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.
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.
President Donald Trump has punted the fate of the Iran nuclear deal to Congress, vowing to terminate the multilateral accord by mid-May if his unrealistic demands are not met. By issuing ultimatums from the White House while outsourcing the work to Congress, Trump has set up a process that can seemingly only fail. The United States cannot simply legislate new demands to an international agreement and the current Congress lacks the political wherewithal to approach the matter seriously. One need look no further to back up this claim than the first Iran bill in line with Trump’s demands, offered by Reps. Peter Roskam and Liz Cheney and backed by the hub of Iran nuclear deal opposition at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. It is such an unrealistic piece of legislation that the only rational way to explain it is as part of a broader approach to ensure the termination of the deal.
The fact that Trump is in the White House should not give a free pass to such recklessness, particularly when it has to do with war and peace and nonproliferation in the Middle East. Serious legislators and policymakers must step up to warn against the path that Trump and his lackeys in Congress are leading us down, while taking what actions are available to try to preserve the accord.
Far from altering the deal, the Roskam-Cheney bill would force the United States to materially breach the agreement, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). It does so by mandating a series of certifications every ninety days on activities beyond the scope of the JCPOA to forestall the snapback of nuclear sanctions, a move that would kill the deal.
The bill would reimpose the sanctions that the United States committed to lift under the JCPOA in ninety days if Iran does not ratify the IAEA Additional Protocol in that time, a step that is not required by the deal until October 2023. Sanctions would also snap back if Iran ever moves above 130 tons of heavy water, which is not strictly limited by the JCPOA and is far less important than other areas of the agreement, such as inspections and enrichment. Moreover, if Iran undertakes any launches utilizing ballistic missile technology—an area outside the JCPOA—the legislation would snapback sanctions. Given Iran’s frequent rhetoric ruling out inspections of military sites, a position that has been bent in practice, it is also far from clear that Trump would certify that Iran has not “denied . . . anywhere, anytime” inspections as mandated by the bill.
The inclusion of these certifications would sacrifice the tangible protections of the JCPOA in the misguided hopes of achieving negligible gains. In lieu of Iran’s obligated ratification of the Additional Protocol in 2023, Roskam and Cheney would collapse the agreement and ensure the Additional Protocol is never ratified. Instead of suggested guidelines on Iranian heavy water that have been largely adhered to under the JCPOA, the United States would put at risk firm limits on enrichment that have distanced Iran from a nuclear weapon. In tying the accord’s fate to conventional missile testing, the bill would enable Iran to move closer to fitting their missiles with nuclear warheads. And, rather than be content with an established mechanism to ensure IAEA inspection of nuclear facilities and any suspicious facility in Iran—including military sites—it would sacrifice “the world’s most robust nuclear verification regime,” according to IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano, on the basis of little more than right-wing conspiracy theories.
While the Roskam-Cheney bill includes additional poison pills, including certifications that would seek to lock in Iran’s current enrichment restrictions indefinitely and sanctions designed to nullify Iran’s benefits under the accord, any one of the above certifications would sabotage the JCPOA. While the bill’s proponents care little for the United States upholding its own obligations under the JCPOA, they should. If the deal collapses, the odds of an Iranian nuclear weapon and war with Iran will dramatically increase, while the United States will be isolated from our allies in Europe and other negotiating parties—like Russia and China—that would be key to enforcing continued sanctions against Iran or any negotiation over North Korea’s advancing nuclear weapons arsenal.
Rather than go along with Trump’s charade on the JCPOA, responsible legislators need to take the wheel. First, they should block any legislation, like that proposed by Roskam and Cheney, that would force the United States into material breach of the accord. Second, they should point to the president’s lack of good faith and disastrous threats to sabotage the accord as justifications for removing the president’s scheduled decision points on the JCPOA, which have been set into place in both Iran sanctions bills and the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act. Failure to do so will ensure that the deal is scheduled for potential termination every few months, a status quo that is at odds with U.S. commitments to implement the deal in good faith and abstain from any action that would adversely affect the normalization of Iran’s economic activities.
There is little reason to budge from these demands. While opponents of the JCPOA will point to Trump’s threats to kill the deal in an attempt to compel passage of legislative sabotage, there is no reason for responsible legislators to hop aboard the sinking ship that is Trump’s Iran policy. After all, they would only end up sharing the blame for the agreement’s collapse with Trump and his congressional cheerleaders.
Not surprisingly, Trump’s National Security Strategy is full of hostile bluster and rhetoric with shockingly little substance – just like the President himself. On Iran, one of the primary international targets of Trump’s hostility, the document only reveals that the administration has yet to develop a coherent policy nearly a year into Trump’s presidency. While policy coherence in pursuit of disastrous goals can be more damaging than policy incoherence, the Trump administration is setting itself up for failure on Iran policy – regardless of where the administration eventually winds up.
The new strategy’s first mention of Iran castigates the prior administration’s focus on achieving a nuclear deal with Iran, declaring that the Trump administration is now “confronting the danger posed by the dictatorship in Iran, which those determined to pursue a flawed nuclear deal had neglected.” It goes on to outline many of the concerning activities that Iran is engaged in, including its testing of ballistic missiles and ties to designated terrorist groups, frequently mentioning Iran in the same breath as the nuclear-armed hermit kingdom in North Korea. But when it comes to addressing Iran’s destabilizing activities, team Trump offers sloganeering, not a strategy. For example, the document states “We will work with partners to deny the Iranian regime all paths to a nuclear weapon and neutralize Iranian malign influence” and “We will work with partners to neutralize Iran’s malign activities in the region.” How so, and what policy levers will be used? The National Security Strategy offers no clues.
Trump’s own hostile bluster on Iran greatly predates this “strategy” document, and it has dramatically undermined U.S. credibility with the Iranian people as well as the international partners that enforced nuclear-related sanctions and later helped secure the nuclear accord.
To the extent that Trump has had an Iran strategy, it has been how to lose friends and alienate the Iranian people.
One of his first actions was to ban Iranians and other nationals from entering the country for no purpose other than to fulfill a bigoted campaign pledge, sparking protests across the country and shocking the globe. When ISIS terrorists attacked Tehran in June, killing a dozen Iranians including in Iran’s parliament building, the administration issued a callous statement blaming Iran for “falling victim to the evil they promote.” Trump lambasted Iran as a murderous regime at his first speech at the United Nations while at the same time abruptly demanding a meeting with Iran’s President Rouhani, who had little option other than to refuse. Despite Iran’s compliance with the nuclear accord and all other parties mobilizing to protect it, Trump withheld certification of the accord in October and vowed to terminate it if Congress didn’t unilaterally expand the agreement’s terms. Since that time, the Senate has wisely abstained from deal-killing legislation, and Trump has barely lifted a finger to follow through.
To the extent that Trump has had an Iran strategy, it has been how to lose friends and alienate the Iranian people.
Contrast Trump’s policy mess with the Obama administration, which actually set itself up for success by laying out a coherent strategy and offering a choice to Iran. In its 2010 National Security Strategy, the Obama administration promised that if “Iran meets its international obligations on its nuclear program, they will be able to proceed on a path to greater political and economic integration with the international community. If they ignore their international obligations, we will pursue multiple means to increase their isolation and bring them into compliance with international nonproliferation norms.”
There was a clear goal – Iran meeting its obligations on its nuclear program – and clear incentives and disincentives if Iran plays along. The Obama administration largely stuck to that strategy throughout its presidency – engagement backed by pressure, and it was eventually rewarded with a deal that rolled back Iran’s nuclear program, subjected it to intrusive inspections and enabled the U.S. to build on successful diplomatic engagement to address other areas of concern if it so chose.
Unfortunately, that unprecedented diplomatic progress breaking three and a half decades of animosity risks being unraveled by an impetuous President who barely has a Plan A, let alone a Plan B. It is not too late for the Trump administration to go back to the drawing board and learn from history – namely, the successful effort throughout the course of the Obama administration to engage Iran diplomatically and build trust necessary to resolve its primary national security priority with Iran. But the administration has thus far demonstrated zero willingness to do so and, as a result, is setting itself up for failure if not disaster.
In March 2015, the junior Senator from Arkansas ― Tom Cotton ― was derided for writing a letter to Iran’s Supreme Leader in the midst of sensitive negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, warning that any deal with Iran could be revoked by the next U.S. President “with the stroke of a pen.” The letter, signed by 46 of his colleagues, was unprecedented, helping to blur the lines between partisan politics and serious national security matters and potentially delivering a fatal blow to the notion that politics stops at the water’s edge. It provoked a strong outcry, with many casting the letter as traitorous and Cotton as in over his head. Few could imagine, however, that by today Cotton would be poised to become the next potential director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) under a President even more committed to laying waste to the norms of Washington, Donald Trump.
As bad as the Trump administration has been, it can always get worse. And that is precisely what will happen if the Trump administration follows through with a reported plan to replace Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with CIA Director Mike Pompeo and nominate Tom Cotton to take Pompeo’s old position. Both Cotton, a protege of Iraq war champion Bill Kristol who received nearly a million dollars from Kristol’s Emergency Committee for Israel in his 2014 Senate campaign, and Pompeo, a former Tea Party Congressman from Kansas until his elevation to CIA Director earlier this year, have been pioneers in blurring the lines between political hackery and national security, a terrifying notion for the potential chief diplomat and a top spymaster. If the moves are finalized, Cotton and Pompeo will do untold damage to U.S. national security, and their first order of business will almost certainly be to scrap the Iran nuclear deal and lay the groundwork for a disastrous war with Iran.
Pompeo and Cotton are close ideological allies on foreign policy, having worked closely to undermine President Obama’s negotiations and later prevent the Iran nuclear deal from surviving Congressional review. In 2014, the two spoke to reporters on the Iran negotiations, with Cotton saying “I hope that Congress’ role will be to put an end to these negotiations.” If there was any doubt what their alternative to negotiations was, Pompeo clarified “In an unclassified setting, it is under 2,000 sorties to destroy the Iranian nuclear capacity. This is not an insurmountable task for the coalition forces.”
Time did little to sober Cotton and Pompeo’s hawkishness on Iran. After the nuclear deal had been finalized that summer, Cotton and Pompeo traveled to Vienna to review the International Atomic Energy Agency’s plan to finalize its long-running investigation into prior, possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear program. While such plans are routinely kept confidential in order to ensure that the inspected state’s security is not in any way compromised, the pair of hawks spun that technical plan into a nefarious, “secret side deal” they alleged the administration was withholding from the American public. Nothing could be further from the truth, but Cotton and Pompeo used their hyping of the facts to further their campaign against the deal.
Cotton downplayed military action against Iran again in August of 2015, stating “I don’t think any military expert in the United States or elsewhere would say the U.S. military is not capable to setting Iran’s nuclear facilities back to day zero.” Of course, there is a difference between capabilities and what is in the national interest, and many have warned that Iran could quickly reconstitute its program after bombing and move quickly toward a nuclear weapon. Cotton seemed to have recognized this, though the notion of repeatedly bombing Iran – known in hawkish circles as “mowing the lawn” ― did not seem to bother him. “Can we eliminate it (Iran’s nuclear program) forever? No, because any advanced industrialized country can develop nuclear weapons in four to seven years, from zero. But we can set them back to day zero.”
Add to this atrocious track record several other notable efforts from the duo to undermine the Iran nuclear deal during the Trump administration. Pompeo’s last tweet prior to being nominated as CIA Director declared “I look forward to rolling back this disastrous deal with the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism.” Pompeo vowed in his confirmation as CIA Director to halt his political efforts to sabotage the deal, which he later backtracked on. In his confirmation, he vowed “While as a Member of Congress I opposed the Iran deal, if confirmed, my role will change. It will be to drive the Agency to aggressively pursue collection operations and ensure analysts have the time, political space, and resources to make objective and methodologically sound judgments.”
But once on the job, Pompeo made it his pet project to release documents to a hawkish Washington organization in an effort to tie Iran to al-Qaeda, quite literally copying the playbook for the Iraq War. Pompeo also emerged as one of the prime voices urging the President to make the political decision to decertify the Iran nuclear deal. As reported by Foreign Policy 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.” Given that the IAEA has routinely certified Iran’s compliance, such a position was far from Pompeo’s vow that his role would change ― he was still trying to kill the deal, though this time not in Congress, but at the President’s ear.
Who else joined Pompeo’s efforts to push Trump into killing the deal? None other than his pal Tom Cotton, who laid out the case for withholding certification in July in a letter with three of his colleagues. Of course, that letter was full of falsehoods, but that’s par for the course for the man who may be Trump’s next CIA Director. Like his colleague Pompeo, there is little reason to expect Cotton to drop his Iran campaign once he earns a place in the administration.
What of the man that Pompeo would replace, Rex Tillerson? It is indisputable that Tillerson has been a disaster on many fronts, in particular, his campaign to gut the State Department which will do untold damage to American diplomacy for years to come. Yet, on the Iran nuclear deal, Tillerson has actually allied with Secretary of Defense James Mattis to urge Trump against ripping up the deal. The loss of Tillerson, combined with Cotton’s elevation, would mean that Pompeo and Cotton could face little resistance in their campaign to unravel a nuclear accord that is working and downplay the likely alternative ― war.
It’s possible that the reporting is inaccurate and that Cotton will not be elevated to Pompeo’s current position. But if it is, the Trump administration will be a giant step closer towards killing the nuclear deal and taking the US into yet another war of choice in the Middle East. Unless, of course, the American public ― including Trump’s own base ― massively rallies against such folly.
Trump’s Iran speech sets the Iran nuclear deal, which is working and supported by his own national security team, firmly in the crosshairs. If Congress does not pass deal-killing legislation, Trump has vowed to terminate the accord himself. Such a reckless, foolhardy position openly risks creating a new nuclear crisis and another disastrous war in the Middle East. Yet it is unclear whether legislators will see through Trump’s lies and distortions in order to muster the will to stop him.
There will, undoubtedly, be many twists and turns in the Iran deal debate over the months to come. However, when it comes to U.S. adherence to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the outcome will likely rest on the answers to the following questions.
Will Cotton’s Poison Pill Legislation Pass?
The legislation from Senators Tom Cotton (R-AR) and Bob Corker (R-TN) that Trump has called for appears to be a clear-cut violation of U.S. commitments under the JCPOA not to reimpose nuclear sanctions, as well as to avoid interfering with the normalization of Iran’s economic activities. According to a summary, the legislation would automatically trigger the snapback of nuclear sanctions if Iran’s nuclear program moves beyond the one-year breakout timeline—an estimate of the amount of time it would take Iran to enrich sufficient fissile material for a single nuclear weapon. Those calculations vary. Some deal opponents have put Iran’s breakout time potentially lower than one year now, though others have estimated the breakout to drop below the one-year threshold sometime around the 14th year of the accord.. Either way, in combination with Trump’s reckless decertification, passage of the Cotton-Corker bill would cause a major break with our international allies who would also be vital to any nuclear negotiations with North Korea.
Despite these dangers, the bill could prove difficult to stop. As opposed to a straight up-or-down vote on whether to blatantly kill the deal, Cotton’s more convoluted approach to violating the deal may be more palatable to deal opponents and supporters in Congress who continue to worry about Iran’s non-nuclear activities and the eventual sunset of some restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program. Those with trepidations should remember that if they go along with Trump, Cotton, and Corker in tanking the deal, those sunsets will begin immediately—and they’ll be stuck with a significant portion of the blame. It would be far preferable to call Trump’s bluff and allow him to fall on his own sword and kill the JCPOA rather than be an accomplice to his crime.
This legislation should be seen in line with other legislation that included poison pills amid nuclear negotiations. The Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, negotiated between Sens. Corker and Ben Cardin (D-MD), originally included a poison pill that would have required the president to certify that Iran was not supporting terrorism targeting Americans. Failure to do so would have snapped back sanctions under expedited procedure. That certification would have been quite difficult for any president to prove, and it was ultimately stripped out of the bill, setting up passage and the 60-day review period when deal opponents proved unable to muster the votes necessary to kill the deal.
Will Tensions in the Region Reach Boiling Point?
The Trump administration has issued an unprecedented designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization using the Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) tag. This decision followed congressional legislation passed in July that encouraged but did not mandate such a designation.
This designation will carry zero additional sanctions consequences for the IRGC, which is already heavily sanctioned. But it could provoke retaliation from IRGC-backed forces operating in close proximity to U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria. As a result, the Pentagon has opposed the designation for more than a decade. In February, defense and intelligence officials warned that a separate terrorist designation could “endanger U.S. troops in Iraq and the overall fight against the Islamic State, and would be an unprecedented use of a law that was not designed to sanction government institutions.” Those warnings appeared to have delayed a designation for months, though the administration ultimately pulled the trigger on a terror tag.
It is not hard to imagine how such a designation could quickly spiral out of control. Prior to the designation, the IRGC threatened a response. Further, in the House Foreign Affairs Committee earlier in the week, Amb. James Jeffrey warned that the United States should be prepared to respond to Iran’s likely retaliation. According to Jeffrey, that response “includes potentially striking them in their homeland.”
Will Sanctions Snapback Come to a Vote in the Senate?
With the pending introduction of the Cotton-Corker legislation, Congress may abstain from a harmful vote to immediately snap back nuclear sanctions under the expedited procedures laid out in the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act. The fact that many fierce deal opponents appear to oppose such a course, including House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA), means that such a vote could be avoided.
Yet that doesn’t mean that there won’t be a vote. Under the expedited procedures laid out in the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, the House of Representatives could pass qualifying legislation snapping back new nuclear sanctions. Only the leadership can introduce qualifying “snap-back” legislation, so it is up to Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) to decide whether the House will vote on reinstating the nuclear sanctions. If it passes such a measure, which is quite possible given the chamber’s history of approving Iran sanctions legislation inimical to the nuclear deal, that legislation would bypass Senate committees and head straight to the floor for a vote. If that is the case, only 51 senators would be needed to kill the deal (as opposed to 60 for Cotton-Corker), and it is far from certain that sufficient JCPOA opponents would have the resolve to vote down a bill effectively killing the accord. Further, the prospect of a vote could be used as an attempt to punish Democrats if they abstain from Cotton-Corker.
Although it’s possible there will be no vote, that would require Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to abstain from introducing the legislation. Otherwise, the Senate might face the prospect of a nail-biting vote.
Will Trump Snap Back Sanctions on His Own?
Even if deal-killing sanctions are avoided, Trump himself has now vowed to unilaterally kill the deal. Further, he has already tied himself in a logical knot when it comes to waiving sanctions as required in the future. In order to waive nuclear-related sanctions on Iran—which must happen every few months in order to sustain the deal—the president must certify that doing so is in the vital national security interests of the United States. However, Trump has now decertified the JCPOA on the grounds that continuing sanctions relief under the accord is not in the national security interest, a position counter to his own secretary of defense.
Would Trump argue that the deal is not in the national security interests of the United States and then allow his administration to assert that it is in January to sustain the deal? Perhaps. But it is also possible that Trump will be angered that he is forced to certify his predecessor’s accord once again, which is apparently the major driving force behind decertification to begin with. Hence, even if the worst potential outcome is avoided for now, danger remains on the immediate horizon.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Shayan Modarres
Phone: (407) 408-0494
Washington, D.C. – The National Iranian American Council (NIAC) is extremely pleased with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision upholding the lower court ruling that grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins are “bona fide relationships” under the Supreme Court’s guidance and should be exempt from the Trump administration’s Muslim ban.
“Almost every court in the country that has had the opportunity to examine President Trump’s Muslim ban has reached the conclusion that it is unconstitutional,” said Shayan Modarres, Legal Counsel for NIAC. “In the face of defeat, the Trump administration tried to double down and ban grandmothers and close family, and we are relieved that this latest effort to tear families apart has also failed.”
The Muslim ban is set to be heard by the Supreme Court on October 10th. But already, visa applicants have been confronted with new obstacles implemented by the Trump administration. Earlier this year, an “extreme vetting” policy was unveiled which has subjected an unspecified class of visa applicants to heightened scrutiny and significantly driven down the number of visas issued. Last week, the administration announced that certain employment-based visa applicants would be subject to in-person interviews, which could have a negative impact on visa processing times and costs.
“While today’s decision is further confirmation of the unconstitutionality of President Trump’s Muslim ban and attempts to ban grandmothers under the guise of national security, much work remains. The President has demonstrated his unwavering commitment to cruel, inhumane and racist immigration policies, and we are confident that he will continue to be disappointed in courts across our country.”
At the home of the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based think tank whose scholars helped make the case for the devastating war with Iraq, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley made the case for Trump to kill an agreement that is effectively forestalling both a nuclear-armed Iran and war with Iran.
In so doing, Haley relied on a host of lies, distortions and obfuscations to paint an Iran that is cheating on its nuclear commitments and terrorizing the world. Lest the U.S. once again repeat the mistakes that led the U.S. to war with Iraq, it is worth rebutting several of these lies:
“Iran has been caught in multiple violations over the past year and a half.”
The IAEA, in its eighth report since the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) went into effect, once again affirmed that Iran is abiding by its nuclear commitments last week. Yet, Haley falsely asserted that Iran has been caught in “multiple violations” since the accord went into effect.
Her evidence centers around Iran exceeding a “limit” on heavy water on two separate occasions in 2016. Unfortunately for her accusation, there is no hard limit mandated by the JCPOA – which indicates that Iran shall export its excess heavy water, and that Iran’s needs are estimated to be 130 metric tons. Thus, there is no violation on heavy water, and Iran continues to abide by the provisions of the JCPOA – including notably on uranium enrichment and inspector access.
“There are hundreds of undeclared sites that have suspicious activity that they (the IAEA) haven’t looked at.”
In the question and answer portion of the event, Haley asserted that there were not one or two suspicious sites that the IAEA can’t access – but hundreds! Of course, the U.S. intelligence community likely monitors dozens if not hundreds of non-nuclear sites in an attempt to detect any potential covert Iranian nuclear activities. Yet the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Paul Selva, stated in July that “Based on the evidence that’s been presented by the intelligence community, it appears that Iran is in compliance with the rules that were laid out in the JCPOA.” Hence, there is no indication of Iranian cheating and no need for the IAEA to knock on the door of hundreds of “suspicious” sites, as Haley suggests.
If there is solid evidence that a few of those suspicious sites that Haley cited are harboring covert nuclear activities, the U.S. can present the evidence for those suspicions to the IAEA and press them to investigate. Critically, however, Haley declined to do so at her meeting with the IAEA last month. According to a U.S. official, “Ambassador Haley did not ask the IAEA to inspect any specific sites, nor did she provide the IAEA with any new intelligence.”
“Iranian leaders…have stated publicly that they will refuse to allow IAEA inspections of their military sites. How can we know Iran is complying with the deal, if inspectors are not allowed to look everywhere they should look?”
While Iran barring an IAEA request permitted under the accord would be concerning, the IAEA has not recently had cause to request access to any non-nuclear site. Again, Haley has reportedly even declined to present evidence to the IAEA indicating that they should access any suspicious sites – military or otherwise. Hence, one can reasonably conclude that Haley’s statements are not based on legitimate fears, but are part of a political attack on the deal that her boss wants to unravel.
In fact, initial reporting on the U.S. pushing for military site inspections cast it as a justification for Trump withholding certification of the nuclear accord. As a result, when considering Iranian statements on military site access, one must also factor in the ample evidence suggesting that the Trump administration is fabricating a crisis to withdraw from the accord.
Further, there is little reason to take Iranian statements in response to Haley’s at face value. Iran issued similarly threatening statements ruling out inspections of military sites during negotiations in 2015, yet eventually allowed IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano access to the Parchin military base as well as the IAEA to collect samples at the site later that year.
“The deal [Obama] struck wasn’t supposed to be just about nuclear weapons. It was meant to be an opening with Iran; a welcoming back into the community of nations.”
As the Obama administration outlined ad-nauseam, the nuclear deal was limited to the nuclear sphere. There is no annex in the JCPOA directing the U.S. and Iran to settle their differences on Iraq, Syria or Yemen, or obligating Iran to comply with its international human rights obligations or transform to a true democracy. The Obama administration did hope that the JCPOA could build trust to enable the U.S. and Iran to potentially resolve issues outside of the nuclear sphere, but such hopes rested on engagement outside of the contours of the JCPOA. The JCPOA dealt with the number one national security threat presented by Iran – the possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapon. Haley’s assertion to the contrary is merely meant to cast the deal in a negative light.
“We should welcome a debate over whether the JCPOA is in U.S. national security interests. The previous administration set up the deal in a way that denied us that honest and serious debate.”
The U.S. Congress held dozens of hearings over several years to examine the Obama administration’s negotiations with Iran and – midway through the negotiations ― passed a law instituting a 60-day period of Congressional review wherein Obama could not begin to waive sanctions. Congress engaged in heated debate, and opponents of the accord poured in tens of millions of dollars in order to pressure Members of Congress to vote against the deal. No Republican legislator supported it despite there being no favorable alternative, and enough Democrats backed the accord in order to block resolutions of disapproval that would have killed the JCPOA in its crib.
That intensely partisan, fact-optional debate would once again decide the fate of the accord if Haley has her way – only this time, there would be no filibuster. If Trump withholds certification, even if Iran remains in compliance, Congress could consider and pass sanctions that kill the deal under expedited procedure thanks to little-noticed provisions in the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act. Trump could pass the buck to Congress and if every Member of Congress votes as they did in 2015, the deal would be dead.
Prior to the vote to authorize war against Iraq in 2002, Members of Congress who wanted George W. Bush to increase pressure on Iraq over allegations of a nonexistent WMD program were presented with a seemingly convincing third option. Rather than vote against authorizing Bush to go to war or explicitly backing his war push, they were told that voting for the authorization would give the White House the leverage to extract diplomatic concessions from Saddam Hussein. Yet, there was no serious diplomatic plan, and Bush pocketed the war authorization to achieve his ultimate goal of regime change. In voting for a war authorization to buttress a nonexistent diplomatic path, many Members of Congress were tricked into backing the war.
This is exactly what opponents of the Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), are trying to pull off by presenting a false “third option” for Trump apart from ripping up the deal or sustaining it. Ideological opponents of the JCPOA, such as Senators Tom Cotton (R-AK), Marco Rubio (R-FL), David Perdue (R-GA) and Ted Cruz (R-TX) as well as the Foundation for Defense of Democracy’s Mark Dubowitz are urging Trump to withhold certification that Iran is in compliance with the JCPOA and that U.S. compliance is in the national interest at the next 90-day Congressional review in mid-October. After withholding certification, they argue that Trump could continue to waive nuclear-related sanctions in line with U.S. commitments under the deal.
Yet, there is no plan for Trump to sustain the JCPOA by withholding certification. The end result – whether through Congressional, Executive or Iranian actions will almost certainly be the death of the deal. Whether he intends to or not, by withholding certification Trump would be opening Pandora’s box on Iran’s nuclear program and risking war.
There are several reasons that the JCPOA opponents’ “third option” on Iran would be unsustainable. First, under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act that mandates the 90-day review, the Republican-controlled Congress would then be permitted to pass legislation re-imposing sanctions waived under the accord under expedited procedure. When put in motion, it would be extremely difficult for JCPOA supporters to block the bill from passing. Given that not a single Republican in Congress voted to sustain the nuclear accord, and the vast majority of Senate Republicans signed a letter from Sen. Cotton to Iran’s Supreme Leader warning that the next President could undo any nuclear deal with the stroke of a pen, it is hard to see either Mitch McConnell or Paul Ryan acting with restraint when given a chance to kill a deal that they vigorously opposed. The fact that they have a President seemingly on their side will only embolden them.
Even if Congressional re-imposition of sanctions falters there is another reason withholding certification is likely to kill the deal. By withholding certification, Trump would have to either allege that Iran is in noncompliance or indicate that continuing sanctions relief in line with U.S. commitments is no longer in the national interest. Such a position would create tremendous pressure on Trump and his administration to make good on their words and kill the JCPOA.
Would Trump, seemingly driven by little other than pride and his determination to unravel his predecessor’s accomplishments, withstand the pressure from Steve Bannon, Mike Pompeo and other ideological opponents of the JCPOA in the administration? Would Trump ignore John Bolton and other “experts” who make the case for killing the deal he hates on Fox and Friends and other cable news programs? After making the case that the deal is not working, there is little reason to expect Trump to ignore those who have the President’s ear and are seeking a full termination of the JCPOA.
Furthermore, one cannot discount the possibility of Iran undertaking aggressive steps that tempt Trump to be the one to rip up the deal. Thus far, despite the U.S. arguably taking steps that violate the JCPOA – including Trump discouraging G-20 leaders from doing business with Iran – Iran has kept its powder dry, likely in anticipation of a more severe future crisis. If the agreement is put on its death-bed by Trump withholding certification – a step that would severely undercut foreign businesses interested in permissible business under the JCPOA – this restraint would likely end. Iran could take its complaints through the JCPOA Joint Commission in an effort to break the other parties of the agreement away from the U.S., or escalate via its military and proxies in ways that raise the pressure on Trump to be the one that kills the accord.
After the JCPOA is killed, Iran would be free to ramp up its nuclear activities, the U.S. would be isolated and without leverage, and Trump and his hawkish advisors would soon be faced with another pivotal decision – allow Iran to advance toward the cusp of acquiring nuclear weapons, or undertake costly military action in the hopes of delaying but not ultimately preventing Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear deterrent.
To avoid such a disaster, Trump could simply move to certify Iran’s compliance and that sustaining the deal is in the U.S. interest in mid-October. But if Trump falls for the false option of withholding certification in the hopes of pressuring Iran, he will be courting the same disasters as if he ripped up the accord himself.
Washington, DC – Shayan Modarres, Legal Counsel for the National Iranian American Council, issued the following statement after the U.S. District Court for the District of Hawaii denied a challenge to the Trump administration’s narrow interpretation of who will be exempt from the Muslim ban:
“We regret that the U.S. District Court for the District of Hawaii refused to clarify or limit which familial relationships are to be considered “bona fide” or good faith relationships. Grandparents, uncles, aunts and other close family relatives will continue to be banned from seeing their relatives in the United States, labeled–under President Trump’s Muslim ban–as potential terrorists. This is an outrageous and inhumane interpretation by the Trump administration, and we hope common sense will ultimately prevail despite the district court’s decision last night.
“There is palpable fear in the Iranian and Muslim community in the United States. The Supreme Court will hear the Muslim ban case this fall, and a ruling is looming. There is also the potential for future constitutionally-offensive executive orders. Communities are scared that they will continue to be targeted for no reason other than where they are from and what faith they practice.
“It is abundantly clear that we cannot rely on the courts to intervene in the place of our elected officials. We would not need to rely on judicial intervention if our elected representatives showed backbone to Trump and stepped up to protect their constituents and defend fundamental American principles.”
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Shayan Modarres
Phone: 202 379-1638
Washington, DC – The National Iranian American Council issued the following statement following President Donald Trump’s tweets resurrecting his calls for “EXTREME VETTING” and a “TRAVEL BAN!” this morning:
“In today’s episode of daily misinformation, blame-shifting, and overall erosion of our democracy, the President of the United States revealed the categorical duality in his approach to combatting terrorism and his desire to persist with his nonsensical Muslim ban.
“The President has once again made clear that he is more interested in fulfilling a campaign promise to ban Muslims rather than defend our national security. The Saudi government – not the Iranian nationals and others Trump wishes to ban – inspire and fund terror attacks throughout the West.
“Underlying the farcical nature of the ban, 94 percent of deaths caused by terror attacks by Islamists between 2001 and 2015 were inspired by radical Wahhabist and Salafist thought – the very same ideology spread by Saudi Arabia. That ideology has no roots in Iran, where nationals are deeply opposed to ISIS and Iran has fought ISIS on the battlefield. Yet, Iran is targeted by the ban while those fanning the flames of extremism get a Presidential visit by Trump.
“Trump’s embrace of Saudi Arabia underscores that he is not serious about confronting terrorism. If he was, he would strengthen our alliances and form broad coalitions to halt the Saudi effort to spread Wahhabism and Salafism. Banning Iranian nationals who have historically presented no threat to American national security while selling arms to the Saudis defies basic logic.
“Not one to be beholden to facts or truth, a defiant President Trump continues to ignore these realities and persists with his effort to ban Muslims to score political points while undermining US national security.
“Trump’s tweets today removed all doubt that the revised Muslim ban is a watered down version of the first blatantly discriminatory Muslim ban, which he prefers. But despite the victories against the ban in U.S. courts, Trump has managed to continue to implement the unconstitutional ban through administrative measures. The backdoor Muslim ban – which Trump confirmed in his tweets – has already driven down the number of Iranians and nationals of Muslim-majority countries wholesale.
“Trump is concerned about scoring political points, not keeping Americans safe. It took him three days to even acknowledge the stabbing attack in Portland where two young men were killed and a third was seriously injured for standing up to Islamophobia and hate. But it took him less than six hours to exploit the terrorist attack in London to try to advance his discriminatory and unconstitutional Muslim ban. America has never been less safe than it is under the nonsensical Trump doctrine.”
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Shayan Modarres
Phone: 202 386-6325
Washington, D.C. –– The National Iranian American Council issued the following statement in response to the decision today by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals upholding the lower court nationwide freeze of President Donald Trump’s Muslim ban:
“The National Iranian American Council (NIAC) applauds the decision of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals to uphold the lower court ruling. While fundamental American values of liberty and freedom were under attack by the Executive branch with complicity from the Legislative branch of government, the Judicial branch intervened and upheld the promise of America.
“In the wake of January 27, 2017, the day that will be remembered in history as the day America imposed a Muslim ban, Iranian-Americans became a community in crisis. In almost any airport across the country, you could find absolute chaos, phones ringing off the hook, lawyers huddled around on the ground rushing to type up habeus motions, hundreds of demonstrators, and hundreds of thousands of people in a state of confusion. NIAC, Iranian American Bar Association (IABA), Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans (PAAIA), and Pars Equality Center took on the role of first responders for our community.
“When we filed our lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the Muslim ban in court, we set out with the goal of completely dismantling what we believed was an unconstitutional and unabashed attempt by the President to fulfill a campaign promise of banning Muslims from our country.
“The product of a hurried effort to get a cheap political win for the President, written by shockingly inexperienced and unqualified advisors in the White House, resulted in an executive order that was almost immediately enjoined by the courts as likely unconstitutional.
“The second attempt at a Muslim ban did not fare much better, being enjoined by United States District Courts in Hawaii and Maryland.
“While dozens of challenges to the Muslim ban were filed, the Iranian American community was the community most impacted by the ban – we stood unified and filed our own lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the ban. Inspired by the stories of Iranian individuals that we spent hours talking to and drafting declarations on behalf of, we meticulously developed a factual record of ongoing harm to our community. Judge Tanya S. Chutkan granted our communities’ request to present live testimony, and we became the first case in the country to provide the court with in-person testimony about how this ban affected our community.
“While Judge Chutkan ultimately exercised judicial restraint in favor of the two nationwide injunctions already in place, she too was “inclined to agree” with the Iranian-American community that this executive order was unconstitutional.
“We are pleased with the outcome, but recognize that there is no time to breathe a sigh of relief as long as this administration decides that it wants to continue down the path of targeting Iranians and Muslims – and as long as Congress passively allows for the erosion of our country’s values and institutions. We are fully prepared to fight relentlessly, for as long as it takes, until we are viewed not as the “other,” but as Americans.”
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