As deadline looms, Iranian officials send mixed messages on Trump decertification threat

Key Points
  • A top Iranian military officer insists the country won't be pressured by U.S. threats to pull out of the nuclear deal and insists Tehran is better without it.
  • Still, Iran's top diplomat is trying to keep the deal from collapsing and suggests "Europe should lead."
  • Mixed messages come as the Oct. 15 deadline nears for Trump to decide whether to certify Iran's compliance with the nuclear deal.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani
Lucas Jackson | Reuters

A top Iranian military official was quoted Friday in state media as saying Tehran won't be pressured by U.S. threats to pull out of the nuclear deal and would be better off without it anyway.

Regardless, Iran still appears to be trying to keep the deal from collapsing, and the country's foreign minister admitted as much this week, according to an interview published Friday in the Financial Times.

President Donald Trump is facing an Oct. 15 deadline to notify Congress of Iran's compliance with the nuclear deal, the 2015 international agreement that includes the U.S. and five other world powers: Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany.

"My assumption and guess is that he will not certify and then will allow Congress to take the decision," Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said, according to FT.

Zarif added, "If Europe and Japan and Russia and China decided to go along with the U.S., then I think that will be the end of the deal. Europe should lead."

Meantime, Iran's president, Hassan Rouhani, took a more hardline stance when he spoke to the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 20.

Iran "will not be the first country to violate the agreement, but it will respond decisively and resolutely to its violation by any party," Rouhani said.

The Trump administration has certified Iran's compliance twice, but experts say it may be willing to reject it this time. A law requires the administration to notify Congress of Iran's compliance every 90 days.

"Even if the United States renounces the deal, it doesn't mean that the deal necessarily ends," said Emily Landau, a senior research fellow at the Israeli-based Institute for National Security Studies, an independent think tank affiliated with Tel Aviv University.

Landau notes that there's still a U.N. Security Council resolution granting authority to the Iran nuclear deal and that would likely remain in force.

During Trump's speech before the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 19, the president said, "We cannot abide by an agreement if it provides cover for the eventual construction of a nuclear program."

Besides railing against the Obama-era nuclear deal, Trump has been critical of Iran's ballistic missile program and expressed concern Tehran is working with nuclear-armed North Korea.

Yet if the Trump administration does decertify Iran's compliance, it's possible North Korea and Iran could expand their military ties. Also, North Korea's paranoid leader Kim Jong Un might see Trump's actions as another reason to distrust the West and close the door to any chance of talks with Pyongyang.

"If you intend to abort the deal, you'd better know that we pray God for this, because we would make better progress without the JCPOA," Hossein Salam, Iran's Revolutionary Guard's deputy chief commander declared this week, according to the state-run Fars news agency. The JCPOA, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, is the international deal that lays out terms of the nuclear deal.

The Iranian commander added, "The nuclear deal might be your only option, but it is no option for us at all."

Some have urged the Trump administration to redo certain aspects of the nuclear deal, including inspection issues or so-called "sunset" clauses.

"What's been in short supply is, renegotiate or not, how are the United States and the outside world going to deal with Iran once the sunset clauses come into impact," said Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington public policy think tank. "It's happening faster than people realize."

The "sunset" provisions of Iran's nuclear program restrictions start to expire in 2025, and some have suggested lengthening the deal should be part of any renegotiation.

"You've got to give something to get something in a negotiation," said Mieke Eoyang, vice president for the national security program at Third Way, a Washington centrist think tank. "So I think it's a real challenge as to what the rest of the world would be willing to give Iran to get something else in this deal."

Perhaps not surprisingly, Tehran opposes a renegotiation.

"Decertifying the deal doesn't automatically explode the deal," said James Phillips, senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank. "Congress would then have 60 days to decide whether to apply or reapply the nuclear sanctions that were lifted under the agreement and possibly apply new sanctions."

The Heritage analyst believes renegotiating the Iran nuclear deal would be the best option, although some suggest there's little if any leverage for Tehran to do so. Phillips sees it differently and believes the threat of new sanctions against Iran might be enough to get the country to revisit deal terms.

"Once the deal is decertified, and Congress appears to be on the brink of reapplying sanctions, that could change not only Iran's calculus but also the European allies' calculus," said Phillips. "Because at that point, renegotiation would be an opportunity to save the deal."

If the U.S. reapplies unilateral sanctions against Iran's central bank, it could make it tougher for Tehran to repatriate its oil export revenues. And that may force Iran to pull the plug on the nuclear deal.