The clock appears to be ticking on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA); more than some may think, less than others may hope. Whatever President Donald Trump decides to do with the unsigned, unratified, unagreed-upon text of the untreaty, it should be clear that the agreement did not moderate Iran’s ambitions — nuclear or otherwise — and pretending will not make it so.
The JCPOA was not designed to end Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons capability.
One reason there is no agreed-upon text is that the sides were negotiating different ends: the U.S. wanted to constrain Iran’s enrichment and other nuclear weapons-related capabilities for a period of time during which President Obama and others said/hoped Iran would become a constructive regional player. Iran was negotiating the terms under which it could continue to enrich uranium with an international imprimatur. Deal supporters acknowledge as much. Paul Pillar of Georgetown University recently wrote, “If there were no JCPOA, then instead of Iran being free of some restrictions on its nuclear activity 10 or 15 years from now, it would be free from those same restrictions right now.”
It wasn’t presented that way, of course. President Obama presented Congress and the American people with a binary choice — the JCPOA or war. The threat of war is so powerful that JCPOA supporters still use it. Ali Vaez, senior Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group, wrote last month, “If the Trump administration kills the deal with Iran… [that] the rest of the international community is highly satisfied with, it should forget about peacefully settling the nuclear standoff with North Korea.”
Vaez threatens the United States with war in Asia, not for attacking Iran, but for exposing the emperor’s nakedness.
How naked is Iran? For a country that was supposed to moderate its international behavior in light of Western acceptance, money, and trade, Iran has behaved more like a country determined to pursue its own ends with little concern for the opinions of the West.
There is ample evidence of illicit missile trade with North Korea. The infusion of Western money has allowed Iran to field proxy Shiite militias in Iraq; Somali and Afghan mercenaries in Syria – including children, according to Human Rights Watch — along with its Hizb’allah allies; pursue its ballistic missile program in defiance of UN sanctions; arm Houthi rebels in Yemen in defiance of UN arms sanctions; plan billions in military equipment purchases; hold four (or five) Americans without rights (or charges in two cases); harass American ships in the Persian Gulf; and generally deny its own people civil liberties, including freedom from arbitrary arrest or torture. Iran executed at least 567 people in 2016, making it one of the top three in the world.
Iran’s behaviors threaten large parts of the world and many of its most vulnerable citizens even before the question of whether Iran is actually making progress on its nuclear weapons capabilities now — cheating on the deal it never signed.
For understandable reasons, the IAEA is loath to say it doesn’t have the access it should have to Iran’s military sites to fully understand what the regime is doing. But remember two things: shortly after the deal was agreed (though not signed) the IAEA made a separate deal for Iran to inspect its own facilities at Parchin and other military sites. And, the IAEA does not certify Iran’s compliance, as the inestimable and indefatigable Mark Dubowitz at FDD reminds us:
The IAEA’s mandate with respect to the JCPOA primarily entails monitoring and reporting on Tehran’s nuclear-related actions (or lack thereof) pursuant to the JCPOA’s provisions. The determination of whether Iranian conduct constitutes compliance with the JCPOA remains the prerogative of the individual parties to the agreement: China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Iran, with the high representative of the European Union for foreign affairs and security policy.
The Trump administration has been busy setting the stage for a new American policy. In May, there were 40 new sanctions connected to Iranian missile and terrorism activities and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force — including on Qassem Soleimani, head of the Quds Force, and on his brother, Sohrab Soleimani, for his role in running Teheran’s notorious Evin prison. In July, Treasury designated 16 entities and individuals for supporting “illicit Iranian actors or transnational criminal activity.” The State Department separately designated two organizations involved in Iran’s ballistic missile program. The White House is presently considering IRGC a terrorist organization.
Iran’s violations are clear. It remains to be seen how our allies and our adversaries would react to an American decertification of Iran under the JCPOA, or withdrawal from the deal in its entirety.
Vaez, having threatened the U.S. with war in Korea, is more nebulous but no less adamant in threatening disaster. “The IAEA has never had better access to Iran’s military sites. If the Trump administration loses this unprecedented access… it will soon wish for it.”
Our allies are a mixed bag. Generally unwilling to support President Trump, and very fond of the contracts Iran has been throwing their way, they are nervous. Longtime analyst Dennis Ross points out that France’s President Emmanuel Macron is seeking a renegotiation of the agreement — and he is not the only one, Democrats in Congress are suggesting the same. Richard Goldberg, staff member to then-senator Mark Kirk, believes allies will get in line with American policy should more sweeping sanctions be called for.
Most important, however, is Iran’s response. While the IRGC threatened missile attacks on U.S. bases should the president sanction the Revolutionary Guard, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif made overtures to the countries of the P5+1 during the UN session in September, suggesting that Iran’s ballistic missile program — illegal and under UN sanction — could be discussed (modified? adhered to?). That is not the same as discussing or adhering to the JCPOA, but suggests that Iran does not want to be completely cut off from conversation with the West.
It is a dangerous moment. Iran has become more, not less, threatening to global peace and security, and has no intention of transparency in its nuclear programs. But that is as it has always been. The difference now is that the American government is willing to say so.