While Iran has swiftly moved to comply with the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the multilateral nuclear accord struck in July, hardliners in both Iran and the U.S. have already succeeded in provoking actions that threaten to poison the atmosphere for the deal’s implementation.
As the agreement enters a sensitive phase, President Obama and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani will have to conduct a careful balancing act. In satiating hardline Congressional calls for more aggressive action toward Iran outside the nuclear sphere, President Obama risks triggering aggressive action from Iranian hardliners. If he ignores them, however, he risks ceding control to Congress entirely, which could doom implementation. The same dynamic is true in Iran as Rouhani contends with his own opponents.
Two recent issues demonstrate the tricky path ahead. First, Iran conducted a ballistic missile test during its own internal review of the JCPOA, on October 10, while a second test is alleged to have occurred in November. While Iranian ballistic missile testing is not a violation of the JCPOA itself, which focuses squarely on Iran’s nuclear program, it does violate UN Security Council Resolution 1929. Iran views such restrictions as illegitimate limits on conventional weaponry and has ignored them for years.
The recent testing has widely been considered a message – both internal and external – that Iran remains a capable adversary despite its moves to roll back its nuclear program. Yet, while the testing could have played well to domestic audiences in Iran, the U.S. could not sit idly by while Iran thumped its chest. Congressional opponents and moderate supporters of the JCPOA viewed the missile launch as a key test for the Obama administration. If the U.S. ignored it, the logic goes, surely Iran would take advantage of American passivity and routinely violate the agreement. While Republicans called for a halt to sanctions relief, twenty-one Democratic Senators urged unilateral action – enough to pose a veto-proof threat if the administration stood pat and viable legislation emerged.