week, a Houthi media outlet reported that Houthi forces are threatening to shut down navigation on the Red Sea if pro-government forces backed by the Saudi and Emirati-led intervention advance on the northern port of Hodeidah. The Houthis do not control the most strategic chokepoint for the Red Sea, the Bab al-Mandab strait at the south of the country, and Reuters expressed skepticism that the Houthis could follow through on the threat. But Houthi forces have attacked Saudi ships in the Red Sea before, most notably with a boat loaded with explosives in January last year.
The United States is continuing to provide support to the Saudi coalition backing the government, despite criticism of the humanitarian toll and high numbers of civilian casualties incurred. Secretary of Defense James Mattis pushed back on those criticisms in comments in December, telling reporters that he is “never okay with any civilian casualty” and not to “screw with me on this.” “We are being held to a standard—‘we’ being us and anyone associated with us—that has never been achieved before in warfare,” he complained. His comments seemed to downplay a pattern of disregard for civilian casualties that has been persistent in the Saudi-led air campaign, and followed airstrikes on December 26 that struck a crowded marketplace in Taiz province, killing more than 40 people. Earlier this month, Norway announced that it would suspend arms exports to the United Arab Emirates as a “precautionary line” in response to the number of civilian deaths in Yemen.