Warren Proposes Return to JCPOA in Senate Hearing

“If Iran maintains itself in compliance, then I believe the President should reverse his reckless decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal and reimpose sanctions because the deal makes America safer and the world safer,” declared Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) at a Senate Armed Services Committee nomination hearing on Tuesday morning.

The comments from Warren, widely viewed as a top contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, follow her articulation of a “progressive foreign policy” in a speech at American University last week. In a report released earlier this month, NIAC called on legislators and 2020 Presidential contenders to commit their support to returning to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and to take additional steps to rein in Trump’s reckless Iran policy.

Sen. Warren questioned Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the nominee for commander of U.S. Central Command, if he agreed with the Director of National Intelligence’s 2018 Worldwide Threat Assessment that the JCPOA has “extended the amount of time Iran would need to produce fissile material for a weapon from a few months to about one year and has enhanced the transparency of Iran’s nuclear activities.” McKenzie responded affirmatively, prompting Sen. Warren to ask whether the Iranian government had “reduced its destabilizing” activities as a result of the Trump administration’s abrogation of the JCPOA, a key selling point for Trump’s decision. McKenzie replied that “Iranian destabilizing activities across the region were active before, during, and after the nuclear deal.”

In response to a question from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) about whether Iran’s government is on the brink of collapse, McKenzie stated, “I haven’t seen anything that I would characterize as spreading or essentially threatening the fundamental nature of the Iranian regime.” In response to a question from Cruz on Iran’s missile program, McKenzie responded that Iran had “chosen to substitute ballistic missiles, both short, medium and long-range for their paucity of aviation assets.”

With respect to regional issues, Sen. Tim Kaine questioned whether the Trump administration was authorized to continue operations in Syria, highlighting comments by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that “part of the mission in Syria is to provide a check against Iran.” McKenzie said in response: “Senator that may possibly be a derived effect of our presence on the ground, but that is not a mission that we are undertaking.”

On Yemen, Sen. Warren asked McKenzie whether the U.S. provides intelligence support and military advice to the Saudi-led coalition, including refueling aircraft that “bomb these targets in Yemen.” McKenzie stated that Warren was correct, leading her to call for a reassessment of the U.S.-Saudi relationship: “I think it’s time to reevaluate our relationship with Saudi Arabia in light of its actions not only in Yemen, but with the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.  And we need to ask ourselves if the benefits of this relationship with Saudi Arabia is worth the costs, if this kind of behavior continues.”

Restoring U.S. Credibility: Returning to the Iran Nuclear Agreement

INTRODUCTION

By withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (“JCPOA”) — the nuclear accord between the United States, other major world powers, and Iran and endorsed by the United Nations Security Council — the Donald J. Trump administration caused substantial damage to U.S. national security interests, the repercussions of which currently may only be faintly understood. Already, Trump’s decision has led to substantial reputational damage to the country, shaken the transatlantic alliance, and engendered international efforts to undo the U.S.’s effective domination of the global financial system. These consequences will far outlast the Trump administration if decisive efforts are not undertaken now to mitigate the damage and to ensure Trump and his team do not make good on their disastrous efforts to fully terminate the JCPOA and instigate a war with Iran.

There is still time to salvage the JCPOA and prevent further disastrous consequences. Much of the world, including America’s closest allies and supporters of the JCPOA inside Iran, are looking for a signal that Trump’s assault on the JCPOA and those who continue to uphold the agreement can be reined in. Indeed, with the 2018 midterm elections in the rearview mirror, the Trump administration may now be entering a lame-duck period. Seeking to return the United States into the JCPOA should be a significant foreign policy priority for the incoming Congress and central to the foreign policy platform of those seeking to challenge Trump in 2020. That, however, will require efforts in the interim period to signal that Congress and any successor administration will seek to realign the U.S. with long-standing international norms. Failing this, the damage done to U.S. interests might be irreparable and the U.S.’s position as global leader substantially weakened as the JCPOA collapses and the U.S. and Iran speed toward a military confrontation.

SUSTAINED DAMAGE TO U.S. NATIONAL INTERESTS

On May 8, 2018, President Trump announced his decision to withdraw the United States from the JCPOA and to re-impose all nuclear-related sanctions lifted under the nuclear accord following 90- and 180-day wind-down periods. The Trump administration also promised to utilize existing U.S. sanctions authorities to aggressively target Iran and companies engaged in sanctionable conduct therewith.

President Trump’s decision was met with dismay. The Joint Commission for the JCPOA — comprised of remaining participants in the nuclear accord — signaled their “regret” over the U.S.’s action and redoubled their commitments to upholding the accord. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged all UN member-states to support the JCPOA and for the JCPOA’s remaining participants to abide by its terms.

Even America’s closest allies refused to fall in line, with the European Union (EU) most significantly announcing its development of alternative payment mechanisms by which legitimate trade with Iran could be facilitated. The French foreign ministry stated that these measures may go beyond Iran and be used to circumvent extraterritorial U.S. sanctions in the future.

Europe also took steps to amend an EU blocking regulation that prohibits European companies from complying with re-imposed U.S. sanctions targeting Iran, absent prior authorization from the relevant EU authorities. Under this amended regulation, if European companies sustain pecuniary damages from U.S. authorities for engaging in legitimate trade with Iran, such European companies can seek to recover damages from the United States, including — most dramatically — through the seizure of U.S. property held in Europe. More symbolically, Europe’s reinvigoration of the blocking regulation signaled the end of more than two decades of fervent cooperation between the U.S. and Europe on sanctions enforcement related to Iran and brought forth a new era where Europe will no longer accede to U.S. whims.

Beyond the consequences for U.S. leadership and influence with the international community, these damages to U.S. interests may pale in comparison if the U.S.-Iran conflict escalates into military action. While Trump himself routinely pillories the 2003 decision to invade Iraq, he has surrounded himself with hawks who seek the same fate for Iran. National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have in the past openly called for regime change and bombing Iran. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, a relative moderate within this administration who has cautioned against withdrawing from the JCPOA and may soon be headed for the exits, has even listed his three top threats in the region as “Iran, Iran and Iran.” Moreover, as former Secretary of State John Kerry has warned, Iran’s rivals in the region urged the Obama administration vociferously to bomb Iran. “Every leader I met with in the region…” warned Kerry, “said, ‘You have to bomb Iran, that is the only thing they understand and that is the only way you will stop them having a nuclear weapon.’” Those leaders hoping to “fight the Iranians to the last American” – in the words of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates – have since gained influence with the Trump administration by leaps and bounds. 

Even if Trump himself wants to avoid further military entanglements, it is his advisors in Pompeo and Bolton who maneuvered Trump out of the JCPOA and appear to be working closely with hawkish advisors outside the administration to edge the U.S. toward military confrontation. If they succeed in goading Iran to leave the constraints of the JCPOA, Bolton and Pompeo would have all the ammunition they need to replicate the Iraq war playbook and tee up a preventive war to stop Iran’s alleged nuclear ambitions. Even if they fail, the spark for a massive military conflagration with Iran could come from multiple directions in the absence of deconfliction channels. A clash in the tight waterways of the Persian Gulf, U.S. maneuvers to push Iran out of Syria, or Iranian retaliation for perceived foreign support for terror within Iranian borders could be all warhawks in Washington and Riyadh would need to push headlong into a disastrous war.

RECOMMENDATIONS TO SALVAGE THE JCPOA AND REHABILITATE THE UNITED STATES ON THE GLOBAL STAGE

Given the risks of President Trump and his administration fully collapsing the JCPOA and instigating war with Iran, the work needs to begin now in order to rein in the White House and prevent a disastrous war.

In this context, a top priority must be to signal that there is political will in Washington to reenter the JCPOA.

RECOMMENDATION #1: LEGISLATION TO SUSPEND NUCLEAR-RELATED SANCTIONS AND RETURN THE U.S. INTO COMPLIANCE WITH THE JCPOA

Lawmakers in the U.S. Congress should introduce legislation that would seek to return the U.S. to the JCPOA. Such legislation could indefinitely suspend all nuclear-related sanctions and additional sanctions contrary to U.S. JCPOA obligations. While such legislation may face an uncertain pathway to becoming law, it would send an important signal that there is significant political will in the United States to salvage the agreement.

RECOMMENDATION #2: 2020 CONTENDERS SHOULD ANNOUNCE INTENTION OF NEXT ADMINISTRATION TO RETURN THE U.S. INTO COMPLIANCE WITH THE JCPOA

Contenders for the 2020 Presidential elections should similarly make crystal clear that their intent is to return to the JCPOA if elected and build on it as the floor, rather than the ceiling. Wide support among 2020 contenders and key legislators in Congress would send a clear signal to all parties seeking to sustain the JCPOA that there is light at the end of the Trump tunnel. This would increase the likelihood that Europe and others can maintain the agreement and that Iran remains within the constraints of the JCPOA, reducing the threat of an Iranian exit instigating a crisis that leads to war.

RECOMMENDATION #3: LEGISLATION TO CONSTRAIN THE PRESIDENT’S ABILITY TO START A WAR OF CHOICE

Signals on reentry to the JCPOA should be coupled with strong steps to constrain the present administration’s ability to start a war. In the 115th Congress, legislation has been introduced by Sen. Tom Udall that would prohibit the administration from using funds to launch an unauthorized war against Iran. This builds on earlier efforts, including an acknowledgment in the conference report for the FY2019 National Defense Authorization Act, which clarified that Congress is not aware of any legislative authorization for Trump to use force against Iran. Such efforts must be redoubled, with anyone concerned about the prospect of war with Iran demanding that any defense authorization include explicit prohibitions against Trump triggering war with Iran.

RECOMMENDATION #4: HOLD ADMINISTRATION ACCOUNTABLE TO HUMANITARIAN EXEMPTIONS UNDER SANCTIONS

Additional steps could push back on the Trump administration’s bankrupt pressure campaign. The administration’s Oct. 16 and Nov. 5 announcements of new sanctions designations signal a clear intent to escalate financial war against Iran, with banks that were far removed from sanctionable activity and crucial to enabling some degree of humanitarian trade under previous administrations now subjected to sanctions under terrorism authorities. The intent appears to be to complicate future efforts to relieve sanctions in exchange for Iranian concessions, while starving the Iranian people of all basic goods, including humanitarian goods, in a dangerous move to destabilize the country and provoke an uprising. Not only is such a move immoral and likely illegal under international law, it is almost certain to backfire and empower hardline forces like the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps that thrive under sanctions. As a result, a strong effort should be made to effectuate humanitarian exemptions under Iran sanctions. Congress should seek accountability from the administration regarding the measures it is taking to ensure that trade in food, medicine, and other humanitarian goods for Iranians can continue.

REPAIRING THE DAMAGE: THE U.S. RETURN TO THE JCPOA

The incoming Congress and a successor administration can respectively halt and repair much of the damage from Trump’s JCPOA exit by signaling the political will and intent for the U.S. to re-enter the JCPOA’s fold and resume obligations thereto, including via the lifting of nuclear-related sanctions.

Resuming commitments under the JCPOA would deliver profound benefits for the U.S. national interest. First, it would signal to the world that the U.S. is a responsible actor in the international arena; the U.S. intends to live up to the political agreements that it makes with other countries; and the Trump administration was nothing more than an unfortunate aberration in the American political system. Nothing has caused more serious damage to U.S. interests than the growing trust deficit towards the United States. If states are unable to trust the United States, then not only is U.S. global leadership severely undermined but the international system that has been predominate since the end of the Second World War risks unraveling. By clearly showing the world that the U.S. intends to fully observe the commitments that it makes, a successor administration can begin to repair the damage wrought by President Trump. 

Second, the U.S.’s re-entrance into the JCPOA would have important non-proliferation benefits by effectively disincentivizing Iran from exiting the JCPOA itself and thus undoing the risk of a burgeoning nuclear crisis in the Middle East. In so doing, the U.S. would ensure the survivability of the tough and far-reaching constraints on Iran’s nuclear program that will be imposed by the JCPOA through 2030 and beyond. Iran’s nuclear program does not pose the risks it did in the pre-2015 era, and that is fully thanks to the JCPOA and the restrictions it imposes. Any policymaker should be eager to return to the JCPOA and, in so doing, re-secure hard-fought concessions that take an Iranian nuclear weapon and war with Iran over its nuclear program off the table for the foreseeable future.

Third, reentry to the JCPOA would signal to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia that Donald Trump’s blank check for their increasingly brazen behavior is at an end, and that the U.S. has alternatives to outsourcing American policy in the region to an erratic kingdom that – in the words of Sen. Lindsey Graham – has double dealt on terror. Perversely, both the Trump administration and numerous Washington pressure groups have warned that the administration’s pressure campaign against Iran would be jeopardized if the U.S. dared to impose consequences on the kingdom over the brutal murder of Saudi journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi. Such warnings expose the current administration’s approach to the region as so hopelessly unbalanced that is susceptible to extortion by one morally bankrupt regime against another. The U.S. needs to move to a transactional relationship with both Saudi Arabia and Iran where we can impose consequences on each for such brazen misbehavior. In Iran, the U.S. has sanctioned itself out of influence, whereas with Saudi Arabia the U.S. is too afraid to use its substantial leverage to rein in the kingdom’s destructive course – whether on the disastrous war in Yemen or on the kingdom’s mounting human rights abuses. An alternative is available, and it should start with re-entry to the JCPOA.

Finally, U.S. participation in the JCPOA Joint Commission would guarantee diplomacy with Iran that does not presently exist amid the administration’s pressure campaign, and could lead to follow-on negotiations addressing the full spectrum of America’s concerns with Iran – including regional security and human rights. The present Trump administration approach of exiting the JCPOA and seeking its destruction prohibits the U.S. from affecting Iran’s calculations on issues beyond the nuclear file. Any policymaker with justifiable concerns with Iranian behavior or who seeks political solutions to the proxy conflicts that have gripped the region should be urging a return to the JCPOA.

Returning to the JCPOA and restoring U.S. credibility and influence with Iran is unlikely to be without cost, but will not be nearly as costly as the alternative. The U.S. reneged on its commitments and, barring Congressional intervention or a change of heart from President Trump himself, will have materially breached the accord by snapping back nuclear-related sanctions for a period of at least 32 months if there is a change in administration after the 2020 elections. Judging by recent sanctions designations, as well, the Trump administration does not appear intent to sit idly in the months ahead, but will proceed with a dramatic expansion of sanctions designations that may go well beyond previous sanctions campaigns. These will have a tremendous negative effect on the Iranian economy and the Iranian people’s aspirations, in addition to the economies of our allies in Europe seeking to comply with the UNSC-endorsed JCPOA.

As a result, the next administration should seek to reenter the JCPOA by providing assurances that sanctions relief will flow as intended under the accord. For example, this could include immediately licensing the sale of commercial aircraft to Iran that was delayed and ultimately reneged on by the Trump administration. Moreover, the next administration should address the credible challenges that arose in effectuating sanctions relief while the U.S. was party to the deal.

Time will be of the essence to demonstrate good faith and restore American credibility. While the U.S. should refrain from seeking to influence Iran’s domestic political balance in any direction, Iran will hold pivotal parliamentary elections in May 2020 and Presidential elections in 2021. The current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, is also 79 years old and Iran’s various factions are already jockeying over his potential successor. The political dynamics inside Iran may well determine how forward leaning the next administration can be in seeking to resolve remaining sources of conflict with Iran and it is critical that the U.S. act before it is too late to salvage the JCPOA and with it the political space to pursue diplomatic solutions.

CONCLUSION

The stakes of salvaging the JCPOA are incredibly high for American and regional security. At risk are the dual threats of a nuclear-armed Iran and a disastrous war that could make the Iraq war pale in comparison. The American people do not want to repeat the mistakes that led to the war in Iraq with Iran, and policymakers who clearly affirm their opposition to Donald Trump’s march to war are likely to be rewarded for their stand. Bold leadership is needed for the U.S. to navigate the treacherous waters ahead under Trump and re-enter and reinvigorate the key opening with Iran represented by the JCPOA.

Restoring U.S. Credibility: Returning to the Iran Nuclear Agreement

For a text version of this report, please click here.

NIAC JCPOA Report

Hear from experts who support re-entering the JCPOA:

Lawrence Wilkerson, Col, USA (Ret), former chief of staff to secretary of state Colin Powell:
“NIAC’s report, “Restoring U.S. Credibility – Returning to the Iran Nuclear Agreement”, is not only a powerful indictment of the Trump Administration’s security policy, it is a clear and clarion call for redress. The report makes quite clear that without a resumption of our agreed responsibilities under the JCPOA, alliances will fracture, de-dollarization movements will proceed apace, enemies will gain ground, and Iran will not be substantially prevented from acquiring a nuclear weapon. War could even result. The wonder is that the U.S. withdrew from the agreement in the first place; even more of a marvel–but entirely wise and proper–would be a successful return. Every concerned party should be working toward that end.”

Hooman Majd, Iranian-American writer:
“It almost goes without saying that the best option for de-escalating tensions in the Middle East, and preventing nuclear proliferation, is for the U.S. to return to the JCPOA nuclear accord. It is unimaginable that Iran would agree to a new deal—or indeed any other deal on other issues of contention—without the U.S. first abiding by the commitments that it made when it signed on, along with five other powers, to the nuclear deal with Iran.”

Ned Price, Director of Policy and Communication at National Security Action:
“There is much that we still don’t know about the Trump administration’s plans and intentions regarding Iran, but here’s what we do know: the withdrawal from the Iran deal was a political maneuver designed solely to satisfy the President’s base. It was manifestly not in our national security interest, as it has the potential to free Iran from the most stringent verification and monitoring regime ever negotiated, while also simultaneously setting us on a possible path toward another disastrous Middle Eastern conflict. What we also know, however, is that the new Democratic House now has the oversight tools to spotlight and constrain the administration’s recklessness, just as we begin to clear the path for the next administration’s reentry into the deal. There may be tactical disagreements regarding how to most effectively confront Iran’s destabilizing regional activities, but there must be a strategic recognition that only the JCPOA provides a baseline that allows us to achieve our most important objective: a nuclear weapons-free Iran.”

Barbara Slavin, Director of the Future of Iran Initiative at The Atlantic Council:
“I concur that the next US administration should return to the JCPOA– assuming Iran has remained compliant — and also lift the travel ban. The US should also request new talks with Iran both on repairing the damage from the unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA and on other issues of mutual concern.

Narges Bajoghli, Assistant Professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies:
“It is crucial for America’s standing in the world that we work to re-enter the JCPOA in the near future. This report provides concrete steps that Congress can take now to ensure that we return to the promises we made to the international community. Without doing so, America will continue to act as a force of instability in the Middle East.”

Farideh Farhi, Independent Scholar and Affiliate Graduate Faculty at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa:
“The Trump Administration’s ill-conceived rejection of the JCPOA and policy of ‘maximum pressure’ can no doubt inflict pain on the Iranian people. It can also court disaster in risking Iran’s resumption of its nuclear activities, further destabilization of the Middle East, and possibly even another costly US war in the region. Remaining quiet in the face of these predictable harms is not an option. This report offers timely and reasonable recommendations for keeping the JCPOA alive as a pathway for the re-emergence of a saner approach to Iran.”

Bijan Khajehpour, economist and a managing partner at Eurasian Nexus Partners:
“The US rejoining the JCPOA and helping to sustain a multilateral agreement will not only reduce the likelihood of an unnecessary nuclear arms race in the Middle East, but also prevent a radicalisation of Iranian politics. A moderate Iran is important for regional stability, the containment of jihadist movements and the future energy security for US allies globally.”

Nicholas Miller, Assistant Professor of Government at Dartmouth College
“The JCPOA has successfully curtailed Iran’s nuclear program and remains the surest tool for preventing an Iranian bomb. The new Congress should do what it can to limit the serious damage done by the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the deal. If the administration’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign continues to escalate, the odds increase that Iran will exit the agreement and move closer to a nuclear weapon, which could in turn spark a costly war.”

Paul Pillar, Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University:
“Candidates and legislators of all political persuasions would do well to read and heed this report. The Trump administration’s abandonment of arms control and diplomacy in favor of conflict and confrontation has brought the United States only isolation and infamy as well as heightened risk of war. It is not too late to return to compliance with the JCPOA and to a course that demonstrably serves U.S. interests better than the current policy does.”

Ellie Geranmayeh, Deputy Head MENA program at The European Council on Foreign Relations
“President Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the JCPOA, after months of negotiations with European allies earlier this year on pathways to sustain the agreement, was significantly damaging for transatlantic ties. This wound has been deepened by the manner in which the White House has sidelined European security interests and tried to impede their efforts to preserve the JCPOA, as enshrined by a UN Security Council. This report highlights the urgent need for the US executive and legislative branch to reassure European allies that in matters of foreign policy, the United States is a credible and consistent partner. Moreover, the US should reassure European capitals and companies that US sanctions policy will not seek to illegitimately target allies in pursuit of a maximalist policy that is unlikely to trigger fundamental changes in Iranian behaviour.”

NIAC Policy Brief

From the Hill: NIAC Asks if the U.S. and Iran are on a Collision Course

NIAC Policy Brief

The Trump administration’s sanctions on Iran risk “impoverishing the Iranian middle class, crushing the Iranian civil society and eliminating prospects for peaceful democratic change,” warned Sina Toossi. “It is really creating a destructive situation internally.”

Toossi was speaking at a briefing on Capitol Hill examining the Trump administration’s pressure campaign against Iran. Moderated by Laicie Heeley, the editor-in-chief of Inkstick, the panel included Ned Price, a former Special Assistant to President Obama for National Security Affairs who currently works at National Security Action; Sina Toossi, a research associate at NIAC; and Barbara Slavin, the Director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council.

Price highlighted that the Trump administration’s push was highly focused on pressuring Iran, but that it was likely to fall short of the efforts of the Obama administration which had secured the buy-in of the international community. Regarding Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s 12 demands of Iran, it was unclear to Price “how the administration could come close to any one of these objectives, let alone all twelve.” According to the Atlantic Council’s Barbara Slavin, Trump’s exit out of the JCPOA humiliated our allies in Europe, who helped negotiate the nuclear accord, engaged with the State Department’s Brian Hook to seek to improve it and were furious when Trump decided to snap back sanctions anyway.

Price argued that the administration’s frequent statements on Iran were designed not only to try to increase pressure on Iran but also to “engender additional domestic political support for the administration’s hardline approach to Iran” that is similar to the approach toward Iraq undertaken by the George W. Bush administration. Price also warned that there is an increasingly likelihood of a confrontation in Syria, where the administration has stationed troops and begun to shift goals from ISIL to forcing Iran out of the country. “The administration has gone to great lengths to say that regime change whether by proxies or by force is not the goal,” stated Price. “[B]ut I think that is belied by the fact that this administration has begun… to implement this maximalist position.”

Toossi gave further insights into the effects of Trump’s Iran policy on the political spectrum inside Iran. He called Trump’s narrative of Iran’s regime being on its last legs, “wishful thinking” given that there is not currently a broad revolutionary movement within the country. He emphasized how these policies not only harm forces pushing for greater openness and moderation, but also stiffen hardline opposition to the administration’s demands and deepen their opposition towards negotiating with the West all together.

Slavin further warned that the Trump administration’s Iran policy has highlighted the danger of “putting all our eggs in one basket in a region,” following the “brutal murder” of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of thugs in the Saudi Consulate in Turkey.

“It’s pretty devastating that it had to take the murder of a U.S. resident and Washington Post contributor to put a spotlight on the hypocrisy of the Trump administration’s policy towards the Middle East,” stated Price. He noted that Mike Pompeo’s article on the administration’s Iran policy in Foreign Affairs this week included a section entitled “Acting with Moral Clarity.” Yet, Price noted “this is the same Mike Pompeo that we saw yesterday smiling with Mohammed bin Salman” in Riyadh following Khashoggi’s murder. The hypocrisy combined with America’s isolation following the snapback of sanctions will “shine a very harsh light” on Trump’s approach to the Middle East, warned Price.

Memo: Consequences of Sanctions Snapback on Iran

Not satisfied with withdrawing from the Iran nuclear accord, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (“JCPOA”), the Trump administration intends to start sanctioning foreign parties that seek to comply with the terms of the international agreement. As outlined by the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”), the Trump administration will begin re-imposing those sanctions lifted pursuant to the JCPOA on August 7, 2018 and continuing up until November 4, 2018, at which time all formerly lifted sanctions will be re-imposed on Iran.

Because such U.S. sanctions primarily target foreign parties transacting or otherwise dealing with Iran, the Trump administration will be actively undermining efforts by the international community to act consistent with the JCPOA and ensure its survivability. This includes, most dramatically, undermining efforts by foreign countries and entities to take those measures identified in the JCPOA to reduce or eliminate the risk of nuclear proliferation in Iran. This move is a dangerous gambit that pits the U.S. in opposition to the rest of the world—including the U.S.’s closest partners and allies—and risks re-invigorating nuclear proliferation efforts in Iran.

Considering the dramatic consequences for U.S. national security and foreign policy interests, the Trump administration should not be given free reign to plunge the United States into a confrontation with its closest allies and partners — such as those in Europe — and risk a new war in the Middle East. Congress should assert its own constitutional prerogatives and ensure that the Trump administration acts consistent with long-standing U.S. policy objectives, including those related to nuclear non-proliferation. This could include, for instance, legislative measures to restrain the Trump administration from abrogating the JCPOA or sanctioning foreign parties seeking to comply with the terms of the nuclear accord. At the very least, Congress should hold hearings to adjudicate the potential negative consequences of the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the JCPOA and undo the global consensus in favor of the diplomatic agreement aimed at restraining Iran’s nuclear program.

Re-Imposition of U.S. Sanctions Lifted Under the JCPOA

Beginning August 7, 2018, the Trump administration will take steps to re-impose those U.S. sanctions lifted pursuant to the JCPOA. In its initial phase, this will include the immediate re-imposition of sanctions on:

  • The purchase or acquisition of U.S. dollar banknotes by the Government of Iran;
  • Iran’s trade in gold or precious metals;
  • The direct or indirect sale, supply, or transfer to or from Iran of graphite, raw, or semi-finished metals such as aluminum and steel, coal, and software for integrating industrial processes;
  • Significant transactions related to the purchase or sale of Iranian rials or the maintenance of significant funds or accounts outside the territory of Iran denominated in the rial;
  • The purchase, subscription to, or facilitation of the issuance of Iranian sovereign debt; and
  • Iran’s automotive sector.

By November 4, 2018, the United States will re-impose all remaining sanctions targeting Iran that had been lifted pursuant to U.S. commitments under the JCPOA. This will include the re-imposition of sanctions on:

  • Iran’s port operators and shipping and shipbuilding sectors;
  • Petroleum-related transactions with the National Iranian Oil Company, Naftiran Intertrade Company, and the National Iranian Tanker Company, including the purchase of petroleum, petroleum products, and petrochemical products from Iran;
  • Transactions by foreign financial institutions with the Central Bank of Iran and designated Iranian financial institutions;
  • The provision of specialized financial messaging services to the Central Bank of Iran and certain Iranian financial institutions;
  • The provision of underwriting services, insurance, or reinsurance; and
  • Iran’s energy sector.

In addition, the Trump administration intends to re-impose those sanctions that applied to persons removed from OFAC’s List of Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons (“SDN List”) and other U.S. sanctions lists pursuant to U.S. commitments under the JCPOA. This includes, for instance, the re-imposition of sanctions on most of Iran’s financial institutions, including the Central Bank of Iran.

Undermining International Compliance with a Successful Nonproliferation Agreement

The re-imposition of U.S. sanctions will pose immense difficulties for other major world powers’ compliance with the terms of the JCPOA.  Failure by the remaining JCPOA participants to fulfill the terms of the nuclear accord will prompt Iran to abandon some or all of the JCPOA’s limitations on its nuclear program, thus risking renewed proliferation efforts in Iran and threatening a new war in the Middle East.   

Pursuant to the JCPOA, major world powers — including Europe, Russia, and China — agreed to take steps to ensure effectiveness relating to the lifting of national and international sanctions. These commitments were geared towards ensuring that Iran received practical economic benefit from its agreement to maintain long-term restrictions on its own nuclear program. The JCPOA obligated all parties to take adequate measures “to ensure . . . effectiveness with respect to the lifting of sanctions under th[e] JCPOA” and committed JCPOA participants to “agree on steps to ensure Iran’s access in areas of trade, technology, finance, and energy.” The JCPOA was envisioned as an effective quid pro quo, whereby Iran agreed to long-term limitations on its nuclear program in return for practical economic benefits — including the lifting of nuclear-related sanctions — from major world powers.  

The re-imposition of U.S. sanctions, however, will risk the compliance of remaining JCPOA participants, as Europe and other JCPOA parties will have grave difficulties ensuring “effectiveness” with respect to the lifting of sanctions under the JCPOA. For instance, while the European Union and its respective states intend to continue the lifting of national and Union-wide sanctions targeting Iran–consistent with the JCPOA–European companies and persons will nonetheless remain subject to U.S. secondary sanctions targeting their own transactions or dealings with Iran.

The most notable consequences in this respect will be oil and banking transactions. To the extent that Iran is unable to export its oil and repatriate its oil revenues, the JCPOA will become a moot agreement, as Iran is highly unlikely to continue its adherence to limitations on its nuclear program while deriving no practical economic benefit from the nuclear accord. Re-imposed U.S. sanctions expressly target foreign banks — including foreign central banks — and foreign parties engaged in transactions related to the import of Iranian-origin oil. The Trump administration has sent conflicting signals as to whether it will grant exemptions to foreign countries importing Iranian-origin oil — including China, Europe, India, Japan, and South Korea. Similarly, to the extent that Iran’s financial institutions are isolated from the global financial system and unable to reconnect to foreign banks to process trade-related and other transactions, the Iran nuclear deal will not survive. Re-imposed U.S. sanctions will re-designate most Iranian financial institutions for sanctions and render foreign bank dealings with such Iranian financial institutions as sanctionable, thus expressly targeting foreign countries’ compliance with the nuclear accord.

Sanctioning Beneficial Work at Arak and Fordow

Pursuant to the JCPOA, Iran agreed to convert its enrichment facility at Fordow into a research center absent of proliferation risk. To do so, however, Iran required international collaboration, including in the form of scientific joint partnerships in agreed areas of research. In addition, the JCPOA required Iran — as part of an international partnership — to redesign and rebuild a modernized heavy-water reactor in Arak that would drastically reduce its potential output of plutonium.

However, these measures aimed at reducing the risk of nuclear proliferation in Iran are under serious threat, as re-imposed U.S. sanctions render sanctionable conduct by foreign parties with respect to Iran’s nuclear program. For instance, the Trump administration has stated that it will re-impose those sanctions that applied to persons removed from OFAC’s SDN List pursuant to the JCPOA. This appears to include the re-designation of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (“AEOI”) — the body responsible for Iran’s nuclear program — pursuant to Executive Order 13382. By designating the AEOI pursuant to E.O. 13382, entities that provide or attempt to provide financial, material, technological, or other support for, or goods or services in support of, the AEOI would be exposed to U.S. sanctions and risk designation under E.O. 13382 themselves. Foreign parties participating in an international partnership with the AEOI — consistent with the JCPOA — to convert the Arak nuclear reactor into a reactor absent of proliferation risk would thus be engaged in sanctionable conduct, as such parties would be prima facie engaged in the provision of material support to the AEOI  — thus meeting the criteria for designation under E.O. 13382.  

In addition, the U.S.’s re-designation of the AEOI pursuant to E.O. 13382 will render foreign financial institutions that facilitate significant transactions for or on behalf of the AEOI — including transactions consistent with the terms of the JCPOA — exposed to U.S. sanctions under § 104(c)(2)(E) of the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions Accountability and Divestment Act (“CISADA”) and § 1247 of the Iran Freedom and Counter-proliferation Act (“IFCA”). Such financial institutions would risk being cut off from the U.S. financial system and would thus be unlikely to facilitate transactions involving the AEOI, even if such transactions are consistent with the JCPOA and reduce the risk of proliferation in Iran.  

In the Trump administration’s zeal to kill the Iran nuclear deal, the administration will perhaps fatally undermine efforts to ensure the conversion of Iran’s nuclear facilities into facilities absent of proliferation risk, thus gravely undermining U.S. and regional security.

The Need for Congressional Intervention

The Trump administration’s withdrawal from the JCPOA and its re-imposition of U.S. sanctions targeting Iran risks splitting the United States irrevocably from its historical allies and partners, including those in Europe; threatens to undermine the future use of economic sanctions to secure national security and foreign policy objectives; and encourages the reinvigoration of nuclear proliferation risks in Iran. Such consequences implicate critical U.S. national security and foreign policy interests and warrant increased oversight over the administration’s actions.

Congress should be involved in any decision implicating U.S. national security and foreign policy interests. In this case, Congress should assert its own prerogatives in the realm of foreign policy and resume U.S. compliance with the JCPOA, including, but not limited to, the continued lifting of U.S. sanctions as obligated under the nuclear accord. Absent such a dramatic measure, however, Congress should seek to restrain the President from re-imposing those U.S. sanctions lifted under the JCPOA and should at least limit the damage re-imposed U.S. sanctions could cause to the transatlantic alliance between the United States and Europe. If the U.S.’s historical allies and partners in Europe believe that their own national security interests demand their continued compliance with the JCPOA, then the Trump administration should be restricted from imposing sanctions on European companies engaged in commercial trade with Iran that is permissible under European law.

Shockingly, Congress — which held numerous hearings on the U.S.’s assent to the JCPOA — has proven unwilling to conduct significant oversight regarding the potential consequences inherent in the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the JCPOA and its re-imposition of U.S. sanctions targeting Iran. In failing to assess the risks and dangers associated with the Trump administration’s actions, Congress has rendered itself incapacitated on an issue of critical import to U.S. national security. Following midterm elections, Congress should reassert its prerogatives in the field of national security and ensure that the Trump administration is not able to undermine long-standing U.S. foreign policy objectives — including the objective of nuclear non-proliferation — through its rash decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear accord and re-impose those U.S. sanctions lifted under the JCPOA.


¹ Other U.S. sanctions may be applicable to transactions involving the AEOI and incident to the fulfillment of the terms of the JCPOA, including, for instance, menu-based sanctions on foreign parties that sell, supply, or transfer to Iran graphite, raw, or semi-finished metals such as aluminum and steel, coal, and software for integrating industrial processes, if the material is sold, supplied, or transferred for use in connection with Iran’s nuclear program. Section 1245(a)(1)(C) of IFCA does not distinguish between those transactions aimed at converting Iran’s nuclear facilities into facilities absent of nuclear proliferation risk and is thus likely to counteract international efforts to reduce the risk of nuclear proliferation in Iran.  

Expert Briefing Sounds Alarm on Trump’s Iran Policy

“Career U.S. officials have told me there’s no policy coherence, no strategy. They’re throwing Jello at the wall to see what will stick,” said Reza Marashi, Research Director at the National Iranian American Council, discussing the Trump administration’s Iran policy. Marashi spoke on a panel hosted on Capitol Hill last week by NIAC regarding the future of the Iran nuclear deal – also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). He was joined in dialogue by Kelsey Davenport, Director of Non Proliferation at the Arms Control Association, and John Glaser, Director of Foreign Policy at the CATO Institute.

Jamal Abdi––the panel moderator as well as NIAC’s current Vice President of Policy––kicked off the discussion, asking “There seems to be the open question of: Is America’s policy towards Iran regime change?”

“They want capitulation, they want regime change––plain and simple,” answered Marashi. Throughout the panel, speakers agreed that if the United States is actively seeking regime collapse, its motivations aren’t fueled by an urge to “spread democracy” as they claim. If that was the case, destabilization efforts would not be fueled by Saudi Arabia, who are even less democratic than their Iranian counterpart. Instead, Marashi speculated, “The metric for [invasion and sanctions] is: Do you accept American hegemony?” Since the fall of the Shah, Iran has been one of the only regional power that doesn’t, and as such, tensions have only grown.

Glaser noted on the decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal, “I think [Trump] has an intense hate for the (JCPOA) because it was a success of his predecessor. I’m sure, to this day, he has never read it.” The snapback of sanctions––which according to Glaser will “hurt the Iranian people far more than the government”––can be used as political leverage towards a set objective. As Marashi put it, “What people don’t tell you in this town is you’re either on the path to war or diplomacy––everything else is leverage.” Given that the administration walked away from the diplomatic path, it stands to reason that they’re on the path to war.

While American sanctions are bad enough, panelists were skeptical that the Trump administration could create a sanctions coalition as broad as that which existed under the Obama administration. Davenport expressed that without global support for sanctions, it seems unlikely that Iran will come back to the bargaining table for a better deal. And as such, “The Europeans are going to be more creative––as well as the Russians and the Chinese––to find more secure banking channels, so that transactions can be facilitated without touching American financial systems.”

No matter the amount of economic cushioning Europeans can provide, however, Iran has lost substantial benefits envisioned under the deal. As such, hardliner officials––who were largely skeptical of the deal in the first place––are going to push for retaliation. According to Davenport, if the deal falls apart, Iran will likely build more centrifuge facilities, ramp up research, and even potentially enrich uranium up to 20%––but still short of the threshold where it could be used for a weapon.

Even if he wanted, there is very little Trump can do to remedy the situation. He has effectively scared off investment in the country through both threats and his at-times erratic behavior. “If the Trump administration said tomorrow that they would be back in compliance with the Iran deal, who would believe them?” asked Davenport. “Given his long history of broken promises in the foreign policy space, I just don’t think you would have business entities that would be willing to trust that the Trump administration would stay the course.”

When asked for best and worst case scenarios, the panelists had very similar answers. At best, Iran will have just enough incentive to let the agreement “limp through” in the months ahead. At worst, our nations could go to war, spurring another decades-long conflict where we have nothing to gain but everything to lose.

Iran Hawk Accuses Lawmaker of Supporting Iranian Repression During Hearing

WASHINGTON, DC – “It’s imperative that the administration change its direction and work with Congress, along with our European partners, to mitigate the very destabilizing consequences of our withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement,” declared Ranking Congressman Peter Welch (D-VT). On June 6, 2018, the Subcommittee of National Security of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform met to discuss the U.S. withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Rep. Welch put hawkish witnesses on the defensive regarding U.S. options after the collapse of the JCPOA, noting the increased risk that the U.S. will be backed into supporting war and regime change. This led to a shocking moment where one panelist accused him of acquiescing in the repression and torture of citizens by the Islamic Republic of Iran.

When pressed by the Chairman of the subcommittee, Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-FL), on whether the US was pushing toward war with its goal of regime change, Senior Advisor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies Richard Goldberg dismissed the notion. He claimed that no official “on this panel and certainly in the administration…is coming anywhere near such a policy [of direct military engagement].”

Congressman Welch then asked if statements made by National Security Advisor John Bolton and President Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani, who have both been clear in their desire for U.S.-backed regime change in Iran, should be dismissed. He asked Goldberg, “[John Bolton]’s the national security adviser for the president, he said to the American people that our goal should be regime change in Iran. Now you just want to blow him away and say that he didn’t mean it?”

Goldberg pushed on and suddenly accused the congressman of condoning the Iranian regime’s violations of human rights, asking Rep. Welch, “Congressman, are you for repression of the Iranian people, yes or no?” In an incredibly disparaging action towards the congressman, he immediately charged, “Are you for the repression and torture of [Iranians]?”

“There is no one in this Congress, no one in this country, that condones repression anywhere by any dictator in any country, and you know that. I’m asking the questions here,” Welch replied, taken aback by the wild accusation.

Congressman Welch pressed on in questioning the panelists on the Trump Administration’s policy if Iran were to aggressively ramp up its nuclear activities. He posited, “Let me ask this question, what’s the option for the United States, should Iran aggressively restart its activities towards building a nuclear weapon? Who on the panel would favor the use of military action at that point? Just raise your hands.”

David Albright, President for the Institute for Science and International Security, replied “Absolutely,” and Michael Pregent, Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute, proceeded to raise his hand in favor of future military force against Iran. Dr. Michael Rubin, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who pushed for the 2003 invasion of Iraq and military action against Iran in the past, said: “There’s episodes of overwhelming pressure that has caused Iran to back down…I’ll let history be the precedent on this, Mr. Ranking Member.”

When Congressman Welch pressed the panelists on post-JCPOA policy recommendations, the sole JCPOA supporter on the panel – Jim Walsh, Senior Research Associate in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Security Studies Program – declared, “We don’t have a strategy and that this puts on a path to war, either by design – regime change – or we back into it as we respond to them a bit – beginning to reinstall their nuclear program.”

The ‘support for the Iranian people’ that Secretary of State Pompeo claims is the Trump Administration’s position was critiqued by Walsh, who stated: “On this issue of the Iranians whom everyone professes such great concern for…the Iranian people are not happy with us – Muslim ban, number one.”

Any military confrontation with Iran will not only embolden hardliners within the country, but will inevitably result in Iranian civilians actively resisting any foreign military aggression, Walsh continued. “A [private] poll came out last month that…asked the Iranian people… ‘How should we respond to the U.S pulling out?’” Walsh noted. “67 percent of Iranians said that Iran should retaliate. Why? Because they’re rallying around their flag.”

Walsh reiterated the fact that if Iran is attacked militarily by the United States, such an attack would damage U.S credibility in the eyes of Iranians. Any direct military strike by the Trump Administration is counterproductive to U.S. interests and only further alienates the Iranian people from any favorable view of America’s agenda in the region. As Dr. Walsh explained, “They may not like the corruption. They may not like the economy. But if you threaten to attack their country, we’re going to help the hardliners. We’re not going to strike a blow for democracy.”

NIAC: Trump’s Reckless Decision Puts US on Path to War with Iran

Washington, DC – NIAC President Trita Parsi issued the following statement in response to reports that President Trump declared he would snap back all nuclear-related sanctions under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or Iran nuclear deal, and impose new sanctions:

“Donald Trump has committed what will go down as one of the greatest acts of self-sabotage in America’s modern history. He has put the United States on a path towards war with Iran and may trigger a wider regional war and nuclear arms race.

“This is a crisis of choice. Trump has taken a functioning arms control deal that prevented an Iranian nuclear bomb and turned it into a crisis that can lead to war.

“This is not America first, this is Trump leasing out America’s foreign policy interests to the highest bidder. The only parties applauding this move are Benjamin Netanyahu and Mohammed Bin Salman, who have consistently chosen to undermine regional security to advance their own short-sighted political fortunes. Trump’s reckless decision is a betrayal of the national interests of the United States of America that could haunt us for generations.

“Not only has Trump opened a pandora’s box of consequences in the region, we now know the administration hired the private Israeli intelligence firm Black Cube to target former U.S. officials who supported the agreement. This Nixonian campaign was likely an illegal attempt to discredit the Iran deal. Anything short of a full investigation by Congress and the Justice Department of Trump’s efforts with Black Cube would be an affront to our democratic system.

“Perhaps the most absurd aspect of President Trump’s Iran policy is his attempt to claim solidarity with the Iranian people, even as he bans Iranians from the U.S. and his top advisors openly support the MEK terrorist group that is universally reviled by Iranians. The Iranian people overwhelmingly supported the nuclear deal, at least until the sanctions relief that was promised failed to materialize, and will be the party most impacted by Trump’s decision.

“Many were hopeful that the nuclear deal would facilitate broader change in Iranian society over time by empowering moderate forces in their demand for social and economic justice. By diminishing the excuse of sanctions and raising expectations for economic improvement, the nuclear deal appears to have added pressure on Iran’s leaders to meet the public’s political expectations. However, a potential opening for accelerated progress in Iran has now been slammed shut by Trump, an action that will redirect attention from the Iranian government to the United States. This will not just empower hardliners, it will force Iran’s political elite to paper over fissures on key social and political issues while cracking down further on any dissent. This is potentially the biggest crime of Trump’s decision – limiting the agency of Iran’s own people to choose peaceful political evolution in order to address their grievances.

“It is our profound hope that the Europeans, Russians and Chinese are able to sustain the nuclear accord in spite of Trump’s decision – though we recognize that this is a tall task given the effect of U.S. sanctions. We also hope that Congress will shake off the politicization of Iran policy and move to restrict Trump’s nuclear sabotage. However, given that Senate Republicans and even a handful of Democrats voted for Iran-hawk Mike Pompeo to join John Bolton on Trump’s war cabinet, this may not be possible until a new Congress is sworn in.

“Iran has remained compliant with the nuclear deal as verified by the IAEA in 11 reports since January 2016, and its people want more economic relief – not less. Under the JCPOA, Iran’s commitment never to pursue a nuclear weapon never expires, while other far-reaching constraints stretch out for decades. After Trump’s breach of the accord, the U.S. – not Iran – is now the outlier when it comes to Iran’s nuclear program. If the deal dies as is highly likely, the U.S. will find little to no support in addressing Iran’s soon to be expanding nuclear program.

“For decades, Washington has insisted that the Iranian leadership is addicted to enmity with the United States. Now it may become fact for the world that the opposite is true and it is America that is addicted to enmity with Iran.

“For those in and outside of the Iranian-American community who worked for years to prevent war with Iran, and then succeeded in protecting the nuclear deal from sabotage until today, this move comes as a bitter blow. Unfortunately, we must now redouble our efforts to prevent Trump from leading us to war with Iran.”

MEDIA AVAILABILITY: Experts Available to Discuss Trump Waiver Decision

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Trita Parsi, President – 202.386.2303, tparsi@niacouncil.org
Reza Marashi, Research Director – 202.379.1639, rmarashi@niacouncil.org
Jamal Abdi, Vice President for Policy– 202.386.6408, jabdi@niacouncil.org

Washington, D.C. – Experts from the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) will be available to media to offer analysis of President Trump’s decision whether or not to waive sanctions necessary under the Iran nuclear deal also known as the JCPOA. President Trump tweeted that he will announce his decision at 2 PM EST on May 8.

NIAC analysts available in Washington, DC:

Trita Parsi, is the author of the 2017 book Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy. He is the 2010 recipient of the Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order. He is the founder and president of the National Iranian American Council and an expert on civil rights and US-Iranian relations. He is also the author of Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel and the United States (Yale University Press 2007) and A Single Roll of the Dice – Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran (Yale University Press 2012). Parsi’s articles have been published in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Financial Times, Jane’s Intelligence Review, the Nation,The American Conservative, the Jerusalem Post, The Forward, and others. He is a frequent guest on CNN, PBS’s Newshour with Jim Lehrer, NPR, the BBC, and Al Jazeera. Follow Trita on Twitter: @tparsi

Reza Marshi joined NIAC in 2010 as the organization’s first Research Director. He came to NIAC after four years in the Office of Iranian Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. Prior to his tenure at the State Department, he was an analyst at the Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS) covering China-Middle East issues, and a Tehran-based private strategic consultant on Iranian political and economic risk. Marashi is frequently consulted by Western governments on Iran-related matters. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, and The Atlantic, among other publications. He has been a guest contributor to CNN, NPR, the BBC, TIME Magazine, The Washington Post, and the Financial Times, among other broadcast outlets.

Jamal Abdi is the Vice President for Policy for the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) and the Executive Director of NIAC Action. He leads NIAC’s advocacy and education on civil rights and immigration issues, as well as diplomacy with Iran. He formerly served as Policy Advisor on foreign affairs, immigration, and defense issues in the U.S. Congress. Abdi has written for The New York Times, CNN, Foreign Policy, and blogs at The Huffington Post.  He is a frequent guest contributor in print, radio, and television, including appearances on Al Jazeera, NPR, and BBC News. Follow Jamal on Twitter: @jabdi

Recent NIAC publications and media appearances:

Critics: Nothing new in Netanyahu’s Iran case, CNN (Interview), May 1, 2018

Trump’s Ineptitude on Iran, The Cairo Review, May 7, 2018

Blame Trump When Iran Races for the Bomb, Foreign Policy, Mar. 29, 2018

About NIAC

The National Iranian American Council (NIAC) is a 501(c)(3) nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing the interests of the Iranian-American community. NIAC’s mission is focused on promoting an active and engaged Iranian-American community, supporting aspirations for human rights and democracy in Iran, opposing war between the US and Iran, and celebrating our community’s deep cultural heritage. NIAC accomplishes its mission by supplying the resources, knowledge and tools to enable greater civic participation by Iranian Americans and informed decision-making by policymakers.

For more information, please visit www.niacouncil.org.

 

Kicking the Hornet’s Nest: Consequences of Trump’s May 12 Iran Deal Decision

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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.

 

Democracy Now!: Trump Decries Iran Nuclear Deal as He Fills Cabinet with Advocates Pushing Regime Change in Tehran

ABC: Macron Steps Up His Bid to Save the Iran Deal