The Islamic Republic of Iran’s declared position is that it does not want nuclear weapons and never has. Which is good, because the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) contains language declaring that “under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop, or acquire any nuclear weapons.”
Which is bad, because Iran cheats.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu laid out in detail how Iran dissembled to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the ostensible authority on Iranian compliance with the JCPOA. Iran had an active nuclear weapons program until 2003. Following the allied invasion of Iraq and fearful of its own future, Iran decided to take a multi-step approach to its nuclear ambitions. While it stopped most of the active weapons program, The New York Times reports that Iran was designing nuclear weapons until 2009. Furthermore, it worked on related capabilities including uranium enrichment and ballistic missile delivery systems (a violation of UN Resolution 2231, as acknowledged by French President Emmanuel Macron). And it kept an enormous “library” of nuclear-related programs and plans.
The JCPOA has not been much of an impediment to Iran’s progress. Despite the literal injunction against nuclear weapons for Iran, the deal (unsigned by anyone on any side) was not designed to end Iran’s pursuit of nuclear capability, military or civilian. The JCPOA called only for a “pause” in Iran’s enrichment of uranium and inspection of Iran’s self-declared nuclear facilities, plus self-inspection of the suspect Parchin plant. Iran proclaimed its military installations off-limits to inspectors. The restrictions were to sunset a few years down the road, making the “library” of great value to future Iranian scientists restarting the program.
The “library” should have been turned over to the IAEA to meet Iran’s JCPOA obligation to come clean on its prior nuclear weapons research. It wasn’t. It was hidden until Israel’s Mossad removed 55,000 pages plus 55,000 files on 183 CDs. The Mossad cache has been deemed authentic by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and will be shared with the IAEA and others, according to the Israeli Foreign Ministry.
Listening to the Prime Minister, it was hard to suppress a sigh. Despite the magnificence of the intelligence coup, the information presented largely tracked with what most people thought they “knew” about Iran and its malign influence. It turns out most people were right.
- Most people “knew” Iran was lying about its prior program and its current activities. When the IAEA says Iran is “in compliance,” it means Iran is in compliance regarding those facilities Iran permits to be inspected. The IAEA doesn’t request to inspect those it knows it will be denied.
- Most people “knew” Iran never intended to give up its goal of having nuclear weapons. By its sunset clause, the JCPOA was ever only designed as a delaying mechanism.
- Most people knew Iran’s goal – shared by the Obama administration – was to obtain a financial windfall that it could use to help the Iranian economy or wreak havoc across the region in Syria and Yemen.
- Most people knew it wouldn’t be spent on the Iranian economy.
- Most people understood that Iran’s broader objective was and remains regional hegemony and Shiite expansionism. The Obama administration allowed the U.S. Navy to be harassed in the Persian Gulf and did not object to Iran’s military entry into Syria or Yemen.
- Most people assumed Iran was cheating on the terms of the JCPOA, although the Prime Minister’s clarity on the extent of the cheating was welcome and stunning. Certainly Gerard Araud, French Ambassador to the United States, knew Iran was cheating. He tweeted after Netanyahu’s presentation, “All the agreement is based on the assumption that they may lie! That’s the reason of the monitoring mechanism. Cheaters are a risk you take into account in any negotiation.”
So, the question is, what should the world – specifically the United States – do about what it knows? President Trump appears to have two broad options: to withdraw the U.S. from the deal, or to offer French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel more time to create a framework that better serves Western interests.
There are three elements that would help secure Western interests: inspection of “military” sites – or any sites Iran presently forbids; removal of the “sunset” clauses; and enforcement of the UN restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missile program. Iran has no reason to agree to any of the three, and the West has no assurance that – even if it did – it wouldn’t cheat.
Iran is a problem that needs redress at many levels – support for voices of (real) moderation inside Iran, economic sanctions on Revolutionary Guard leadership and the Mullahs, and better enforcement of UN restrictions on Iranian arms sales and arms purchases would be a start. But the big fish is withdrawal from the JCPOA.
Withdrawing would make it clear that a) the United States and its allies (if only Israel in this case) have the means to uncover Iranian cheating, and b) are willing to walk away from cheating that can’t be tolerated and won’t be stopped.