The killing of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, a powerful figure in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, in a drone attack Friday ordered by President Trump has triggered a cascade of potentially incendiary consequences.
In the days after the deadly attack Trump exchanged retaliatory threats with Iranian officials on social media. On Sunday, Tehran announced it would no longer honor stockpiling and processing limits on nuclear materials at the heart of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the official name of the 2015 nuclear agreement. Though Trump withdrew the U.S. from the deal in May 2018, Iran’s decision is widely viewed as a deliberate escalation of tension aimed at the White House.
Leaders from the European Union, which is still a party to the nuclear deal and hopes to salvage it, determined Monday that Iran’s recent violations did not warrant the imposition of new sanctions.
As U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs, Ambassador Wendy R. Sherman spent two years brokering the historic nuclear pact as lead negotiator for the U.S. She’s now director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School. Sherman discusses the tinderbox state of affairs between Iran and the U.S.
GAZETTE: There seem to be mixed signals coming out of Iran following the announcement. Foreign minister Mohammed Javad Zarif said Iran would continue to allow inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). From your vantage point, where do things stand right now?
SHERMAN: Certainly, the Iranians saying that they will no longer respect the limits of action is not a good thing. Nonetheless, they have not formally withdrawn from the deal. They are allowing the IAEA inspectors to stay. They have said any steps they’ll take will be for technical needs and that they are all reversible, and that they would be open to returning to the deal if economic sanctions were lifted. So this isn’t good news, of course, but it could have been worse.
GAZETTE: In terms of preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons, which was a primary goal of the JCPOA, is the world still under the deal’s umbrella protection or are we on the precipice of going back to where we started before there was a deal?
SHERMAN: I think the deal is hanging on by a very, very thin thread. And although Iran has said it’s ready to come back in, it appears that the Trump administration is doing everything it can to make it quite difficult for Iran to come to the table. The choice has always been a deal to keep Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon or an unrestricted nuclear program and a form of war. The president, for now, has chosen the latter.
GAZETTE: So there’s still room for diplomacy?
SHERMAN: There is still room for diplomacy, but there are no signs of diplomacy at the moment. The Trump administration seems to be on an escalatory path, particularly [with] the killing of Qassim Suleimani, and Iran will indeed respond. None of us quite know how or when that will happen. It will be asymmetric in its response and hopefully the administration will then try to open a channel for diplomacy as opposed to continuing an escalatory cycle, which would likely spiral out of control and find us at war.