On Wednesday, the U.S. representative to the United Nations signaled that the Trump administration may de-certify Iran’s compliance with the 2015 nuclear agreement next month. Speaking at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., Nikki Haley noted that such “de-certification” would not necessarily invalidate the nuclear deal, but suggested that it would be up to the Congress to decide whether the U.S. remains a party to the accord. "What I am saying is should [the Trump administration] decide to de-certify, he has grounds to stand on," she added.

Reactions in Tehran

Haley’s remarks drew a great deal of attention inside Iran. Behrouz Kamalvandi, the spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (A.E.O.I.), rejected Haley’s assertion that the Islamic Republic has violated the deal. He pointed out that the International Atomic Energy Agency (I.A.E.A.) has certified Iran’s compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (J.C.P.O.A.) eight times since Tehran signed the agreement with world powers two years ago. “Haley or any other American official has no standing to judge Iran’s actions,” he added.

Morteza Safari Natanzi, a senior member of the Iranian Parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, echoed a similar reaction. “Nikki Haley’s remarks are meaningless. The organization that certifies whether Iran has committed a violation in terms of its nuclear program is the International Atomic Energy Agency. And when this institution approves Iran’s nuclear activity, it is inappropriate for Nikki Haley to make such comments,” he said in an interview with Mizan Online. He claimed that Haley had unsuccessfully tried to obtain information from the I.A.E.A. to prove that Tehran has breached the nuclear agreement. “We believe that Ms. Haley’s claims have no practical significance and are sheer propaganda. And such claims cannot call into question the J.C.P.O.A.,” he continued.   

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani also rejected U.S. allegations on non-compliance. “Today, after the successful negotiations and the JCPOA’s implementation, we should not allow the deal to be undermined and the parties to infringe on their commitments,” the president said in a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister’s special envoy Masahiko Komura in Tehran today.  

Inspection of military sites

Iranian leaders also rejected Haley’s demand that I.A.E.A. inspectors visit Iran’s military sites to ensure the Islamic Republic is not developing nuclear weapons covertly. “The biggest concern is that Iranian leaders – the same ones who in the past were caught operating a covert nuclear program at military sites – have stated publicly that they will refuse to allow IAEA inspections of their military sites,” Haley said at her AEI speech. “How can we know Iran is complying with the deal, if inspectors are not allowed to look everywhere they should look?”

Ali Akbar Velayati, a top aide to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on international affairs, ruled out inspection of the country’s military bases. “The Americans want to trample upon the J.C.P.O.A., but the world is standing up against them,” he continued. Other senior Iranian military and political leaders have also said that the Islamic Republic will not allow I.A.E.A. or any foreign inspectors to visit its military sites.

Will U.S. leave the deal?

Many in Tehran believe that the Trump administration does not want to walk away from the deal but tries to increase pressure on Tehran by imposing new sanctions, seeking concessions regarding Iran’s missile program and regional ambitions, and deterring international companies and banks from investing in or doing business with the Islamic Republic.

An article in Tasnim News Agency, which is affiliated with the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (I.R.G.C.), analyzed Haley’s speech in details and argued that walking away from the deal would isolate the United States as other signatories of the Iran deal would not side with Washington.  “Therefore, the Trump administration will likely choose a more sophisticated strategy than leaving the J.C.P.O.A.” It said one option Washington may choose would be to de-certify Iran’s compliance but keep the deal for now. The article claimed that even strong critics of the Iran deal in U.S. Congress do not want the Trump administration to abandon it because it would isolate America, not Iran. By refusing to certify Iran’s compliance with the deal, according to Tasnim, the Trump administration wants to discourage foreign investment in Iran. “This will make European companies always worried that investing in Iran carries big risks. In such a situation, Trump can deny Iran access to J.C.P.O.A. incentives or at least lessen these achievements for Tehran to the extent possible.”

Tehran’s options

If the U.S. abandons the nuclear deal, Iran has two choices: It will either walk away from the agreement and resume nuclear enrichment; or stay in the deal and work closer with European powers, China, Russia and other willing partners to minimize the impact of new U.S. sanctions.

Iranian leaders have recently warned that Tehran will resume high-level nuclear enrichment if the U.S. cancels the deal and re-impose the sanctions. A.E.O.I. Chief Ali Akbar Salehi said last month that Iran prefers to stick to the deal but not at any cost, warning that the Islamic Republic’s response would “surprise” the violators of the accord. But that is unlikely to be the Rouhani government’s optimal choice. Tehran understands that leaving the deal and resuming nuclear activities would not only bring back international sanctions but would potentially invite targeted military strikes by the U.S. or Israel as well. Recent remarks by senior Rouhani government officials indicate that Tehran would most likely try to keep the deal even if U.S. walks away from it.

In an interview with Khabar Online on Tuesday, for example, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif defended the nuclear agreement and stressed that the international accord has limited Washington’s options to isolate Iran diplomatically and economically. He said the European powers are committed to staying in the deal even if Washington abandons it – adding that major European companies have in recent months signed multi-billion-dollar contracts with Tehran at a time when the Trump administration is increasing its anti-Iran rhetoric.

In a live TV speech last month, Rouhani made a similar argument in defense of the nuclear deal. He said the world’s view of Iran changed and pre-J.C.P.O.A. sanctions were irreversible. He emphasized, unlike in the past, the momentum is with Iran and that the U.S. can no longer muster international support to act against the Islamic Republic. “At present, America is at the worst position, and quite the opposite, Iran is at the best position. Even regarding J.C.P.O.A., what are the positions of America’s European allies? The president of France explicitly said that there is no alternative to the J.C.P.O.A. agreement.” He said signing the nuclear agreement was the right decision to end Iran’s isolation. “We are confident about continuing our path. If the other side commits a violation, we will respond… At a time when America imposes sanctions, foreign banks gives us $10 billion in credit. One company signs a $5 billion oil and gas contract with us.”

But if Tehran keeps the deal despite U.S. uniltaral withdrawal, the Rouhani government will come under tremendous pressure from hardliners that opposed the nuclear deal at the first place. Javan Online, an I.R.G.C. mouthpiece, wrote today that Zarif’s idea to work with Europe to isolate America is unrealistic. It said the Rouhani team was similarly optimistic about negotiating with the United States, but all Iran got was more sanctions, more military threats and repeated violations of the J.C.P.O.A. terms by Washington. Javan also pointed to the latest proposal by France that the nuclear deal could be supplemented with “consultations” on loopholes within the accord, including the post-2025 period and Iran’s missile program. It argued that such talks show that Europe will still be keen to work with America against Iran in the future.

The Iranian government has ruled out renegotiation of the 2015 nuclear deal, but has not officially responded to France’s proposal.