U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal has taken focus away from other Iranian "destabilizing activities in the region," such as its ballistic missile program, support for terrorism and the roles it plays in conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.
His comments Tuesday during a State Department briefing come as top officials in both the United States and Iran accuse the other side of violating the deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which limited Iran's nuclear program to ensure it could not produce nuclear weapons while giving Iran sanctions relief.
“It's an agreement that should serve Americans America's interests first and foremost, and if it doesn't serve that interest, then why would we maintain it?” Tillerson said.
The Trump administration last month gave its latest certification to Congress that Iran is in compliance with the terms of the deal, which it will next be required to give in September. Trump himself has repeatedly criticized the JCPOA as being too friendly to Iran.
Tillerson said Tuesday the United States is working with the other parties, which include Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany, in order to fully enforce the terms and challenge whether Iran is “living up to its commitments and the spirit of the agreement.”
Too much, too soon?
He voiced displeasure with the timeline of the agreement, saying Iran was able to enjoy a lot of its benefits from the beginning.
“They got the immediate lifting of the sanctions before they ever had to deliver on anything,” Tillerson said.
The deal set up a period of time during which Iran was required to put in motion many of the key restrictions on its nuclear program, such as limiting the number of centrifuges it could operate, the amount of enriched uranium it could hold and keeping the enrichment level of the material far below weapons grade. Only after certification by the International Atomic Energy Agency were sanctions lifted.
Tillerson also said Iran's ballistic missile activity has continued in a way that violates the spirit of the deal, and that under the JCPOA Iran agreed to “become a good neighbor.”
The ballistic missile language has been a point of contention since a U.N. Security Council resolution endorsed the nuclear deal.
An annex in the resolution says a previous resolution that expressly forbid ballistic missile activity would be lifted, and that “Iran is called upon not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons.” Iran has seen that language as more of a request than an enforceable prohibition.
There is no specific language in the JCPOA that directs Iran to improve relations with its neighbors, but a section of the preface says all of the signatories “anticipate that full implementation of this JCPOA will positively contribute to regional and international peace and security.”
Trump told the Wall Street Journal last week that if it were up to him, he would have declared Iran non-compliant six months ago and that he expects to do so at the next opportunity.
“We've been extremely nice to them in saying they were compliant, OK? We've given them the benefit of every doubt,” he said.
When asked if he would overrule his staff, Trump said, “Sure,” while expressing respect for Tillerson and his staff at the State Department.
“It's easier to say they comply. It's a lot easier. But it's the wrong thing.”
Iran has made its own complaints, including Tuesday in comments from Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif reported by the semi-official Tasnim news agency.
Larijani said Iran's JCPOA team concluded new U.S. sanctions violated the nuclear deal and that his government should complain about them to the Joint Commission the deal set up in order to handle disputes between the two sides.
The sanctions target people involved with Iran's ballistic missile program and the Revolutionary Guard.
Larijani said the measures may be aimed at discouraging foreign investment in Iran, which the former nuclear-related sanctions sharply curbed.
The agreement text says the European Union and the United States will refrain from policies specifically intended to harm the normalization of trade and economic relations with Iran. It also says officials from all sides will try to support the deal, "including in their public statements."
Zarif meanwhile said U.S. moves to go back on the agreement and what he called hostilities toward Iran were discussed at the latest Joint Commission meeting, held July 21 in Vienna.
European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, who was a key part of the JCPOA negotiations, is scheduled to travel to Iran on Saturday to review implementation issues with Iranian officials.
Last month, in marking the two-year anniversary of the deal, Mogherini praised it as successful and noted reports by the IAEA showing Iran is abiding by the terms.
“The European Union is and will stay committed in preserving and implementing it, and building on it to address the remaining unresolved sources of tension and conflict that are still afflicting the region,” she said. “A stable and peaceful environment in a conflict-free and cooperative regional order remains our ultimate objective.”
The last IAEA report came in June and noted Iran was allowing the agency inspection and monitoring efforts to operate and was meeting the requirements for limits on centrifuges, enrichment and stockpile sizes.