Ryan Costello joined NIAC in April 2013 as a Policy Fellow and now serves as Policy Director. In this role, Ryan monitors legislation, conducts research and writing, and coordinates advocacy efforts. Ryan previously served as a Program Associate at the Connect U.S. Fund, where he focused on nuclear non-proliferation policy.
This morning, Iraqi militiamen and protestors enraged by U.S. strikes against Kataib Hezbollah, an Iraqi Shia militia, breached the U.S. Embassy walls in Baghdad. In what is perhaps the biggest political crisis for the U.S. in Iraq since the rise of ISIS, all segments of Iraqi society have condemned the U.S. strikes. The incident underscores how the administration’s so-called maximum pressure campaign against Iran continues to directly harm U.S. interests across the Middle East.
Below are key takeaways and background on this still-developing event:
- The exchange of fire with Iraqi Shia militias, and the overrunning of part of the Iraqi embassy in response, is yet another sign of the failure of maximum pressure – thanks to maximum pressure we have Iran reducing compliance with the U.S.-abandoned nuclear deal, a more combustible Middle East and an increasingly dire human rights situation in Iran.
- The incident underscores that Iran retains both direct and indirect options to escalate, while the Trump administration has exhausted most of its non-kinetic options. In recent months Iran has taken steps to expand its previously restricted nuclear program. Moreover, the Trump administration has blamed Iran for a wide array of escalatory activities, including the targeting of oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz; an attack on a major Saudi Aramco oil facility; and the recent attacks from Shia militias against U.S. targets in Iraq. In contrast, President Trump sanctioned the U.S. out of influence with Iran and refuses to back off maximum pressure to jumpstart negotiations.
- The strikes on Shia militias have been strongly condemned by a wide array of political forces in Iraq, from Grand Ayatollah Sistani to President Barham Salih, Interim-Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, influential cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and many others.
- As a result, the U.S military and political position in Iraq is now under serious threat. Sadr has said he would seek the expulsion of U.S. forces through “legal and political methods.” Iraq’s National Security Council has said they would review their arrangement with the U.S. anti-ISIS coalition. Sadr’s “Saairun” coalition, as well as the other factions who have condemned the attack, together likely have enough votes for parliament to oust the United States.
- Such a clash with a key partner could have been avoided if the U.S. had not exited the nuclear deal in pursuit of maximum pressure. The U.S. has now gone from working with Iranian-backed Iraqi militias to retake territory from ISIS amid implementation of the nuclear deal to directly clashing with them in ways that undermine the feasibility of the US presence in Iraq.
- Both the Iranian and Iraqi governments will benefit from the situation by turning attention away from their respective crackdowns on recent protests. Trump’s team could have chosen a less provocative way to respond – instead, the U.S. continues to provide both governments with a scapegoat for their failings and has violated Iraqi sovereignty in the process.
- Trump increasingly has no choice but to abandon maximum pressure and return to the negotiating table with Iran – but he may foolishly choose to escalate once more. A diplomatic de-escalation leading to a small deal can help Trump politically. Any sort of direct U.S.-Iran military confrontation has the very real potential of quickly engulfing the region in war, increasing the price of oil, and potentially triggering a global recession.
Sequence of Events
- Dozens of angry Iraqi Shiite militia supporters broke into the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad on Tuesday after smashing a main door and setting fire to a reception area, prompting tear gas and stun grenades.
- The ambassador, Matt Tueller, had been traveling and was not at the embassy when it was breached on Tuesday, the State Department said in a statement, as thousands of militiamen and protesters outside the gate denounced U.S. airstrikes in Iraq.
- This comes after the death of an American contractor following a missile attack on a U.S. military base in Iraq, ostensibly by the Kataib Hezbollah, a predominantly-Shia militia in Iraq. The group has denied involvement in the attack. In response, the U.S. conducted five airstrikes in Iraq and Syria on Kataib Hezbollah positions, resulting in almost two dozen dead.
- The Iraqi government appears to have worked with U.S. embassy security to push protesters out of the compound – but only after security forces seemed to tacitly allow them to breach the facility in an apparent reminder that the U.S. presence in Iraq is only possible with the blessing of the central government.
Despite the early stage of the 2020 race, several major Democratic Presidential candidates have already announced their support for returning the U.S. to compliance with the Iran nuclear deal—including Julian Castro, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren. But despite the obvious benefits of returning, some voices have already begun to push back.
Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer, who thoroughly alienated Democrats through his partisan maneuvering during the nuclear negotiations in 2015, has warned that returning to the Iran nuclear deal “has to be seen as totally unacceptable.” Similarly, deal opponents have called on Trump to build a “sanctions wall” to prevent a successor administration from returning to the accord. This much, perhaps, is to be expected. But some Washington experts also appear to be falling for the trap set by deal opponents, by suggesting that Trump may have enhanced U.S. leverage by withdrawing from the deal and re-imposing sanctions. Such notions could not be further from the truth. In fact, outside the nuclear deal, the U.S. has no effective leverage to force new concessions on Iran.
The policymakers sober enough to realize this have much of the rest of world powers for company. The Trump administration’s isolation on Iran is routinely exposed as our former negotiating partners continue to sustain the JCPOA. In contrast to the Obama administration’s efforts to rally the international community behind both sanctions and a diplomatic effort to constrain Iran’s nuclear program, Trump’s approach is met with resistance.
But in March the remaining parties to the accord reiterated their support for full implementation of the deal, describing the JCPOA as “a significant diplomatic achievement of multilateral diplomacy endorsed unanimously by the UN Security Council.” Moreover, Europe has taken initial moves to protect its companies from the extraterritorial reach of U.S. sanctions in a bid to provide Iran with some benefit from its continued compliance with the deal. Those initial steps could be strengthened if the Trump administration escalates its financial war against our estranged allies.
The past 40 years in U.S.-Iran relations have been riddled with missed opportunities. While the Iranians and Clinton administration failed to initiate serious dialogue after Mohammad Khatami’s election, the George W. Bush administration pocketed Tehran’s assistance after the U.S.invasion of Afghanistan, put the country in its “axis of evil,” and ignored its offer for a grand bargain. Under the Trump administration, however, we are likely witnessing the greatest missed opportunity in four decades: a failure to capitalize on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, aka the Iran nuclear deal.
The drama over the resignation of Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif — though it was rejected and withdrawn — underscores how the Trump administration’s imposition of sanctions has undermined moderates and bolstered hardliners. With the Trump administration seeking to collapse the nuclear deal and apparently searching for a casus belli, Tehran has less need of a chief diplomat distinguished by his engagement with the United States. This hardening posture in Iran plays into the hands of hawks on all sides bent on slamming shut the window for negotiations and opening the door to direct confrontation.
Yet there remains a slender path back to the JCPOA and away from war. U.S. policymakers outside the administration — there is little hope about those within it — must speak up about the need to return to the nuclear deal upon Trump’s departure from the White House.
Fortunately, momentum is building to return the United States to compliance with the deal. Most notably, the Democratic National Committee has adopted a resolution calling on the United States to re-enter the JCPOA, effectively prioritizing U.S.-Iran diplomacy as the party shapes its platform ahead of the 2020 elections. Already, several presidential hopefuls have signaled interest in salvaging the deal. Sen. Elizabeth Warren has indicated that she would support returning to the JCPOA if Iran continues to abide by its terms, while Sen. Amy Klobuchar has warned that the United States.can’t balk on the agreement.
“Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is reportedly shocked over the backlash to his government’s killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. In a recent phone call with U.S. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner, according to the Wall Street Journal, his confusion over official Washington’s furor “turned into rage,” as he spoke of feeling “betrayed by the West” and threatened to “look elsewhere” for foreign partners.
Saudi Arabia’s indignation at the United States would not be the first time an autocratic U.S. ally in the Middle East has assumed it could act with virtual impunity due to its alignment with Washington in countering Iran. Indeed, the Saudi prince’s meteoric rise to power bears striking similarities to that of a past U.S. ally-turned-nemesis whose brutality was initially overlooked by his Washington patrons: former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein…”
Several undesirable consequences are becoming more likely.
This week, a set of Iran sanctions previously lifted under the Iran nuclear deal will snap back into effect as part of President Trump’s complete violation of the accord. Thus far, Iran has avoided rash action, instead seeking to secure concessions from Europe, Russia, and China that could reduce the sanctions’ impact. The cautious response may have lulled the Trump administration into thinking its approach is working, but several potential consequences loom on the horizon.
Renewed proliferation: Before the nuclear deal was signed in 2015, Iran’s heavy-water reactor at Arak was close to going online; it could have produced weapons-grade plutonium for several nuclear weapons per year. Moreover, the deeply buried Fordow facility was already being used to enrich uranium. However, under the nuclear accord Iran destroyed the core of the Arak reactor and agreed to redesign it with international partners so that it would not produce significant amounts of weapons-grade plutonium. Similarly, international partners in collaboration with the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, or AEOI, are working to turn Fordow into a research-and-development facility, ensuring that Iran experiments with zinc or other benign materials instead of uranium at the site.
Lawmakers and advocacy groups undertook many steps to weaken the Iran nuclear deal during the Obama era to set up President Trump’s unilateral termination. Last week, Republicans on the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations released a 50-page report delving into the Obama administration’s efforts in early 2016 to ensure that Iran was able to repatriate its own frozen assets held at Bank Muscat in Oman.
Lead author Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) and others, including President Trump, have spun this arrangement as a nefarious side deal aimed at permitting Iran access to the U.S. financial system. However, the report offers key insight into how deal opponents succeeded in hobbling Iran’s relief by securitizing the debate over sanctions relief for Iran, ensuring that any relief for Iran was falsely viewed as a negative for regional and global security and a political liability.
That the U.S. was obligated to take affirmative steps to ensure effective sanctions relief under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) has been greatly under-appreciated and often ignored in Washington. Yet, the text of the agreement is clear that the U.S. and other parties would “agree on steps to ensure Iran’s access in areas of trade, technology, finance, and energy.” This goes beyond U.S. commitments to prevent the re-imposition of sanctions or “interference with the realization of the full benefit by Iran of the sanctions lifting,” which were also commitments under the JCPOA. Instead, it entails affirmative steps that had not been decided to ensure that Iran reconnects with the global economy.
The Oman Connection
At the outset of the JCPOA, Iran was granted access to billions of dollars of its own assets that had been frozen in accounts around the globe. Yet, the repatriation of those assets became a major complication, as detailed by the subcommittee report. In January 2016, Iran sought to convert its assets at Bank Muscat in Oman into euros for future purchases. However, there was a hang-up, as Bank Muscat notified the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) that it would need a U.S. bank to first convert the funds into dollars before they could be converted into euros. Given that the dollar is the world’s reserve currency, dollar-clearing transactions that briefly transit through the U.S. financial system are common. However, dollar clearing through the U.S. financial system for transactions involving Iran had been barred since November 2008 and was not formally lifted by the JCPOA. Absent a license from the Treasury Department to permit the dollar clearing, the conversion of the assets would be far more complicated.
Starting in January 2016, the Iranians asserted that the JCPOA was clear that Iran would have the right to convert its assets “without any qualifications and conditions.” Treasury officials then looked into what sections of the JCPOA would obligate the U.S. to authorize the dollar conversion. They found many—to the apparent surprise of at least one Treasury official.
There was a great deal riding on the JCPOA’s successful implementation. Iran had rolled back its nuclear program and subjected it to intrusive inspections, forestalling the twin threats of both a nuclear-armed Iran and war with Iran over its nuclear program. As Secretary Lew detailed in a speech in March 2016, “to pressure bad actors to change their policy, we must be prepared to provide relief from sanctions when we succeed. If we fail to follow through, we undermine our own credibility and damage our ability to use sanctions to drive policy change.” Thus, not only was the nuclear deal at stake, but also the U.S. ability to trade in the extensive sanctions that remained on the books for further concessions from Iran.
The Obama administration wanted to ensure that it was complying with both the letter and spirit of the JCPOA. It therefore decided to issue a license to Bank Muscat to enable dollar clearing, provided a U.S. bank was willing to engage in the transaction. Despite assurances from the administration, two banks rejected the proposal in February and March 2016 due to reputational risks and fears of being tangled up in ongoing litigation against Iran.
Amid these efforts to enable Iran to repatriate the funds as envisioned under the JCPOA, deal opponents began to put pressure on the administration’s plans. In March, leading Congressional Republicans Ed Royce and Jeb Hensarling pressed Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew on whether Iran would have access to the U.S. financial system, to which he responded “[p]art of the agreement was to give Iran access to money that it has a right to. We will work on making that happen.” Then the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD)—the epicenter of nongovernmental efforts to dismantle the Iran nuclear deal—jumped into the fray. It issued a warning in the Wall Street Journal that Obama was “dollarizing the Ayatollahs” and hinted that Congress would block the administration’s plans. Much more pushback from FDD and congressional Republicans followed.
Sanctions relief for Iran had been effectively securitized. A brief transit from third-party banks to the U.S. and back again involving Iranian assets had been exaggerated as “the ultimate prize” for Iran, generating significant congressional opposition. Such indirect access posed neither a threat nor a cost to the U.S., though it represented a key choke point where deal opponents could limit Iran’s relief under the accord.
With rising domestic opposition and without a U.S. bank willing to engage in the exchange, the Obama administration appears to have backed down from both efforts involving the Bank Muscat assets and additional plans to put forward a general license to permit dollar clearing. The administration continued to insist publicly that Iran would not have access to the U.S. financial system, while discussions aimed at resolving the issue with both the Federal Reserve Bank and German Central Bank in April 2016 “faded with no resolution.” That same month, Secretary Kerry boasted that predictions of an Iranian windfall were inaccurate since Iran had only received roughly $3 billion of its frozen assets abroad to date. This, of course, angered the Iranians who were still trying to get their assets repatriated. According to the subcommittee report, by January 2017—a full year later—the assets were still sitting in Bank Muscat. The report indicates that Bank Muscat may have “eventually found a way to make small fund transfers without the use of the U.S. financial system,” a far more painstaking approach that apparently took some time to arrange.
Disincentive for Business
The subcommittee report details how important the dollar-clearing issue was for many banks and businesses considering transactions involving Iran. In the hundreds of “roadshows” the Obama administration engaged in to clarify U.S. sanctions policy between August 2015 and July 2016, “one of the most asked questions at these meetings concerned details about access to the U.S. dollar,” according to the report. Licensing banks to clear dollars through the U.S. financial system would have provided substantial reassurance to foreign firms considering reentry into the Iranian market as permitted by the JCPOA. Given the tremendous complication of engaging in any substantial trade with Iran while avoiding the U.S. financial system, combined with a murky political situation in both Tehran and Washington, many businesses chose to stay out of the Iranian market entirely. A May 2016 survey of companies interested in doing business in Iran showed that more than half were wary of reengaging in the Iranian market out of fear of running afoul of U.S. sanctions.
The end result was many deals inked, including the sale of U.S. manufactured Boeing aircraft to Iran, but few realized. With less ongoing business in Iran, Trump’s decision to snap back sanctions and kill the deal despite Iran’s compliance with its nonproliferation obligations was made all the easier. Congressional Republicans, and JCPOA opponents like FDD that sought to stifle Iran’s benefits under the accord, deserve a tremendous share of the blame for the agreement’s ultimate collapse.
Likely the greatest tragedy to this episode is that the Iranian people have been denied the sanctions relief that they made possible by pushing, against the odds, for greater moderation from their government. Sanctions empower authoritarian regimes, as they did previously in Iran by expanding the political and commercial power of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Now, rather than incentivize moderation by effective implementation of sanctions relief under the JCPOA, the U.S. has empowered the hardliners in Iran who warned that the U.S. could never be trusted to lift sanctions.
In announcing his intent to kill the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) President Trump argued that Iran’s “bloody ambitions
have grown only more brazen” under the Iran deal. Trump cited a 40% increase in Iranian military spending as evidence of Iran’s supposedly worsening behavior and later claimed Iran is “trying to take over the Middle East by whatever means necessary. Now, that will not happen!” In his speech detailing a “new” Iran strategy, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo doubled down on these assertions, stating “Iran advanced its march across the Middle East during the JCPOA.”
However, claims that the Iran nuclear deal resulted in a dramatic escalation of Iran’s confrontational behavior, or a drive to conquer the Middle East, have never been matched by the facts. Trump and Pompeo are not the inventors of this false narrative. But by putting it at the center of their argument for killing the Iran nuclear deal, they are providing a deceptive and dangerous cover for efforts that will not just unravel hard-won constraints on Iran’s nuclear program, but likely make Iran’s regional behavior far more challenging.
Iran’s economy did rebound under the nuclear accord, leading to increased spending – including on Iran’s military. However, as the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency testified last year, the preponderance of Iran’s relief from sanctions under the deal went to “economic development and infrastructure.” That directly undercuts Pompeo’s assertion that Iran’s leaders “refused” to try to boost the economic aspirations of the Iranian people. According to data from SIPRI, as a share of overall government spending, Iranian military expenditures also remained almost the same: 15.8% in 2017, compared to 15.4% in 2015. In 2012, amid the height of sanctions pressure against Iran, the rate was 19.3%. So, while Iran increased military spending, it appears to be consistent with government spending increases across the board.
Moreover, there are two other factors that should be considered when thinking about Iran’s escalated military spending. First any state that verifiably restricts its ability to get nuclear weapons is likely to invest in its conventional capabilities, as the Obama administration indicated would be the case when defending the JCPOA. It’s hard to argue that the U.S. has been worse off with Iran seeking conventional rather than nuclear capabilities. Second, Iran’s spending has not occurred in a vacuum, but as the U.S. sells Saudi Arabia billions in weaponry amid a regional proxy war. American assistance to Saudi Arabia means that even with Iran’s increased defense spending, Iran remains outspent militarily by Saudi Arabia alone at a 5:1 rate.
Iran’s sporadic ballistic missile testing – accentuated by threats against Israel – has been one of the more inflammatory steps Iran took amid the deal’s implementation. Yet, Iran had largely paused its missile testing amid the nuclear negotiations, and then resumed its testing at a frequency largely consistent with past practices once the deal began to go into effect. Moreover, Iran appears to have prioritized shorter-range systems aimed at regional deterrence and restrained its fielding of longer-range missile systems better suited for nuclear weapons delivery. In fact, by dramatically reducing the risk of Iran obtaining fissile material and potentially slowing Iran’s missile development, the JCPOA significantly reduced the threat of Iran’s missile program. Terminating the JCPOA will only make the program more dangerous, not less.
JCPOA critics have also focused on Iran’s backing of Assad in Syria’s civil war, and the Assad coalition’s improving position in recent years, as evidence of Iran’s “hegemonic ambitions” since the nuclear deal went into effect. However, Iran’s backing of Assad in the civil war preceded the start of nuclear negotiations. Given Iran’s long-standing interest in avoiding the overthrow of one of its only geopolitical allies, it is difficult to argue that Iran’s support for Assad would have been any different if nuclear negotiations never began or the JCPOA was never struck. Moreover, opponents to the Iran deal conveniently ignore perhaps the biggest factor that shifted the tide of war- Russia’s entry into the conflict, which had little to do with Iran or the nuclear accord.
Instead, deal critics might have a better case to make in Yemen, as Houthi rebels seized the capital Sanaa in late 2014 amid ongoing nuclear negotiations. However, that seizure was over Iranian objections, and while Iran appears to have increased its once limited backing of the rebels as the conflict has dragged on, that support is still comparatively low cost. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has escalated its bloody and brazen bombing campaign of Yemen with the full backing of the Trump administration.
Further complicating the narrative of an increasingly dangerous Iran is that Iran and its proxies were vital to the rollback of U.S. arch-enemy ISIS. Moreover, this cooperation with Iran was pocketed by the U.S. and is now conveniently ignored by the Trump administration. Additionally, there were several signs that Iran took steps to reduce the risk of escalation in recent months. Iran had abstained from testing missiles since last summer, paused their harassment of U.S. naval ships in the Persian Gulf and avoided striking back in response to Israeli strikes on Iranian positions in Syria until Trump shredded the deal. With Iranian hardliners vindicated by Trump’s decision, it is likely that any recent caution will soon evaporate.
The nuclear deal contained Iran’s nuclear program and – contrary to Trump’s claims – did not significantly alter Iran’s regional ambitions or activities. It is critically important for policymakers concerned that Trump has re-opened the door to an Iranian nuclear weapon and war not to back down in the face of Trump’s hyped threats or, worse, to accede to the administration’s efforts to punish Europe for seeking to uphold the nuclear accord. Policymakers have already seen the consequences of accepting hyped threats as fact in the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. With Iran, there is little excuse for policymakers who fail to rein Trump in and doom themselves to repeating history.
When the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was announced in 2015, the Iranian people poured into the streets to celebrate what they thought was the beginning of a new era.
Long squeezed by both U.S. pressure and their own government, they had just cause for optimism. The threat of war was receding, and the sanctions that had stifled Iran’s economy were soon to be lifted. Many hoped that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani ― vindicated by his success at the negotiating table ― would leverage his political capital and ease Iran’s harsh security environment at home.
Today, as U.S. President Donald Trump tears up the agreement, the Iranian people are once again those who will suffer most. Iranian hardliners, empowered by the deal’s failure, are sharpening their knives for Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, and the chances of catastrophic war are undoubtedly greater.
Iran did everything it needed to to comply with the accord’s terms, destroying the core of its reactor at Arak, empowering International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors and dramatically limiting its uranium enrichment program. Sanctions were initially lifted under President Barack Obama, and Iran saw some limited relief. But that long-overdue optimism was quickly halted by the election of Trump, who vowed to terminate the agreement struck under his predecessor. Iran’s hopes for a brighter future had been turned over to a reality TV star turned demagogue.
Doubts about whether Trump actually meant what he said during his volatile campaign were put to rest in the first week of his presidency, when he banned Iranians and many others from entering the United States on the basis of little more than bigotry.
Shortly after the ban, Trump began subjecting the nuclear deal to a death by a thousand cuts. Major deals with international companies like Boeing never came to fruition. European banks, fearful of U.S. sanctions that remained on the books, refused to re-enter the Iranian market. Moreover, Trump and his top officials repeatedly violated the accord, warning foreign companies against doing business with Iran while leaving the implementation of U.S. commitments in doubt.
And in March, Trump began elevating the most caustic voices on Iran to key national security positions. John Bolton, who has never stopped calling for bombing Iran and took money from a despised Iranian terrorist cult that seeks regime change, became national security adviser. Mike Pompeo, one of the foremost opponents of the nuclear deal, is now secretary of state. The threat of war has returned, this time more imminent than ever before.
Many Iranians are again feeling hopeless ― due to a variety of factors, not the least of which is an economy stifled by sanctions ― a fact that manifested in December and January when Iran was rocked by the largest protests since the 2009 Green Movement. Yet, many stayed home ― not out of support for the regime but out of fear for what might come next.
Now the hardline narrative ― that the United States cannot be trusted and will never lift the sanctions ― has been vindicated by Trump’s shortsighted and self-serving decision to abrogate the nuclear accord. The hardliners seek to seize back all levers of power from moderates like Rouhani and Zarif, to destroy hopes for reform and to ensure the elevation of a hardline successor to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. If they succeed in doing so, it will mean greater repression at home and escalation abroad.
Yet, much like hardliners in Washington, Iranian hardliners have no good “plan B” for what comes after the deal. And, given the suddenness of Trump’s decision to rip up the deal without an Iranian violation, Rouhani and Zarif have been given one last chance to salvage nuclear compromise and to prevent Trump’s war cabinet from finding a justification to put their war and regime change plans into place.
European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini has vowed that Europe will stick with its commitments under the deal, acting within its security interests and protecting its economic investments. French President Emmanuel Macron has warned that Trump’s decision threatens the very fabric of the nonproliferation regime. Critically, Rouhani as well has indicated that Iran can achieve benefits under the JCPOA without the United States. This sets the stage for a last-ditch effort for Europe, Russia, China and Iran to negotiate a follow-on deal, with Europe taking steps to mitigate the effects of U.S. sanctions re-imposition and protecting companies doing business with Iran.
But the chances for such a follow-on agreement, even absent Trump, are slim.
Europe, in particular, is extremely vulnerable to U.S. sanctions, and Europe has been slow to recognize that its best hope for keeping the nuclear deal rests not with cultivating Trump but in blocking Trump. Israel and Saudi Arabia also hold many cards that could short-circuit diplomacy and drag the United States into direct military confrontation.
The majority of the Iranian people, though, have little choice but to hope that Rouhani and Zarif can navigate these treacherous waters, lest Iran be torn apart by outside powers, just like Iraq and Syria before them.
Many were surprised Monday night when, responding to Netanyahu’s presentation digging up old details of Iran’s nuclear program, the White House issued a statement claiming the details verified what the U.S. has long known: that “Iran HAS a robust, clandestine nuclear weapons program that it has tried and failed to hide from the world and from its own people.”
However, Iran signed a nuclear deal in 2015 that ensures that Iran does NOT have an active nuclear weapons program, as the International Atomic Energy Agency has verified repeatedly since the deal went into place in January 2016. The White House quickly backtracked, correcting the statement to say that Iran “had” a nuclear weapons program and describing the error as a “typo.” Unfortunately, there is strong evidence that it was not a typo, but instead exactly what Trump’s national security advisers want the public to believe and are telling the President behind closed doors. The end result is likely to be the unraveling of a working nonproliferation agreement and an escalation toward another disastrous war of choice in the Middle East.
The word choice was likely that of John Bolton, Trump’s national security advisor who has repeatedly and unabashedly called for bombing Iran, discounting basic facts about the nuclear accord in the process. Bolton, of course, believes that Iran HAS an active nuclear weapons program. In January, a few months before his appointment to the White House, hewrote in The Wall Street Journal that “there is no evidence Iran’s intention to obtain deliverable nuclear weapons has wavered.” To arrive at that assertion, one must discount the facts that Iran ripped out 13,000 of its centrifuges, halted uranium enrichment at the deeply buried Fordow nuclear facility, destroyed the core of its reactor at Arak and invited nuclear inspectors in to inspect its entire nuclear cycle. Yet, Bolton did so just before arriving in the White House.
Perhaps you think Bolton miswrote in the Wall Street Journal? Think again. In October, when detailing a plan to withdraw from the nuclear deal and prepare for war and regime change in Iran, Bolton stated that the deal shields Iran’s “ongoing efforts to develop deliverable nuclear weapons.” There are 159 pages of the Iran nuclear deal, not to mention countless IAEA reports, that could be entered into evidence to disprove Bolton’s notion. You could also go back further. Bolton addressed the cult-like Mujahedin-e-Khalq in July, which was designated as a terrorist organization until 2011 and still seeks the violent overthrow of the Iranian regime, stating contrary to any evidence that Iran continues to “work with North Korea on nuclear weapons.”
President Trump has threatened to put the U.S. into material breach of the Iran nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), by failing to renew nuclear sanctions waivers by the May 12 deadline. As a result, it is necessary for policymakers to think clearly regarding the consequences of a U.S. material breach of the accord, including the collapse of the JCPOA, Iranian nuclear expansion, diminished U.S. influence with its allies, and a growing threat of war under Trump and his hawkish advisors.
Immediate Breach of the Accord
If the President refuses to waive sanctions on May 12, nuclear-related sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran passed via Section 1245 of the FY2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) would snap back into place, resulting in an immediate material breach of the JCPOA. Under this provision, countries must reduce their oil purchases from Iran or the U.S. will cut off that country’s financial institutions that transact with Iranian banks from the American economy. This would not reimpose all of the sanctions that the U.S. is obligated to waive – the next sanctions waiver deadline is 60 days later and pertains to the vast majority of nuclear-related sanctions. But by targeting both oil sales and banking, driving down oil sales and forcing companies to withdraw from the Iranian market, the U.S. would not just violate the agreement but would be unravelling the core of Iran’s incentives to remain compliant with the terms of the JCPOA.
Even if the administration seeks to dull the initial impact by delaying enforcement, as some have suggested may be its plan, the failure to waive will result in a material breach of the agreement. The text of the JCPOA also makes clear that a failure to waive sanctions on May 12 would result in an immediate breach. The U.S. is obligated to “cease the application” of nuclear-related sanctions including the Central Bank sanctions contained in Section 1245 of the FY12 NDAA. Moreover, the U.S. has committed to “refrain from re-introducing or re-imposing the sanctions” lifted under the deal, while the JCPOA indicates Iran will treat such re-imposition “as grounds to cease performing its commitments under this JCPOA in whole or in part.” As former administration officials Rob Malley and Colin Kahl recently wrote, “in the absence of Iranian violations of the deal, the United States would be in material breach of the agreement the moment Trump refuses to waive U.S. sanctions, even as the deal’s other signatories remain party to it.”
The Trump administration has already violated the JCPOA repeatedly by any objective measure, including by actively warning foreign companies against doing any business in Iran, refusing to issue licenses for the sale of aircraft to Iran and holding U.S. implementation of the accord in doubt. While these violations have been serious, they have not struck directly at the core of the bargain. Reinstating oil sanctions would be a direct attack on the core benefit and put the U.S. in material breach.
Death of the Deal
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has indicated that if the U.S. withdraws from the accord, Iran will do the same. The JCPOA includes a dispute resolution mechanism wherein Iran would be able to file an official complaint regarding U.S. failure to meet its sanctions-lifting obligations, a forum where the U.S. would be isolated following a U.S. breach. If Trump refused to correct the breach, Iran “could treat the unresolved issue as grounds to cease performing its commitments, in whole or in part, and/or notify the UN Security Council that it believes the issue constitutes significant non-performance,” according to the text of the agreement. In other words, Iran would have sufficient grounds to orchestrate a withdrawal from its JCPOA obligations while pinning the blame on the United States.
Other Iranian officials have suggested that Iran will resume many of its nuclear activities that deeply concerned the international community prior to the JCPOA. While it is unclear precisely how far Iran would go, Iran could:
- Bring advanced centrifuges online or resume enrichment at the deeply-buried Fordow nuclear site;
- Begin enriching uranium beyond 3.67%, potentially up to 20% or higher;
- Expand beyond 300 kg of enriched uranium to sufficient quantities for multiple nuclear weapons with further enrichment;
- Limit International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspector access, including access to suspect undeclared sites, uranium mines and mills and centrifuge production facilities.
Iranian officials have also suggested that their commitment to the Non-Proliferation Treaty – the foundation of the non-proliferation regime – could be jeopardized by a JCPOA withdrawal. While that would be an extreme measure that could ratchet up tensions significantly, the possibility cannot be ruled out in the event of a shocking unilateral U.S. rupture of a carefully-crafted diplomatic agreement that was narrowly secured against the opposition of many hardline interests in Tehran..
Isolated from Allies
It is no coincidence that both French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel traveled to Washington the same week, shortly before the May 12 deadline, to speak with Trump about the JCPOA. America’s European allies are extremely concerned that Trump will follow through and terminate a deal that is in the best interests of the transatlantic relationship, global security and the nonproliferation regime, with devastating results.
Macron has made clear that he is willing to work with Trump to address issues outside the scope of the JCPOA, including Iran’s missile program and regional security issues such as Syria, as part of a “grand bargain.” There are numerous uncertainties regarding Macron’s approach – after all, Iran would likely be unwilling to engage on a new deal when the U.S. has failed to implement the JCPOA. However, it is also clear that the U.S. would forfeit such coordination with its allies if the foundation of the JCPOA is terminated by a unilateral U.S. withdrawal, as Macron warned is still the most likely outcome.
As more than 500 members of the United Kingdom, French and German parliaments recently warned in an unprecedented letter to the U.S. Congress, “if the deal breaks down, it will well-nigh be impossible to assemble another grand coalition built around sanctions against Iran. We must preserve what took us a decade to achieve and has proven to be effective.” Absent the leverage provided by close cooperation with our allies, there is no chance for a “better deal,” and serious risks that there would be no deal after the JCPOA whatsoever.
If Trump follows through and terminates the JCPOA, the U.S. will be put in the difficult position of threatening sanctions on the foremost companies of many friendly countries – including those in Europe, South Korea, India and beyond. This could result in a trade war if those countries take actions to protect their companies from U.S. sanctions enforcement. Moreover, as former Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew warned in 2016, “if foreign jurisdictions and companies feel that we will deploy sanctions without sufficient justification or for inappropriate reasons—secondary sanctions in particular—we should not be surprised if they look for ways to avoid doing business in the United States or in U.S. dollars.”
Another War of Choice
The elevation of John Bolton to National Security Advisor and Mike Pompeo to Secretary of State ensures that at least two individuals who prefer an Iran war to Iran diplomacy will be advising Trump on the JCPOA and broader Iran policy. Moreover, Trump himself has previewed his hawkish inclinations, warning that if Iran restarts their nuclear program “they will have bigger problems than they ever had before” and “if Iran threatens us in any way, they will pay a price like few countries have ever paid.” In unraveling the nuclear accord and freeing Iran to resume their nuclear activities, Trump would be triggering the very situation where he strongly hinted that he would use military force.
Amid an already ruinous regional proxy war in the Middle East, a war against Iran could be even more disastrous for global security than the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Iran is nearly four times the size of Iraq, with influence in military conflicts from Syria to Yemen and with missiles capable of striking U.S. ships and bases in the region. Bombing cannot erase Iran’s nuclear know-how and would only empower those in Iran eager to obtain a nuclear deterrent. Moreover, it would set the region aflame and draw the U.S. into a prolonged quagmire that would cost American blood and treasure and set U.S. security back decades.
Congress can intervene to check Trump, including by clarifying that the administration does not have authorization to launch a war against Iran. Yet, the clock is quickly running out to save the JCPOA and prevent an escalation to war.
As Mike Pompeo’s confirmation vote in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee teeters on the brink of rejection, hawks eager to salvage his confirmation on the Senate floor are pushing an interesting argument: that only Pompeo can “save” the Iran nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA). This is like arguing that only the hamburglar can protect your Big Mac.
How could we expect Pompeo to save the Iran deal as secretary of state when he already worked to sabotage the deal as CIA director, a position supposed to be non-political? Contrary to promises of objectivity during his nomination hearing, as CIA Director Pompeo pushed the president to de-certify the Iran nuclear deal despite Iran’s continued compliance. According to a Foreign Policy report in July:
Although most of Trump’s deputies endorsed certifying that Iran was abiding by the deal, one senior figure has emerged in favor of a more aggressive approach—CIA Director Mike Pompeo. At White House deliberations, the former lawmaker opposed certifying Iran while suggesting Congress weigh in on the issue, officials and sources close to the administration said.
Pompeo was forced to acknowledge Iran’s compliance when, despite the full resources of the CIA at his disposal, he failed to find any evidence that Iran was not abiding by the deal. As he stated in his confirmation hearing last week, “I’ve seen no evidence that they’re not in compliance” with their obligations under the nuclear accord. That means that Pompeo was urging Trump to make a political decision to undermine American compliance with the nuclear accord and push the U.S. government to exit the deal, which was widely denounced by all other parties to the agreement. There’s no reason to expect Pompeo to change if he becomes secretary of state.
Furthermore, Pompeo has refused to assure senators that he would stand in the way of Trump walking away from the accord if an agreement with the Europeans is not forthcoming in less than a month. Many have fixated on Pompeo’s promise to try to “fix” the accord by May 12 in line with Trump’s directives. Yet, when pressed on what he would advise if an agreement is not forthcoming by the deadline—an increasingly likely scenario—Pompeo affirmed that he would let Trump snap back sanctions to kill the deal and then work for a “better deal.” Of course, the notion that there is a “better deal” coming after Trump abrogates the current deal and alienates U.S. negotiating partners is ridiculous. Pompeo would be letting the deal he hates die, not putting himself on the line to save it.
Then there’s Pompeo’s record as a member of Congress. Pompeo pushed 2,000 bombing sorties on Iran as an alternative to nuclear negotiations in 2014, routinely asserted that there were no benefits to the nuclear accord whatsoever, and suggested that the U.S. pursue regime change in Iran. That record has rightfully raised concerns among lawmakers questioning Pompeo’s record.
Yet, similar to his peddling of conspiracy theories over the Benghazi tragedy, Pompeo distinguished himself by launching disingenuous attacks on the nuclear deal along with his buddy Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR). In summer 2015, Pompeo and Cotton met with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Austria for briefings on a confidential, technical implementation plan to resolve an inquiry into Iran’s past nuclear activities with possible military dimensions. Such inspection plans are routinely kept confidential to protect state confidentiality and preserve the IAEA’s reputation as a neutral arbiter. Rather than educate their fellow lawmakers, Pompeo and Cotton spun the plan as a “secret side deal” that Obama was withholding from the American public. The House of Representatives even passed legislation authored by Pompeo alleging that Obama had broken the law by failing to turn over the confidential plan and that the JCPOA was therefore void. Interestingly, a recent White House news clip cites an op-ed listing the side-deal episode as a reason to support Pompeo, rather than as a sign that he is politically toxic and has a history of playing loose with the facts.
Pompeo’s primary qualification for secretary of state is that he has Trump’s ear and that, because of his good working relationship with the president, his word will carry weight. But Pompeo won’t likely reverse years of advocacy against the Iran nuclear deal, particularly absent any serious assurances from the man himself.
Pompeo is an ideologue who has already encouraged Trump’s worst instincts and appears eager to risk a war with Iran. If senators vote to confirm Pompeo, they won’t be affirming a secret ally who will work a diplomatic miracle with Iran. They’ll be voting for a man who encourages the president’s worst instincts and aims to oversee the death of the nuclear deal.
Originally published in Lobe Log