In recent days, Iran has, not for the first time, unsettled a number of Western politicians with its ballistic missile tests. France’s Foreign Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, has said that the tests—which, according to U.S. officials, were a failure—violate the “spirit” of the landmark nuclear deal reached between Iran and six world powers (known as the P5+1) in July 2015. A more conceited reaction came from Donald Trump’s (now former) National Security Advisor, the firebrand general Michael Flynn, who insisted that an “emboldened” Iran was not being “thankful” to the United States for the nuclear accord, and that Trump’s White House had put the Iranians “on notice”—whatever that means. Amidst a murky broth of fear, threats, and “alternative facts”, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer falsely claimed, with an air of supreme confidence, that Iran had opened fire on U.S. Navy vessels, a blatant act of war. (In truth, it was a Saudi frigate that had come under fire, most likely from Yemen’s Houthi rebels.)
Indeed, although Iran’s missile tests do not technically violate the nuclear agreement it reached with the P5+1 countries, its behavior could be considered a prima facie case of discourteous conduct, especially when one considers the sanctions relief it received following the agreement. Surely the White House demand that Iran be “thankful” should not come across as unreasonable, should it?
This sentiment, though seemingly plausible, suffer from a gross factual deficit. The ballistic missile tests are not the first time the “spirit” of the deal are being violated while leaving its technical integrity fully intact.
In December 2015, when the Iran Deal was in its most precarious stage, the U.S. House of Representatives passed HR-158, a visa restriction bill with significant consequences for Iran’s sluggishly recovering tourism industry and its financial exchanges, as well as Europeans and Americans of Iranian heritage. The bill meant that citizens from thirty-eight countries participating in the U.S. Visa Waiver Program would have to apply for visas to enter the U.S. if they visited Iran after March 1, 2011. Those holding dual citizenship with Iran would be automatically ineligible for the visa waiver program. At the time, even European diplomats voiced their concern over this assault on the nuclear deal. Despite the spiteful nature of the Congressional bill, the Iran Deal was successfully implemented the following month, with all parties affirming that Iran had fully complied with its obligations under the agreement.
In late 2016, the U.S. Congress struck again. Following the presidential election, in a provocative move and despite repeated warnings from the outgoing Obama administration, both the House and Senate voted overwhelmingly to extend the Iran Sanctions Act, first adopted in 1996, for another decade.
If Iran’s failed testing of a few medium-range non-nuclear ballistic missiles within its borders violates the “spirit” of the nuclear deal, then surely penalizing those who have visited or are dual nation of Iran, in addition to extending the Iran Sanctions Act, which is an unmistakable form of aggression and has palpable financial repercussions for millions of Iranians, rides roughshod over it. The impact radius of Iran’s failed missile tests, on the other hand, was probably limited to a negligible patch of barren land in the middle of nowhere in the picturesque deserts of southern Iran.
With the Trump administration in power, hurling salvos at the nuclear deal and delivering chilling—albeit incoherent—threats at Iran requires even less mental effort than before. Already, Trump has listed Iran as one of the seven Muslim-majority countries covered by his notorious Muslim Ban immigration order, which is allegedly meant to help prevent terrorist attacks against the United States. As always, notably absent from the list is Saudi Arabia, a country overwhelmingly represented among the 911 attackers (fifteen of the nineteen hijackers were Saudi citizens, a fact that never seems to collide with the need to keep Americans “safe”.)
If any sermons are to be given about respecting the “spirit” of the nuclear deal, U.S. foreign policy hawks are most certainly not best positioned to deliver it. Instead, they must live with the irony of breaking bread with fringe hardliners in Iran, who also anticipate the collapse of the deal and its catastrophic consequences with enthusiasm. With every Congressional assault inflicted upon the integrity of the nuclear deal, Iran’s hardliners are the only group in the country that are “emboldened”; like their American counterparts, they have felt steadily sidelined since the implementation of the nuclear deal a year ago.
In May 2017, this odd congregation of unlikely bedfellows will have a momentous opportunity to make their shared dream of scuttling the deal a reality. Iran’s moderate President Hassan Rouhani stands for re-election then; his opponents will seize on America’s provocative actions to make their case against the deal. Should they succeed, it will be another giant leap towards eradicating any shred of sanity from U.S.-Iran relations, potentially plunging us all into a military showdown that will make the debacles in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan look like a disorganized Sunday picnic in comparison.