President Donald Trump’s decision last week to withdraw the United States from Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) has occasioned a lot of hand-wringing by his critics (and by fans of his predecessor Barack Obama).
After all, the storyline goes Iran was adhering to the deal, so the United States was damaging its credibility by trashing a deal that it had entered into. Of course, that doesn’t tell the whole story. President Obama, knowing that he couldn’t sell the deal to the American people and their representatives, made an executive agreement. But governing effectively means playing by the Constitution’s rules even when it’s inconvenient. (Funny how none of Obama’s acolytes, who tell us that Trump is destroying our democracy, seem the least bit bothered by Obama’s blatant disregard of the Constitution.)
And, of course, the idea that the deal was an eminently sensible trade-off, of Iran giving up some of its nuclear infrastructure in exchange for sanctions relief understates what was demanded of Iran, and what Iran was granted.
The Washington Post featured a hysterical editorial titled, Trump’s Iran decision just brought us closer to war, when, in fact as Trump remarked, “Since the agreement, Iran’s bloody ambitions have grown only more brazen.” The corresponding editorial in The New York Times asked, Where’s That Better Deal, Mr. Trump?
It’s a good jumping-off point, because before criticizing Trump for withdrawing from the JCPOA, how did the JCPOA work by the standards of the President Barack Obama? This isn’t an idle question, because the previous administration left a detailed explanation of why the deal was good. On several major claims, the standards laid out by the Obama administration have been shown to be wrong, not even three years later.
In the White House archives, you can find a point by point defense of The Historic Deal that Will Prevent Iran from Acquiring a Nuclear Weapon (to be referred to as Historic Deal from here on in). The document is shocking in its use of straw men and absence of much substance.
Never Say Never
According to the word “prevent,” the deal should mean that it has the ability to ensure that Iran can never develop a nuclear weapon. Or as President Obama put it in his American University speech, “I have stated that Iran will never be allowed to obtain a nuclear weapon.”
In its section on sunset clauses, Historic Deal states:
Put simply, under this deal, there is a permanent prohibition on Iran ever having a nuclear weapons program and a permanent inspections regime that goes beyond any previous inspections regime in Iran. This deal provides the IAEA the means to make sure Iran isn’t doing so, both through JCPOA-specific verification tools, some of which last up to 25 years,and through the Additional Protocol that lasts indefinitely. In addition, Iran made commitments in this deal that include prohibitions on key research and development activities that it would need to design and construct a nuclear weapon. Those commitments have no end date.
The Additional Protocol (AP) is an addendum to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which Iran has said that it will implement and promises to ratify in the future. It has not ratified the AP yet. So even if you believe that Iran ratifying the AP means that it will observe it, it has not ratified it. We have its word that it will.
True, Iran “made commitments” not to develop a nuclear weapon. These commitments are contained in Section T of the JCPOA. But guess what? Yukiyo Amano, the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said last year that his organization does not have the “tools” to verify Iran’s compliance with Section T.
Additionally, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent press conference revealing that the Mossad had spirited out of Iran thousands of files documenting Iran’s nuclear weapons research shows that the IAEA did not know of significant amounts of Iran’s nuclear weapons work. Speaking about equipment revealed by Netanyahu, former Deputy Director General of the IAEA, Olli Heinonen remarked, “They must have manufactured pieces of equipment in Iran. Where are those pieces? Who is keeping them?”
In other words, the “permanent inspections regime that goes beyond any previous inspections regime” lacked critical information to ensure that Iran wasn’t cheating. But the problem with the assertion that the deal prevents Iran from acquiring or developing nuclear weapons is that even one of the deal’s biggest supporters doesn’t even make that claim.
In his recent visit to Washington, French President Emmanuel Macron said that one of the things he needed to discuss with Trump is the nuclear deal, “The first one is to block any nuclear activity of Iran until 2025. This was feasible thanks to the JCPOA.” So the JCPOA is only sufficient to delay Iran from developing a nuclear weapon for nine years (the JCPOA’s implementation began in 2016)! Macron, in fact, wasn’t really saying anything new, even Obama, in a rare moment of candor about the deal acknowledged that Iran could have a breakout time of zero before the end of the deal. (Obama later, unconvincingly, tried to walk back his inconvenient admission.)
In any case “prevent” and “never” are absolutes, and, given Macron’s remarks, it’s clear that the deal is designed only to delay Iran developing a nuclear weapon. And even at the best, the prevention wouldn’t take place unless the inspections regime was a lot more comprehensive than we’ve seen so far.
“America will not be held hostage to nuclear blackmail”
Historic Deal explained that agreeing to end embargoes on Iran from exporting conventional weapons after five years, and ballistic missiles after eight years, wasn’t really a concession.
While some of our P5 partners wanted these restrictions lifted immediately, we pushed back and were successful in keeping them for 5 and 8 more years or until the IAEA reaches its broader conclusion. And even after those restrictions are ultimately lifted, we have strong multilateral and unilateral tools, including sanctions, to continue to restrict Iranian conventional arms and missile-related transfers. We have strong support from the international community on these issues.
That combined with the size of the U.S. economy, the power of our financial system, and the reach of U.S. unilateral measures gives us enormous leverage to work with other countries to enforce restrictions on Iranian missile and arms activity. All of the other multilateral and unilateral tools that remain in place are in no way impacted by the JCPOA, in any phase of its implementation.
These embargoes should never have been on the table. The Obama administration consistently said that the deal was only about Iran’s nuclear weapons not any of its other destabilizing behavior. So why did it give in to “partners” who wanted to participate in arms trade with Iran?
In fact earlier this year, a United Nations experts panel determined that Iran was violating a ban on exporting weapons to Yemen’s Houthi rebels. So, in fact, even with the shortened extensions, Iran is violating those weapons export bans. In fact, the weapons bans are written into United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231, which implements the nuclear deal. So even if you choose to argue (mistakenly) that Iran has not violated any of the nuclear aspects of the deal, it is violating the deal.
No action has been taken about these violations. Nor was any action taken when Iran sent the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC)-Qods Force Gen. Qassem Soleimani to Moscow to enlist Russia’s support in helping Bashar Assad put down the rebellion against his rule in Syria. Soleimani first traveled to Moscow in July 2015, despite being under an international travel ban. The United States complained about this blatant violation of international law but ultimately did nothing. With Russian and Iranian help, Assad successfully turned things around in the civil war and, quite brutally, has since regained in the upper hand.
So yes the United States had “enormous leverage,” but under Obama the U.S. never used it, presumably because the president did not want to upset his Iranian partners to the nuclear deal, and feared that they would back out if he didn’t let them have their way in Syria. This is the “nuclear blackmail” that Trump said that he would no longer be subject to.
Frankly, it appears that the Israelis last week did more to stem the tide of Iranian arms shipments than anything the JCPOA accomplished.
Money for Nothing
Historic Deal also said that it wasn’t true that Iran would receive $150 billion from sanctions relief.
First, the $150 billion figure is entirely off base: the Treasury Department estimates that, should Iran complete its key nuclear steps and receive sanctions relief, Iran will be able to freely access about a third of that figure in overseas foreign reserves — a little over $50 billion. Further, we will continue to aggressively enforce sanctions against Iran’s support for terrorism, human rights abuses, missile program, and destabilizing activities in the region. Secondly, money Iran receives from sanctions relief is likely to be directed primarily towards pressing economic needs given the more than half a trillion dollars in investment and government obligations Iran faces.
Don’t forget it was these economic needs at home that helped bring Iran to the table, and President Rouhani will be under intense pressure to deliver results at home. Further, a nuclear-armed Iran would be a much greater terrorist threat to the region than an Iran that has access to additional amounts of its own money.
NPR, citing the Treasury Department at the time of the deal, reported that the sanctions relief would be worth $100 billion to Iran. That’s less than $150 billion, but twice the $50 billion figure listed here.
What we’ve seen in the past two and a half years is heightened Iranian support of Hezbollah, the Houthis, Assad, and the Popular Mobilization Units in Iraq. Or as Trump so succinctly put it, Iran’s “bloody ambitions have grown” since the deal. The windfall was not “directed primarily towards pressing economic needs” in Iran.
The fact that the Iranian regime has apparently overreached, sparking incredible discontent, is perhaps the only silver lining on an absolutely awful and deadly policy.
But worse than freeing up money for the Iranian regime to expand the scope of its aggression in the Middle East, the forgiving of past nuclear sins signaled to Iran that it had the license to pursue its ambitions. Knowing that the West more interested in the deal than in checking its regional ambitions, Iran aggressively asserted itself throughout the Middle East.
Fox in the Henhouse
In perhaps the most strongly worded argument, Historic Deal asserted, “No. There is no ‘self-inspection’ of Iranian facilities, and the IAEA has in no way given responsibility for nuclear inspections to Iran. Not now and certainly not in the future.”
But of course, in two months’ time, the IAEA got to inspect Iran’s Parchin military base … remotely, as Iranian scientists gathered the evidence that the inspectors told them to. We have no idea how correctly the Iranians did their job because the IAEA was not physically present inside Parchin. So yes, Iran did self-inspect.
(Historic Deal also asserted that there were no secret side deals, and, in fact, there was a secret side deal obtained by the Associated Press, showing that Iran would be allowed to use its own “experts and equipment” to take samples from the suspected nuclear weapons site at Parchin.)
Remarkably, the IAEA found particles of uranium in the samples taken from Parchin. Despite the fact that the Obama administration recognized that these particles were likely part of an Iranian nuclear weapons program, it recklessly shut down the IAEA investigation and went on to implement the deal.
Iran had been obligated to come clean about its past nuclear weapons work before the JCPOA was implemented. Secretary of State John Kerry had, at one point, emphatically told Judy Woodruff that Iran would have to admit to its past nuclear weapons work, “No. They have to do it. It will be done. If there’s going to be a deal; it will be done.” But later said that the P5+1 nations negotiating with Iran were “not fixated” on Iran’s past nuclear weapons work. He further claimed, “We know what they did.” “We have no doubt,” he added, “We have absolute knowledge with respect to certain military activities they were engaged in.”
In fact, what the Mossad operation showed is that the world did not have “absolute knowledge” of the full extent of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. This made the secret side deal to allow Iran to self-inspect even more outrageous.
“If You’re not at the table, you’re on the menu”
Historic Deal also denied that the deal betrayed Israel:
Our commitment to Israel’s security is ironclad, and this deal is the best way to ensure that Iran will never be able to threaten Israel with a nuclear weapon.
Under President Obama, U.S-Israeli security, defense and intelligence assistance and cooperation have reached unprecedented levels. The United States is also helping Israel address new and complex security threats to ensure Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge (QME). Our defense establishments, including top scientists and technical experts, are working together to provide Israel new capabilities to detect and destroy terror tunnels before they are used to threaten Israeli civilians and to build highly effective rocket and missile defense systems to protect the Israeli people. The U.S. is also helping Israel improve its cyber-defenses.
We won’t for a second take our eye off the ball on any of the anti-Israel actions and rhetoric we see from Iran, and now we can focus on countering those without the threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon.
Note how this answer doesn’t address Iran’s nuclear program until the end. Of course, if the deal fails to ensure that Iran doesn’t develop a nuclear weapon, the threat remains very real.
Kerry, of course, said that the United States would enforce UNSC Resolution 1701 that forbids anyone from transferring weapons to Hezbollah. The U.S. didn’t make any effort to enforce 1701. Only Israel, with airstrikes into Syria, did anything to enforce 1701. The UN was (and is) useless.
But more to the point, Israel’s former national security advisor Gen. Yaakov Amidror wrote in his assessment of the deal:
From the moment that the policy in Washington changed, and there was no longer any intention of actually dismantling Iran’s nuclear capabilities, it was clear to the Americans that it would be impossible to include Israel in the negotiations. The US therefore shifted to conducting secret negotiations that it hid from Israel.
While the importance of personal relations should not be underestimated, this US decision to keep the details of the negotiations with Iran from Israel stemmed from the fundamental understanding that, following the shift in American policy, Israel would not be able to agree with the purpose of the negotiations, nor in any case involved in an active capacity.
As long as the purpose of the negotiations was shared and agreed-upon, Israel went along with the US, and did nothing that might upset the process. As soon as the US decided to make do with delaying Iran’s getting the bomb, by a fixed time period, then Israel was left on the outside – not because of the strained relations between the president and the prime minister, but because of significant differences of opinion. Subsequently, although the American negotiators did make use of Israeli experts, Israel was not involved in the central deliberations.
In short, the U.S. knowingly adopted a goal of negotiations that was at odds with Israel’s declared interests. I can’t imagine a clearer act of betrayal.
The Israeli Ambassador to the United States described the dynamic, “If you’re not sitting around the table, you’re usually on the menu.” The P5+1 were negotiating the fate of the Middle East with Iran, and no one from the region, not even America’s ally, Israel, had a say in the outcome.
It’s not surprising that Historic Deal is filled with so much distortion, the JCPOA was conceived and executed in a reckless manner. Rather than the Kerry mantra that “No deal is better than a bad deal,” the Obama administration was driven by “Better any deal than no deal.” Even Obama’s insistence that no better deal was available confirms that. Obama also spoke about the leverage the P5+1 had as getting Iran to negotiate, not as a means to achieve an agreement on its terms, not Iran’s.
Deal supporters will blasts Trump but won’t look at the very standards that Obama set out to justify his deal. This shouldn’t be my job; this should be the job of journalists. But journalism is dead. Journalism isn’t anymore about finding the truth, about confirming the narrative.
Part of the narrative is “Obama is good; Trump is bad.” Of course, Obama’s signal foreign policy achievement is good beyond all doubt. In truth, it is a dismal failure by the very standards that Obama himself put out. This is what Trump saw and why he nixed the deal.DONATE
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