U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson ramped up the rhetoric on Iran Wednesday, accusing Tehran of trying to destabilize the Middle East with “alarming ongoing provocations,” and labeling an international deal on its nuclear program a failure.
“An unchecked Iran has the potential to travel the same path as North Korea and to take the world along with it,” Tillerson said at a press briefing in Washington.
“The United States is keen to avoid a second piece of evidence that strategic patience is a failed approach,” he said, employing the phrase that the Trump administration has used recently to justify a more aggressive line toward Pyongyang over its nuclear ambitions.
The comments came the day after the U.S. announced an interagency review of its policy toward Tehran, which Tillerson said would look not only at the 2015 nuclear deal but also at Iran’s actions in the Middle East, where it supports Shia forces engaged in conflicts with Sunni rivals. Calling Tehran “the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism,” Tillerson accused it of having intensified conflicts and sought to undermine U.S. interests in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Lebanon, while supporting attacks against Israel.
As part of a quarterly report to Congress on Iran’s adherence to the nuclear deal, Tillerson acknowledged Tuesday that Tehran was meeting its commitments under the agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Under the deal struck between Iran and six other nations after 18 months of negotiations in July 2015, Tehran agreed to curb its nuclear program – suspected of being a front for weapons development – in exchange for international oil and financial sanctions being lifted.
But the administration remains concerned about Iran’s broader activities as a state sponsor of terrorism, and has launched the review into its policy on Iran to determine whether maintaining the deal is in the U.S.’s national security interests.
Despite the tough talk, Ahmad Majidyar, director of the IranObserved Project at the Middle East Institute said it was highly unlikely that the U.S. would abandon the nuclear deal, which was also backed by Russia, China, France, Britain, and Germany.
“The five other world powers that are party to the deal insist on a complete implementation of it and would not side with the U.S. to cancel it,” he said.
Tillerson said Wednesday that Iran’s “nuclear ambitions” continue to pose a “grave risk to international peace and security,” and that the nuclear deal “fails to achieve the objective of a non-nuclear Iran; it only delays their goal of becoming a nuclear state.”
Iran, which has repeatedly denied it is seeking to develop nuclear weapons, fired back at Tillerson’s accusations. The country’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, tweeted Thursday that they were “worn-out U.S. accusations,” pointing out that his country had complied with its side of the deal.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei said last year that Tehran would respond if the U.S. breached the deal.
Most analysts who spoke to VICE News said they did not expect the U.S. to walk away from the nuclear deal. Instead, the comments likely signaled Washington’s determination to look for ways to pressure Iran beyond the scope of the agreement.
Majidyar said he thought the Trump administration would “try to implement the deal more strictly rather than annul it.” “But at the same time, Washington will step up efforts to push back against Iran’s ballistic missile program and support for terrorism in the region without violating the terms of the nuclear agreement,” he said.
James F. Jeffrey, a former U.S. ambassador and visiting fellow at the Washington Institute, said the White House was hoping that by presenting its continued commitment to the deal as up for debate, it could pressure Iran to rein in its destabilizing activities elsewhere – and influence the other signatories to pressure Iran to do so.
Sanam Vakil, associate fellow at Britain’s Chatham House think tank, agreed, saying that “by keeping the pressure on in this way, it will keep Iran on the back foot,” she said.
Vakil said she also expected the U.S. would look to impose further sanctions on Iran for its activities beyond the nuclear issue – such as its involvement in Yemen or Iraq – which could be possible under the nuclear deal, although what sanctions were permissible under the agreement was open to interpretation.
“If the sanctions are specific to human rights issues or ballistic missiles, they’re technically outside the purview of the agreement and could work,” she said. “But if they try to constrain investment on Iran, that goes against the agreement. The problem with this deal is it’s very open to interpretation.”
Jeffrey said that Washington’s strident rhetoric toward Tehran mirrored its strategy toward Pyongyang – threatening to break with Obama-era policy to compel both governments to moderate their behavior. The problem with both, he said, was that ultimately the U.S. was “bluffing.”
“Pulling out of [the nuclear deal], or serious military action against North Korea, is too risky,” he told VICE News.
But Ranj Alaaldin, visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, said it was still too soon to judge whether the U.S. would walk away from the deal.
“Rhetoric should not be dismissed,” he said. “The more confrontational the war of words and the longer it continues, the greater the possibility that words and rhetoric becomes policy.”
During his presidential campaign, Trump called the agreement “the worst deal ever” and vowed to review it once in office. The EU’s senior foreign policy official, Federica Mogherini, said last month that Trump administration officials had told her that the U.S. remained committed to the deal.
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis also criticized Iran on Wednesday, saying during a visit to Saudi Arabia, Tehran’s regional archrival, that curbing Iran’s influence was necessary to stop the bloodshed in Yemen.