Current and former U.S. officials say tensions between the Washington and Tehran are increasing over a wide spectrum of issues tied to the broader Middle East security landscape and to domestic Iranian politics, The Wall Street Journal reported.
Just in the past two days, Iran has test-fired a ballistic missile and announced the conviction of American journalist Jason Rezaian, fueling suspicions the historic nuclear agreement has allowed Tehran’s Islamist clerics to step up their long-held anti-U.S. agenda.
Washington’s closest Mideast allies, particularly Israel and Saudi Arabia, are more broadly concerned about Iran’s ability to use the diplomatic cover provided by the nuclear accord—and the promised release of tens of billions of dollars of frozen oil revenues—to strengthen its regional position and that of its allies.
‘There’s a risk that nonnuclear issues could sink the overall deal. The optics are terrible.’
—Richard Nephew, a former top negotiator with Iran
Iran last month launched a joint military operation with Russia in Syria aimed at stabilizing the regime of Bashar al-Assad, Tehran’s closest regional ally, according to Iranian and Russian officials.
Iran has also continued to ship arms and money to Houthi rebels in Yemen, who seized the country’s capital this year but are now facing an expansive counteroffensive led by Saudi Arabia, according to Arab officials.
Fears are mounting in Washington and Europe that these two conflicts could fuel a much broader regional war, in which Iran and Saudi Arabia are the chief protagonists.
The Obama administration’s ability to implement the nuclear accord amid such tumult could be compromised, said former U.S. officials involved in the Iran diplomacy.
“There’s a risk that nonnuclear issues could sink the overall deal,” said Richard Nephew, who was a top negotiator with Iran up until late 2014. “The optics are terrible.”
‘Both in its nuclear negotiations and its consideration of Americans detained in Iran, the administration has shown a dangerous naiveté regarding who it is dealing with.’
Rep. Ed Royce (R., Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee
Now, however, many U.S. and Arab officials believe Iran and Russia were plotting a joint defense of Assad even before the nuclear deal was concluded in Austria.
Just 10 days after the Vienna accord, the U.S. tracked Iran’s chief military planner, Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, traveling to Moscow for meetings with senior Russian officials, in violation of a U.N. travel ban. These officials believe much of the planning for the Syria operation occurred in Moscow and some talks were likely held even earlier.
Mr. Obama’s critics in Washington are accusing the White House of having been duped by Moscow and Tehran in the late stages of the talks.
“One reason Iran was able to negotiate so successfully was because of Russian support for a deal that would be antithetical to America’s interests,” Sen. Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.), the Senate majority leader, said last month. “No surprise then that just days after the deal was [reached], the commander of Iran’s Quds Force reportedly flew to Moscow to secure Russian support for their mutual ally in Syria.”
An Iranian court’s announcement on Sunday that it has convicted the 39-year-old Mr. Rezaian of espionage charges has also stoked ire in Washington. Iran didn’t announce the journalist’s sentence.
Many U.S. lawmakers repeatedly called on the White House to demand as part of the final agreement the release of Mr. Rezaian and two other Iranian-Americans, Saeed Abedini and Amir Hekmati, held by Tehran. A fourth American citizen, Robert Levinson, disappeared on the Iranian island of Kish in 2007. Now these lawmakers are concerned that Washington has lost important leverage to demand their release.
“Both in its nuclear negotiations and its consideration of Americans detained in Iran, the administration has shown a dangerous naiveté regarding who it is dealing with” in Tehran, Rep. Ed Royce (R., Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee said Monday.
Earlier this month, Khamenei announced he had banned Tehran’s diplomats and military officials from negotiating with the U.S. on anything beyond the nuclear agreement, viewing such engagement as a threat to his country’s Islamic revolution.
Current and former U.S. officials said moving forward with the agreement will be difficult under current tensions and the continued uncertainty about the 76-year-old supreme leader’s long-term intentions.
An early flash point could be an investigation by the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, into evidence Iran had secretly developed technologies used to make nuclear weapons.
U.N. officials have said Iran has limited its cooperation into the probe, continuing to deny access to key scientists and documents believed tied to a weaponization program. Mr. Kerry has said the broader agreement won’t go forward unless Iran cooperates with the IAEA.
Additional Iranian missile tests, or more evidence of its support for militant groups, could further poison efforts to improve relations between the U.S. and Iran.
The White House will also be challenged to maintain the separation between Iran’s nuclear activities and its broader conduct in the region.
“How do you create a firewall? That’s the challenge,” said Dennis Ross, who served as Mr. Obama’s top Mideast adviser during his first term.
Critics of the nuclear agreement said Sunday’s missile test violated the spirit, if not the terms, of the nuclear agreement. U.N. resolutions ban Tehran from developing missiles capable of delivering nuclear bombs. Iran has said the missiles are for its defenses.
It’s a demonstration of intent,” said Mr. Ross.