Incumbent Iranian President Hassan Rouhani won reelection on May 19, securing a second four-year term. Rouhani took 57 percent of the vote, defeating conservative candidate Ebrahim Raisi without a runoff. Two other candidates remained on the ballot on election day, but neither was expected to win.
In his victory speech Rouhani did not mention the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), negotiated between Iran and six world powers, but said Iran is “ready to develop its relations with the world based on mutual respect and its national interests.” He said the election sends the message that the “way of ensuring security in this region is strengthening democracy.”
Federica Mogherini, EU foreign policy chief and head of the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) congratulated Rouhani via Twitter and said that the European Union is ready continue working on full implementation of the nuclear deal.
In a May 20 press statement acknowledging Rouhani’s victory, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said he hoped that Rouhani will end Iran’s ballistic missile testing. Tillerson told reporters in Riyadh the same day that he had “no plans” to call his counterpart, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at this point, but said that “in all likelihood, we will talk at the right time.”
Tillerson was in Saudi Arabia with U.S. President Donald Trump. On the agenda was a proposed arms sale to Saudi Arabia. In a May 20 op-ed for Huff Post, Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) argued against the arms sale and said that “if we want Iran to end their ballistic missile program (which is primarily designed to confront the Saudi threat), then feeding the arms race between the two nations probably isn’t the best long-term strategy.”
—KELSEY DAVENPORT, director for nonproliferation policy
The Trump administration met a key U.S. obligation on May 17 when it renewed sanctions waivers as required by the nuclear deal with Iran. The waivers must be renewed periodically until the United States is required to take action to lift the sanctions, which will happen in 2023 at the latest.
Former U.S. President Barack Obama reissued the waivers right before leaving office, making May 17 the first time that the Trump administration had to waive sanctions and take a proactive step to implement the deal. Despite the administration’s ongoing review of Iran policy, issuing the waivers was expected, given that Tillerson certified to Congress in April that Iran was meeting its obligations under the agreement.
In the May 17 press release from the State Department announcing the waivers, the Trump administration also said it was imposing new sanctions on Iranian entities and a China-based network for suppling items to Iran that could be used for ballistic missile development. Iran is prohibited from purchasing certain materials for its ballistic missile program under UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorsed the nuclear deal and lifted some UN sanctions.
The U.S. sanctions prompted a response from Iran. On May 18, Iran’s Foreign Ministry announced it was sanctioning nine U.S. firms as a “countermeasure” to the new U.S. sanctions issued by the Trump administration. The entities sanctioned include Booz Allen Hamilton, Kingfisher Systems, and Huntington Ingalls Industries.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) is set to markup S. 722, the Countering Iran’s Destabilizing Activities Act of 2017 on May 25.
Several former Obama administration officials involved with the nuclear deal, including lead negotiator and former Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman and former Acting Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Adam Szubin, recently expressed concerns about the original text of the bill.
Szubin wrote a letter on May 12 to committee chairman, Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and ranking member Ben Cardin (D-Md.), in which he said the bill, as currently written, would be “harmful” to U.S. interests and “provoke a terrible reaction in Iran and with our allies, as it would be seen as contrary to at least the spirit” of the nuclear deal.
Sherman told a public audience at The Cato Institute on May 16 that she opposed the legislation “categorically.” She said that there is “no real consequence to the bill” and that it is just a way to “say we’re tough” so “why risk the JCPOA for a bill that does nothing and that arguably could undermine the JCPOA?”
Sherman advocated for pushing back against Iran’s destabilizing activities using other tools.
The Arms Control Association expressed its concerns about the original bill risking the success of the nuclear deal here. The bill will likely be amended during the markup, and when evaluating amendments, members of the committee should carefully consider the impact on the Iran nuclear deal.
U.S. Director for National Intelligence Dan Coats issued the intelligence community’s annual Worldwide Threat Assessment on May 11.
The document contained a section on Iran and the nuclear deal, which assessed that Iran’s public statements “suggest that it wants to preserve” the agreement. The statement noted that the nuclear deal has enhanced transparency of Iran’s nuclear activities, primarily by providing greater access to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors, and extended the time it would take Iran to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon.
The intelligence community assessed that Iran’s desire to deter the United States “might drive it to field an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM)", and that Iran’s space program could “shorten a pathway” to an ICBM because similar technologies are employed.
Similar language often appears from year to year in the annual threat assessments. However, the 2016 assessment issued by former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper contained a paragraph noting that as a result of the enhanced transparency, the intelligence community is “well postured to quickly detect changes to Iran’s declared nuclear facilities.” It also said that Iran’s space program provided the “means and motivation” to develop longer-range ballistic missiles. Neither of these assessments appeared in the 2017 annual report.
Iran participated in the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Preparatory Committee meetings earlier this month in Vienna. This is the first meeting to prepare for the 2020 NPT Review Conference. Iran is a party to the NPT, which establishes a permanent legal obligation on non-nuclear weapons states never to acquire nuclear weapons and to comply with their safeguards agreements with the IAEA to verify their nuclear activities are exclusively peaceful.
Reza Najafi, Iran’s ambassador to the IAEA, called for implementation of the nuclear deal, progress toward nuclear disarmament as mandated by Article VI of the NPT, and a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East. He said that Israel’s nuclear program remained an obstacle to creating the zone and called for actions to advance the zone ahead of the 2020 meeting. Najafi’s full remarks are available here.
The IAEA’s quarterly report on Iran’s nuclear activities under the deal is likely to be completed soon. The agency’s Board of Governors is scheduled to meet June 12-16 and consider the report. The last report, issued in February, indicated that Iran was meeting its commitments.