Iranian officials and clerics vowed retaliation Friday against the United States for congressional approval of an extension of nuclear-related sanctions, but Middle East analysts say they expect no substantive response from Iran in the waning weeks of the Obama administration.
Instead, they said, the vote to keep sanctions on the books for another decade sets the stage for President-elect Donald Trump to adopt a more assertive posture with Tehran.
Obama is likely to sign the extension, approved in the Senate on Thursday by a veto-proof vote of 99 to 0.
State Department spokesman John Kirby said that Secretary of State John F. Kerry will continue to sign sanctions waivers, as stipulated in the nuclear deal reached last year, as long as Iran keeps meeting its obligations. But after January, it will be up to the Trump administration to decide whether to keep reissuing the waivers, which must be done every 120 to 180 days.
“Each country is daring the other to walk away from the deal first,” said Michael Rubin, a Middle East analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. “But no one’s going to want to fire the first shot.”
In Tehran, the government officially referred the issue to a committee charged with implementing the agreement. But denunciations of the extension rang out from the legislature, mosques and government offices.
Leaders of Friday prayers called the vote a clear violation of the nuclear deal signed between Tehran and six world powers, including the United States. Iran agreed to limit its nuclear program in exchange for an end to international sanctions. The waivers were written into the agreement so that sanctions could be “snapped back” if Iran violates the terms of the deal, known officially as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
“If you are to tear down the JCPOA, we will set it afire,” said Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Movahedi Kermani, a prayer leader in Tehran.
And the Iranian news agency FARS reported that the legislature is preparing a ban on U.S. consumer goods, something of a hollow threat because most U.S. goods in the country are sold on the black market, smuggled in by groups tied to the Revolutionary Guard Corps.
“We are closely monitoring the developments,” said Ali Akbar Salehi, the country’s nuclear chief, according to Iranian state TV. “If they implement the [Iran Sanctions Act], Iran will take action accordingly.”
Much of the rhetoric reflects the way the deal was presented to the Iranian public, as a straightforward end to sanctions instead of a complex set of legal and financial agreements that would only gradually see Iran reintegrated into international trade.
“They needed to present it as a victory, and they did,” said Suzanne Maloney, a Middle East analyst at the Brookings Institution. “They skimmed over the details, and they have used domestic politics as a rationale to put pressure on the Obama administration to lean forward on implementations and financial access for Iran.”
Maloney said Tehran may not know how to read Trump, who has called the nuclear deal a “disaster” and the “worst deal ever,” and vowed to be tougher.
“They’re dealing with an unpredictable situation,” she said. “They’ve never faced a U.S. administration in which they have so little awareness of where it stands.”
Several analysts said Tehran is posturing and unlikely to turn its back on a deal that continues to provide economic and diplomatic benefits.
“It’s possible Iran would walk away, but it’s highly unlikely,” said James Phillips, a Middle East analyst at the Heritage Foundation. “Iran is still reaping the benefits of sanctions relief. If Iran did walk away, not only would U.N. sanctions snap back but U.S. sanctions would kick in, and those could do a lot of damage to the Iranian economy.”