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.
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The drama over the resignation of Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif — though it was rejected and withdrawn — underscores how the Trump administration’s imposition of sanctions has undermined moderates and bolstered hardliners.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
Thirteen months into Trump’s presidency, the Iran nuclear deal is alive but wounded. Ironically, while many in the U.S. argued that Iran could not be trusted to abide by its terms, it is the U.S. under Trump that has violated the agreement on multiple occasions. Ominously, Iran has warned that if the status quo does not change, it could withdraw from the accord. Unless the administration changes course and halts its diplomatic sabotage, the JCPOA risks the same fate as another landmark nonproliferation agreement, the Agreed Framework with North Korea, to the profound detriment of U.S. security and the nonproliferation regime.
In spite of Iran’s verified implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which has rolled back Iran’s nuclear program and subjected it to far-reaching inspections, Iran’s periodic testing of ballistic missiles has provoked substantial angst in Washington. Under UN Security Council Resolution 2231, the resolution endorsing the JCPOA, Iran is “called upon not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons” including tests for a period that will last up to eight years. While that language does not impose a binding legal obligation on Iran, both the U.S. and other parties have criticized Iran’s missile testing as “inconsistent” with UNSC Resolution 2231, though not a formal violation.
Since President Trump entered office, his administration has rolled out eight rounds of new sanctions designations and signed new sanctions legislation into law targeting Iran’s missile program. Moreover, the President in January threatened to terminate the JCPOA unless Congress passes legislation stating “that long-range missile and nuclear weapons programs are inseparable, and that Iran’s development and testing of missiles should be subject to severe sanctions.”
Despite this flurry of activity, there have been subtle shifts in Iran’s missile program that could reduce the program’s threat. In particular, Iran’s articulation of a range limit to its missiles and a shift toward short-range solid fueled missiles signals an interest in conventional, regional deterrence, not long-range nuclear missiles.
Iran is Focusing on Short-Range Missiles Aimed at Conventional Deterrence
The commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, asserted that Iran’s missile program is limited to a 2,000 kilometer radius around Iran under a policy endorsed by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Similar statements have been issued in the past, though Jafari’s statement appears to be a firming up of prior policy and a signal to the U.S. and others regarding the relative limits of Iran’s missile ambitions.
Moreover, Iran’s testing since the conclusion of the JCPOA appears consistent with this limit. According to an analysis from the Center for Nonproliferation Studies and Nuclear Threat Initiative, Iran has shifted from seeking longer range systems toward short-range missiles primarily suited for conventional deterrence. According to the study:
“the JCPOA has helped redirect Iran’s priorities for its missile program away from developing an ICBM (whose only purpose would be as a nuclear delivery system), to developing solid-fueled versions of its short-range missiles. While such missiles could also be nuclear-capable, they do not extend Iran’s range or payload capabilities meaningfully, and appear intended to serve a conventional purpose.”
While a 2,000 kilometer range limit would include Israel and Saudi Arabia, in addition to numerous U.S. bases in the region, Iran’s focus on conventional solid-fueled missiles suggests they are indeed aimed at regional deterrence – as opposed to long-range missile development that could threaten Europe or the U.S. mainland. Such a shift also meshes with Iran’s signing of the JCPOA, which ensures Iran’s missile program cannot be fitted with nuclear warheads. This is a positive that could be built upon through deft diplomacy, or undermined via diplomatic sabotage.
Pressure Is Unlikely to Change, and May Even Reinforce, Iran’s Missile Calculus
Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats stated in the annual Worldwide Threats Report this week that Iran “has the largest inventory of ballistic missiles in the Middle East.” Yet, Iran’s competitors are not without missile inventories that match or exceed Iran’s capabilities. Saudi Arabia reportedly maintains dozens of missiles capable of striking Iran, with a maximum range of 2,650 kilometers. Israel is believed to possess both a sizable nuclear arsenal and ballistic missiles capable of traveling up to 6,500 kilometers. Moreover, Iran lacks a modern air force due to a continuing arms embargo and is outspent militarily by Saudi Arabia at a 5:1 rate.
While Iran may prove willing to negotiate over the range of its missiles or confidence building measures with other states if the JCPOA is adhered to, Iran views its missile program as a regional deterrent that is central to its national defense doctrine. Sanctions have not altered that calculus and major arms buildups among Iran’s neighbors have likely strengthened it.
Much of this doctrine stems from Iran’s experience in the Iran-Iraq war, when Iran was almost completely isolated within the region and globally as the world turned a blind eye and even aided Saddam Hussein’s chemical attacks on Iran. Moreover, while Hussein was able to target missiles at Iranian cities from within Iraq, Iran had no similar deterrence or response capability. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has stated that Iran needs its missile program “to prevent another Saddam Hussein around the corner attacking us with chemical weapons because the international community has failed miserably in protecting the Iranian people.” The development of a conventional deterrent and response capability is one that has broad support within Iran across political divides. Unless the U.S. and international community engages on the fundamental issues at the heart of Iran’s missile calculus, no amount of sanctions or regional arms sales will succeed in altering it.
Iran’s Missile Testing Has Remained Sporadic
There were only a handful of confirmed reports of Iranian missile launches in 2017. These include:
- Iran test-fired a medium-range ballistic missile January 29;
- Iran test-fired a pair of short-range ballistic missiles in early March;
- Iran launched eight missiles at ISIS (a U.S. enemy) on June 18 in response to a terror attack in Tehran;
While President Trump took to Twitter to allege another Iranian missile launch September 23, this report was actually based on old video of the January test. Further, while Iran test-fired a Simorgh satellite rocket July 27 amid passage of Congressional sanctions targeting Iran’s missile program, that rocket is not designed to be capable of reentering the atmosphere and thus has limited military applications.
It is noteworthy that the July 27 launch appears to be the last undertaken by Iran – a testing pause of more than six months that has extended into 2018. In roughly the same period, the U.S. Navy has reported a significant lapse in dangerous run-ins with the IRGC in the Persian Gulf. While these trends should be monitored, it appears possible that Iran is attempting to avoid giving the U.S. a pretext to sabotage the JCPOA and turn Europe against Iran.
Iran launched roughly five missile tests per year from 2006 to 2012 before nuclear negotiations involving the U.S. gained traction in 2013, according to Michael Elleman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Iran largely abstained from missile tests while the negotiations that led to the JCPOA were underway. Since then, the frequency of Iran’s missile tests has been largely consistent with past practices, and – barring major changes – there remains little reason to expect Iran to dramatically ramp up or seek to field a missile capable of reaching beyond the region.
To put Iran’s missile testing in perspective, the CNS-NTI report notes that North Korea tested 14 missiles capable of traveling more than 3,000 kilometers between the signing of the JCPOA and August of 2017, a feat that has not been replicated by Iran.
Transfers to Yemen?
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley has taken the lead for the administration in alleging that Iran transferred missiles to Houthi rebels in Yemen, which were in turn launched against Saudi Arabia. Iran has vociferously denied the claim while indicating that Houthi missile stocks were left over from prior Yemeni governments. While Russia has dismissed the Trump administration’s allegations as inconclusive, a confidential UN report has indicated that Iran “failed to block ballistic missile supplies from being used by Houthi rebels.”
Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen – with substantial military assistance from the U.S – has been heavily focused on rolling back Iran’s alleged influence there. Yet, at least at the outset of the conflict, ties between Iran and the Houthis were tenuous at best, with Houthi rebels ignoring Iran’s warnings against taking the capital Sanaa in 2014. If Iran-Houthi ties have now progressed to the point where Iranian support has enabled the Houthis to nearly strike key targets in Riyadh, it should be a clear signal to policymakers that U.S. backing of Saudi Arabia’s intervention is having the opposite of its intended effect and is endangering Saudi and regional security.
What is needed is what the Trump administration has avoided since it came into office: serious, multilateral diplomacy aimed at ending the conflict in Yemen and ameliorating all the actors’ security concerns. Absent this, the negative trend line of the war in Yemen is likely to continue, with disastrous results for the Yemeni people and regional security.
Trump is Escalating Missile Sanctions without a Serious Diplomatic Plan
Thus far, the Trump administration has continued to designate entities and individuals with ties to Iran’s missile program, while also signing new legislation into law targeting the program. Calls to subject Iran’s program to “severe sanctions” would be largely redundant, as the program is already heavily sanctioned. The administration and Congress’ actions since January 2018 include:
- February 2, 2017 – The Treasury Department imposes sanctions on 25 individuals and entities following Iran’s January launch;
- May 17, 2017 – The Treasury Department sanctions seven individuals and entities, including a Chinese network, for supporting Iran’s missile program;
- July 18, 2017 – The Department of State designates two entities for supporting Iran’s missile program while the Treasury Department designates sixteen entities and individuals for supporting the IRGC;
- July 28, 2017 – The Treasury Department imposes sanctions on six Iranian entities supporting Iran’s missile program in response to its launch of the Simorgh space rocket;
- August 2, 2017 – The administration signs the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) into law, which mandates the imposition of additional sanctions in response to Iran’s missile program;
- August 14, 2017 – The Treasury Department imposes sanctions on eleven entities and individuals, including one entity for supporting Iran’s missile program;
- October 13, 2017 – The Treasury Department designates the IRGC as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT), while also designating four entities including for ties to Iran’s missile program;
- October 25, 2017 – The House of Representatives passes H.R. 1698, the Iran Ballistic Missiles and International Sanctions Enforcement Act.
- January 4, 2017 – The Treasury Department sanctioned “five Iran-based entities subordinate to a key element of Iran’s ballistic missile program.”
- January 12, 2017 – In addition to sanctioning Iranian persons and entities under human rights sanctions, the Treasury Department designated persons and an entity for ties to entities sanctioned for supporting Iran’s missile program.
In the absence of serious, direct diplomatic engagement between the U.S. and Iran, there is little possibility of changing Iran’s security calculus and no possibility of trading in sanctions for concessions on Iran’s missile activity or other concerning behavior – ensuring that the status quo remains the same or worsens, but never sustainably improves.
Moreover, while it is fair to be concerned about the potential uses of Iran’s missile program or other Iranian activity that runs counter to U.S. interests, it is important to ensure that economic pressure is calibrated and proportional. Continuing to ramp up sanctions designations and legislation at such a pace risks undermining sanctions relief obligated under the JCPOA and could harden domestic political pressure within Iran to begin hedging on JCPOA-compliance and take a more aggressive stance towards the U.S. across the region.
Instead of replacing nuclear escalation with missile escalation, the Trump administration and Congress should protect the gains of the nuclear accord and seek to build on them through serious diplomatic engagement. Failure to do so will risk the unraveling of the nuclear accord and the U.S. once again facing the threats of a nuclear-armed Iran or war.