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The July 2015 nuclear agreement, and the level of commitment to its implementation thus far, are evidence of a less-distant relationship between the Iranian government and the Obama administration. Despite on-going tensions, close co-ordination – particularly at the foreign-ministerial level – has succeeded in seeing off threats to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). It has also resulted in improvements in other areas. This past weekend, Iran agreed to a prisoner swap with the US, through which a number of dual-citizen journalists and students it had detained have been released in exchange for the Iranian-Americans accused of sanctions violations.
Yet the accord, and the improved diplomatic relations that underpin it, remain fragile. Over the next few months, domestic actors resolutely opposed to the agreement and its spillover implications may be strengthened in both Iran and the US. In particular, there is a real danger that disagreements on peripheral issues – important in their own right but beyond the scope of the nuclear deal – will jeopardise the agreed process.
The Hardliners Strike Back
In Tehran, hardliners have opposed any negotiation with the US and have accused the government of caving into American pressure by implementing the JCPOA’s restrictions. These hardliners have argued that the agreement will lead to undue American influence in the decision-making bodies of the country, facilitating the infiltration of ‘traitors’ and criminals in Iran. In an attempt to kill the deal, those in control of the judiciary, police and intelligence agencies have over the past few months arrested supposed members of an ‘infiltration network’ responsible for colluding with Western governments.
Critics of the agreements have also raised concerns about the impact of the nuclear agreement on Iran’s regional policy – an issue on which President Hassan Rouhani has sought increased margin for manoeuvre in order to improve ties with other countries, including with arch-enemy Saudi Arabia. Hardliners control the regional dossiers and have opposed government efforts to improve relations with Riyadh. The recent storming of the Saudi embassy in Tehran can be seen as a further attempt to undermine the current administration – escalating tensions in the region and indirectly hampering the diplomatic rapprochement with the West made possible by implementation of the JCPOA. While the Rouhani administration has so far been able to prevent these episodes affecting the implementation of the JCPOA, this may prove harder to achieve in the coming months.
With the elections for the Parliament and the Assembly of Experts taking place at the end of February, hardliners might increase their presence in Iran’s centres of powers, indirectly affecting the next stages of the nuclear deal. The Parliament, for instance, will have the last say in the ratification of the Additional Protocol (which enables the IAEA to conduct snap inspections of Iranian nuclear facilities), a step which the conservative-dominated institution refused to undertake in 2004. More importantly, if, as remains possible, Rouhani loses the presidential elections in June 2017, Iran might become less co-operative and more confrontational on the nuclear issue, similar to the posture of the Ahmadinejad administration.
In the US, Congressional majorities have opposed the Iran agreement since its inception. The JCPOA’s more strident opponents have argued that Iran has used the leverage afforded by the deal to pursue a more assertive regional posture, characterised by ballistic-missile tests in October and November, rocket tests near US naval vessels in the Strait of Hormuz in December, and the holding of ten US sailors earlier this month – developments which are not directly relevant to the JCPOA.
Congressional action has focused on Iranian missile tests. In a letter sent to President Barack Obama, thirty-six Republican senators urged the administration to respond by re-designating nuclear-related sanctions, that were due to be lifted on implementation day, as ballistic missile sanctions – thereby withholding the sanctions relief from designated entities in Iran that are set to receive it. Obama has not acquiesced, even though twenty-one Democratic law-makers, while less numerous and less specific in their requests, also expressed strong concern. Congressional frustration was worsened when the White House notified Congress of its intention to detail a new list of sanctioned entities on 30 December, only to postpone publication till a later, unspecified date.
In addition, Congressional action in response to the Paris terrorist attacks and San Bernardino shootings has complicated the smooth implementation of the JCPOA. Language incorporated within an omnibus spending bill passed in December restricted visa-free travel for citizens of thirty-eight visa-waiver countries who hold Iranian dual nationality or have visited Iran in the last five years. Iranian and European officials both worry that this may deter business visits to Iran, which would undermine the JCPOA commitment to restore the normalisation of trade between Iran and Europe.
Playing Defence at the Top
Collectively, these developments underscore the fact that the JCPOA’s survival depends largely upon the White House’s willingness to beat back attempts to undermine it. That places further importance on the statements being made by the presidential candidates on the campaign trail. Without fail, aspirants for the Republican nomination urge a much stronger stance, especially on the imposition of additional sanctions. The likely Democratic nominee, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has remained broadly supportive of the agreement. Yet as the election approaches, the incentive for the Democratic nominee to qualify their support for the JCPOA will only increase.
Similarly, whether Tehran will continue to comply with its obligations under the JCPOA and maintain its co-operation with the West will largely depend on the outcome of the looming elections and on the ability of Rouhani’s front to maintain its leverage at home, fending off the efforts of hardliners to take control over Iran’s decision-making centres.
The JCPOA remains at the mercy of a volatile and unpredictable political climate, both in Tehran and Washington. This could well overwhelm it in the coming year.
Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi - Research Analyst, International Security Studies, RUSI
Timothy Stafford - Research Analyst, Proliferation and Nuclear Policy, RUSI