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.”

Risks Rise As US Reimposes Sanctions on Iran

Several undesirable consequences are becoming more likely.

This week, a set of Iran sanctions previously lifted under the Iran nuclear deal will snap back into effect as part of President Trump’s complete violation of the accord. Thus far, Iran has avoided rash action, instead seeking to secure concessions from Europe, Russia, and China that could reduce the sanctions’ impact. The cautious response may have lulled the Trump administration into thinking its approach is working, but several potential consequences loom on the horizon.

Renewed proliferation: Before the nuclear deal was signed in 2015, Iran’s heavy-water reactor at Arak was close to going online; it could have produced weapons-grade plutonium for several nuclear weapons per year. Moreover, the deeply buried Fordow facility was already being used to enrich uranium. However, under the nuclear accord Iran destroyed the core of the Arak reactor and agreed to redesign it with international partners so that it would not produce significant amounts of weapons-grade plutonium. Similarly, international partners in collaboration with the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, or AEOI, are working to turn Fordow into a research-and-development facility, ensuring that Iran experiments with zinc or other benign materials instead of uranium at the site.

Read More at Defense One

Blame Trump When Iran Races for the Bomb

The nuclear deal with Iran hangs by a thread. The appointment of John Bolton — an unapologetic proponent of war with Iran — as U.S. national security advisor has prompted celebrations among Iran deal detractors. The announcement that nuclear talks with North Korea will be held around the same time that U.S. President Donald Trump must decide whether to keep or kill the Iran deal has further complicated the picture. Yet few in Washington understand how Trump’s gamble with Pyongyang may impact Tehran’s nuclear calculations.

Conventional wisdom declares that Trump would be foolish to kill the Iran deal (formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) if he genuinely seeks to reach an agreement with the North Koreans. If Trump shows that he does not honor America’s agreements, why would Pyongyang strike a deal with him?

But Trump is anything but conventional. His logic runs in the opposite direction, and Bolton will be more than happy to enable Trump’s worst instincts. By killing the JCPOA, Trump thinks he’ll signal to the North Koreans that they should have no doubt that he is ready to walk away from the talks if he doesn’t get what he wants. After all, walking away from ongoing negotiations is much easier than killing an existing deal.

Trump may know bluster, be he does not know diplomacy. Strong-arming subcontractors may work in the Manhattan real estate market, but it won’t work in international diplomacy. Sovereign states don’t react like jilted architects and electricians.

How will Iran react if Trump pursues this path? For Tehran, the JCPOA was never just about the nuclear issue. It was a test to see if the West could come to terms with the Islamic Republic and accept Iran as a regional power. By testing this proposition, the talks became a defining showdown between the two dominant schools of thought within the Iranian elite.

The first school, dominated by conservative elements in the government and military, argues that the United States — pressured by Israel and Saudi Arabia — is inherently hostile to Iran and will never recognize the country as a regional power or come to terms with its regime, regardless of Iran’s policies or the compromises it offers. The inclusion Tehran seeks can only be achieved by forcing the United States and its allies to accept the reality of Iran’s power. The hard-liners’ skepticism of diplomacy and resistance to compromise is partly rooted in their belief that no Iranian compromise can change Washington’s hostility to Tehran.

Iran’s second, more moderate group of policy-makers recognizes both that the country’s own actions have contributed to infectious conflict and that the United States has legitimate concerns about Iranian policies. An American acceptance of Iran’s inclusion in the regional security architecture can be obtained, they argue, through diplomacy and a genuine give-and-take. If Iran compromises, so will the West, the logic goes.

Up until the nuclear negotiations began in earnest, the debate between these two schools was theoretical. Though Tehran had made many diplomatic overtures in the past, America’s willingness to come to terms with Iran had never been tested through a mutual compromise that both sides had signed on to.

Until, that is, the JCPOA.

The Iran nuclear deal was the first time the United States and Iran had agreed to a significant exchange of concessions that not only eliminated Iran’s pathways to a bomb and lifted sanctions, but also put an end to almost four decades of American efforts to completely isolate Iran. It signaled that America, 36 years after the Iranian revolution, was coming to terms with Iran.

Both sides agreed to painful concessions, both faced fierce domestic political opposition, and both recognized that the agreement signaled a major break with past policies. America was coming to terms with Iran. And the Islamic Republic was speaking of the United States not as the Great Satan, but as a negotiation partner.

It was a major victory for the second school of thought in Iran — at least for the moment.

But increasingly, the JCPOA has become a victory for the hard-liners. Despite Iran’s concessions and its adherence to the deal (confirmed by 10 reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency), Trump, Saudi Arabia, and Israel have clearly rejected Iran’s regional integration under any circumstance. Changes in Iran’s policies proved insufficient, so nothing short of Iran’s complete capitulation can seemingly satisfy Trump’s allies.

This conclusion will be unavoidable in Tehran if Trump kills the JCPOA to make a deal with Pyongyang. It will strengthen the Iranian hard-line narrative that Tehran’s mistake was that it only obtained enrichment capabilities — but not a bomb — before it agreed to seriously negotiate. Had it built a bomb — like the North Koreans — then the United States would have no choice but to show Iran respect, strike a deal with it — and honor that deal. Trump will essentially incentivize Iran to go nuclear.

Ultimately, Trump’s bluster won’t work. He lacks a properly staffed State Department with the capacity to negotiate, and his new national security advisor ideologically opposes diplomacy. By killing the Iran deal to impress Pyongyang, Trump will destroy one functioning arms deal without securing a new one. And in the process, he will tilt the balance in favor of those in Tehran who have argued all along that America only understands the language of force.

Originally published in Foreign Policy

Will Trump Kill The Iran Nuclear Deal This Week? China Better Watch Out

This week is crucial for the Iran nuclear deal, and by extension, stability in the Middle East. By Friday, US President Donald Trump is obligated to renew sanctions waivers on Iran. If he fails to do so, the US will violate the nuclear deal of 2015 and trigger a process that will likely see the deal collapse and bring the United States and Iran back on a path towards war.

It’s been a year since Trump became president, and clearly the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is hanging by a thread. At first, Trump’s hostility against the agreement appeared to be limited to rhetoric. After all, Trump twice renewed the sanctions waivers and certified Iran’s compliance to Congress. But all of that changed in October when Trump failed to certify the deal to the US legislative body. Ever since, Trump’s intent to kill JCPOA has become a foregone conclusion.

Trump famously threw a temper tantrum in the Oval Office in July when he was not offered an option to kill the deal and instead was forced to recertify it. By October, his national security team realised, he had to be offered a decertification option. But if the deal was to be saved, they figured, Trump had to be given the option of being tough against Iran on another front.

In September, a consensus inter-agency recommendation was presented to Trump that recommended recertifying the deal while aggressively “pushing back” against Iran and Hezbollah in the region. The hope was that Trump would be satisfied with the hawkishness of the recommendation and leave the nuclear deal alone.

But Trump outsmarted his national security team. He agreed to escalating against Iran in the region, but insisted on decertifying the nuclear deal nevertheless. All but two of his senior officials opposed decertification – CIA chief Mike Pompeo and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley.

Trump’s advisers still managed to score a point though. Instead of killing the nuclear deal right away, Trump was convinced to pursue a two-step process: he would call on Congress to pass new legislation that would “fix” the deal by unilaterally changing some of its key terms, particularly the expiration of some of the restrictions imposed on Iran’s nuclear programme. The problem is that any unilateral change to the deal is still a violation of the agreement. Thus, rather than “fixing” the deal, unilateral Congressional revisions would end up violating and killing it.

If Congress would fail to act, on the other hand, Trump vowed that he would “terminate” the deal himself. So either way, the deal would end up getting nixed.

Indeed, the White House expected that Congress wouldn’t act. The Congressional path was solely aimed at giving the appearance of a more deliberate process and a genuine effort by Trump to work with Congress.

More than a month has passed since decertification, and predictably Congress has failed to act. Now the ball is back in Trump’s court and he must make a decision by Friday.

But can the JCPOA survive without the US? That depends on whether Trump decides to implement the pre-JCPOA secondary sanctions. If the president goes down this path, the US will once again target Asian and European companies trading and investing in Iran.

China, Russia and the EU will fiercely oppose Trump’s sabotage of the nuclear deal and reject the new sanctions. But even if they do, it is not clear if Asian and EU companies will remain in the Iranian market if forced to choose between the US and Iran.

If Asian and EU companies leave Iran in order to retain access to the American market, then Iran will be left with almost none of the benefits of remaining inside the nuclear deal. Sooner or later, internal political dynamics will force the Iranians to leave the agreement and restart aspects of their nuclear programme.

At that point, the pressure on the US to bomb Iran – both from within and from states such as Israel and Saudi Arabia – will increase once more. But unlike 2011-2012, when the risk of war between the US and Iran last peaked, the option of diplomacy will most likely not exist. As a result, the risk of escalation eventually leading to war will be far higher.

While China’s focus rightfully is on the Korean peninsula, it should be careful not to neglect the danger of that war with Iran poses for stability in Asia.

Originally published in South China Morning Post

NIAC Statement on IAEA Report Confirming Iran’s Compliance with the JCPOA

 

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Jamal Abdi
Phone: 206-369-2069
Email: jabdi@niacouncil.org

  
  
Washington, D.C. – Jamal Abdi, Policy Director of the National Iranian American Council, issued the following statement after reports indicated that the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) issued a quarterly report once again affirming Iran’s compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or Iran nuclear deal:

“The IAEA has once again affirmed what everyone outside of the White House appears to know: that Iran is complying with the nuclear deal. There is a reason why Trump can’t point to any specific evidence to justify his assertions that Iran is noncompliant with the nuclear accord. The IAEA, U.S. intelligence community and our allies in the P5+1 have all affirmed Iran’s compliance. Yet, Trump has violated the JCPOA and continues to hold the fate of the accord in doubt by threatening to withhold a Congressionally-mandated certification of Iran’s compliance in mid-October, which would trigger expedited consideration of snapback sanctions.

“While Iran continues to abide by its nuclear commitments, the evidence is mounting that the U.S. is trying to unilaterally withdrawal from the JCPOA. There appears to be little other way to explain Amb. Nikki Haley’s efforts to stir up controversy in the media over IAEA inspections of non-nuclear military sites in Iran, while at the same time reportedly abstaining from presenting any evidence to justify such inspections at her meeting with the IAEA in Vienna. As IAEA officials affirmed, the agency isn’t going to conduct such activities just to send a political signal, so the administration should halt its efforts to politicize their work.

“The JCPOA is working. Barring any unforeseen events, Iran will be adhering to it on October 15. The Trump administration must halt its transparently political efforts to subvert an accord that is blocking Iran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon and forestalling a disastrous war.”

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Congress Marks Iran Deal Anniversary with Sharp Disagreements

Washington, DC – Congress marked the one year anniversary of the nuclear deal with Iran with continued partisan attacks against the agreement, including House passage of three bills that would undermine or invalidate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

One of the agreement’s top supporters in the House, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), spoke at a NIAC briefing on the Hill just as the votes were called. “This is what the Republicans have decided to do in the last minutes before we break for seven weeks when we are leaving so much important work on the table,” she said. But she said the campaign to “reverse the JCPOA” would not succeed. “This is simply not going to happen, it’s not going to go anywhere at all.”

All three of the bills were opposed by most Democrats, including Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi who warned her colleagues the bills are “nothing more than political ploys,” and urged her colleagues to “sustain the President’s veto and resist all initiatives that seek to undermine the JCPOA.” The White House warned that it would veto the measures if necessary, saying that they would “undermine the ability of the United States to meet our JCPOA commitments by reimposing certain secondary economic and financial sanctions lifted” under the JCPOA. Rep. David Price (D-NC) objected strongly, warning that the bills seek to undo the deal and would “deny Iran even the limited access to foreign investment and other meaningful incentives that encourage compliance with the JCPOA.” Price equated Republicans’ treatment of the accord to the partisan attacks on the Affordable Care Act, for which House Republicans have held over fifty votes to repeal.

Ultimately, the measures passed the House largely on party lines, with just a handful of Democrats who were nearly all opposed to the JCPOA crossing over to vote in support of the measures.

The legislation is not expected to be considered by the Senate but could be offered as amendments to must-pass legislation when Congress returns in September. The bills would undermine or outright violate the agreement in a number of ways. H.R. 5119, which received a vote Wednesday, would block future purchases of heavy water from Iran. In April, the U.S. purchased excess stocks of heavy water from Iran, which is required to keep the proliferation-sensitive material below a certain threshold as part of the agreement. H.R. 4992 would block Iran’s access to the dollar outside of the U.S. financial system – while Iran is still barred from the U.S. financial system, it’s access to dollars held by banks outside of the U.S. is not restricted, which this bill would reverse. Lastly, H.R. 5631 would sanction any sector of Iran’s economy that directly or indirectly has applications for Iran’s ballistic missile program – which would likely even result in sanctions on Iran’s academic sector. Both of the latter bills would directly violate the accord by re-imposing sanctions lifted under the JCPOA.

While few expect the proposals to become law, the effort is more than a symbolic gesture against the Iran deal. Opponents of the agreement are reportedly playing a “long game” to unravel the deal by forcing so many votes that supporters of the agreement begin to fatigue and the Democratic firewall against violating the deal begins to soften. The hope among Republicans, according to one report, is that by the time Obama leaves office the center of the debate will have shifted and, without the Obama Administration to rally Democrats to vote against the measures, a new Congress will pass deal-killing sanctions under a new Administration.

The efforts have another aim – in lieu of passing sanctions, the votes may be warning shots aimed at giving pause to any companies or banks that may be considering entering Iran. By creating political uncertainty as to whether the agreement and sanctions relief will survive Congress beyond Obama’s tenure, much of the sanctions relief for Iran that was promised under the agreement has been stymied in the interim.

In the clearest demonstration of the strategy, opponents of the agreement in the House have rallied around efforts to impede the sale of Boeing passenger jets to Iran – sales which are permitted under the JCPOA. Last week, the House added amendments to a spending bill that would bar the Boeing sale. In somewhat redundant action this week, the House Financial Services Committee advanced two nearly identical versions of the Boeing deal amendments as standalone legislation–strongly indicating that the effort is aimed more at creating negative attention to dissuade other companies from entering Iran, rather than crafting legislation. While the amendments last week passed by a voice vote, providing little indication of whether they enjoyed bipartisan support, the bills that passed the committee were voted down by every Democrat – save outspoken Iran hawk Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA).

In the meantime, the Senate held hearings on the JCPOA in the Foreign Relations Committee. Chairman Bob Corker (R-TN) highlighted a new Iran sanctions bill he was introducing along with Robert Menendez (D-NJ). However, Sen. Cardin – who is on the record in support of extending the Iran Sanctions Act – declined to support the legislation and argued that Congress needs to be more strategic about how it approaches new Iran sanctions legislation. Cardin is viewed as a key barometer for whether any Senate initiatives will gain sufficient Democratic support to become law. While Cardin voted against the JCPOA, he has stated that now that it is in force it would be extremely damaging for the U.S. to violate its commitments.

NIAC Statement on First Anniversary of the Finalization of the Iran Nuclear Accord

Press Release

 

 

 

NIAC President Trita Parsi released the following statement on the one year anniversary of the finalization of the Iran nuclear accord:

“Today marks a full year since the U.S. and Iran, along with world powers, concluded marathon negotiations in the historic Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The accord has succeeded where bluster and un-ending sanctions failed by rolling back and ensuring unprecedented inspections over Iran’s nuclear program. Critically, this has averted two disasters: that of an Iranian nuclear weapon as well as a costly war that would further destabilize the region and devastate the hopes of the Iranian people for a brighter future. It has also opened the door to cooperation outside the nuclear sphere if the U.S. and Iran can seize the opportunity.
 
“The diplomatic path has not been easy. Even now, it is under threat as opponents of the JCPOA in Congress force votes on bills that would violate the accord by re-imposing sanctions that have been relieved. These efforts have fed into ongoing sanctions relief complications that have drained support for the accord among the Iranian people. While Iran has gained some relief, particularly in oil sales and access to recently un-restricted revenues, the lack of major banks willing to engage in Iranian transactions has greatly hampered the pace of relief. As the Iranian people have not seen the benefit of the bargain, increasing distrust could lead to major complications in implementation of the accord down the road, and must be addressed.
 
“Over the course of the second year of implementation, the JCPOA will undergo major tests as both the U.S. and Iran hold elections for the Presidencies of their respective countries. Both Presidents Obama and Rouhani have proved willing and able to set aside the enmities of the past in order to reach for a brighter future. It will be vital for Obama’s successor to maintain this approach in order to ensure the accord is on solid ground and to build on its success. For Rouhani to maintain the Iranian Presidency, it will be vital to show that sanctions relief complications can be overcome and to show greater willingness to fulfill electoral promises by pursuing moderation internally.
 
“While there will be strong incentives for all parties to stay within the agreement, regardless of changes in U.S. and Iranian leadership, the next five and a half months offer a critical opportunity for the Obama and Rouhani presidencies to strengthen the foundation of the accord. There are a whole host of opportunities that can strengthen U.S.-Iran diplomatic channels and insulate the deal from political opposition – including via efforts to fix sanctions relief complications; pursue sustainable diplomatic solutions in Syria and Yemen; enabling enhanced U.S.-Iran academic exchanges; establishing a permanent diplomatic channel; and by securing the freedom of imprisoned dual nationals like Siamak and Baquer Namazi. 
 
“It took more than three and a half decades for diplomatic negotiations between the U.S. and Iran to become routine, and all of the diplomatic dividends of renewed ties will not come overnight or even in one year. However, it is vital that the U.S. and Iran not succumb to the forces that want to limit collaboration to the nuclear sphere, which would only succeed in making the JCPOA easier to unravel. Now is the time to lean forward and make sure that the historic steps taken since 2013 are irreversible.”

 
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The Iran Deal Worked

– Here’s How to Make It Even More Effective


A year has passed since diplomats from Iran and the P5+1 (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States; plus Germany) defied conventional wisdom and struck a deal aimed at both preventing Iran from getting the bomb and preventing it from getting bombed. At the time, the deal’s detractors were apoplectic; Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it a “historic mistake” that would pave the way for Iran to obtain a bomb. But the world has not come to an end. Iran is not the hegemon of the Middle East, Israel can still be found on the map, and Washington and Tehran still define each other as enemies. These days, voices such as Jonathan Greenblatt of the Anti-Defamation League, criticize the deal for having changed too little.
 
But a closer examination shows that it has had a profound impact on the region’s geopolitical dynamics. Only four years ago, the Iranian nuclear program was consistently referred to as the United States’ number one national security threat. Senior U.S. officials put the risk of an Israeli attack on Iran at 50–50, a confrontation that the United States would quickly get dragged into. A war that was even more destabilizing than the Iraq invasion was not just a possibility; it seemed likely.
 
Today, however, the talk of war is gone. Even the hawkish government of Netanyahu has gone silent on the matter. Former Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, a hawk in his own right, announced a few weeks ago that “at this point, and in the foreseeable future, there is no existential threat facing Israel. Thus it is fitting that the leadership of the country stop scaring the citizenry and stop giving them the feeling that we are standing before a second Holocaust.”
 
Moreover, members of the U.S. Congress who have recently visited Israel have also noted that Israelis are no longer shifting every conversation to a discussion about the Iranian nuclear threat. “I can’t count how many times I, and many members of Congress, were urgently and passionately informed that negotiation with the Iranian menace was wishful thinking and the height of folly,” Representative Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) wrote after a recent visit to Israel. “And now? Nothing.”
 
The nuclear deal has thus halted the march toward war and Iran’s progress toward a bomb. And that certainly qualifies as significant change. To continue to argue that Israel and the region are not safer as a result of the deal would be to contend that Iran’s nuclear program was never a threat to begin with. That is a not a position that the Likud government in Israel can argue with a straight face.
 
Other criticisms of the deal centered on predictions that Iran would not honor the agreement. Yet the International Atomic Energy Agency has reported that Iran is abiding by its obligations under the deal. Also not borne out have been prophecies that Iran’s regional policies would radicalize, that the deal would, as The Heritage Foundation’s James Phillips wrote, “project [American] weakness that could further encourage Iranian hardliners.” To be sure, Washington continues to view many of Iran’s regional activities as unhelpful and destabilizing, but those activities have not increased as a result of the nuclear deal. Hezbollah and Tehran’s posture toward Israel has, for instance, not become more aggressive than it already was. Any changes that have occurred have been rooted in regional developments—the Syrian civil war or the Saudi assault on Yemen—rather than the nuclear deal. Important developments in Syria, such as Russia’s broader entry into the war or Iran’s maneuvers on the ground, are divorced from the nuclear deal and directly tied to developments on the ground in Syria.
 
If anything, as the European Union’s foreign policy head, Federica Mogherini, told me last December, the deal paved the way for renewed dialogue on Syria, which offers a glimmer of hope to end the carnage there. “What we have now in Syria—talks bringing together all the different actors (and we have it now and not last year)—is because we had the [nuclear] deal,” she told me. And last month, U.S. Secretary Of State John Kerry stated that Iran has been “helpful” in Iraq, where both the United States and Iran are fighting the Islamic State (ISIS).
 
It is undisputable that outside of the nuclear deal, the relationship between the United States and Iran has shifted significantly since the breakthrough. That became abundantly clear in January, when ten American sailors drifted into Iranian waters and were apprehended by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps—and were then promptly released. An incident that in the pre-deal era likely would have taken months, if not years, to resolve was now settled in 16 hours. Direct diplomacy between Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif combined with a mutual desire to resolve the matter quickly made all the difference. The two countries had embarked on a path that could transform their relationship, and both were too committed to that path to allow the incident to fester. “I was afraid that this [the sailors’ arrest] would jeopardize everything, not just the implementation [of the JCPOA],” Zarif admitted to me.
 
But for relations to improve beyond the nuclear deal, moderate elements on both sides need to be strengthened by the deal. That is one area where the skepticism of the critics may have been justified. Rather than seeing the government of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani gain momentum after the deal, the pushback from Iranian hardliners has been fierce. Those officials couldn’t prevent Iran from signing the agreement, but they could create enough problems to halt any effort to translate the nuclear deal into a broader opening to the United States. A swift crackdown against individuals and entities seeking to build bridges between Iran and the West had its intended effect: Confidence that the nuclear deal would usher in a new era for U.S.-Iranian relations quickly plummeted.
 
Moreover, challenges to sanctions relief has given hardline opponents of the deal in Iran a boost. Their critique of the agreement—that the United States is not trustworthy—seems to ring true since no major banks have been willing to enter the Iranian market. The banks’ hesitation, in turn, is mainly rooted in the fear that after the U.S. presidential elections, Washington’s political commitment to the deal will wane.
 
Neither Republican candidate Donald Trump nor Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton have signaled any desire to continue down the Obama administration’s path with Iran in general. Clinton has vowed to uphold the deal, but neither she nor Trump have made it crystal clear that they will protect the agreement from new congressional sanctions or other measures that would cause the deal’s collapse.
 
Clinton’s team has signaled that its priority will be to rebuild relations with Israel and Saudi Arabia and restore those allies’ confidence that the United States will counter Iran in the region. Meanwhile, the uncertainty around a Trump presidency needs no explaining. As a result, many banks deem the risk of entering the Iranian market too high due to the political challenges on the U.S. side. That has left Iranians without much in the way of sanctions relief, which is in turn costing Rouhani politically.
 
In other words, although the deal has been remarkably successful in achieving its explicit goals—halting, and even reversing, Iran’s nuclear advances while avoiding a costly and risky war with Tehran—its true value in rebalancing U.S. relationships in the Persian Gulf and creating a broader opening with Iran may be squandered once Obama leaves office. If Obama’s successor returns to the United States’ old ways in the Middle East while hardliners in Tehran stymie outreach to the West, these unique and historic opportunities will be wasted.
 
This piece originally appeared in Foreign Affairs.

The Washington Post: Kerry: Iran nuclear talks aim for an agreement, not an extension of deadline

Secretary of State John F. Kerry arrived in Vienna on Thursday for what he hopes will be the culmination of laborious negotiations aimed at curbing Iran’s ability to build a nuclear weapon and easing debilitating sanctions on the country’s economy.

On a stop in Paris en route to Vienna, Kerry said negotiators are focused on finalizing a deal by the time an interim agreement dies at midnight Monday — although it is expected that the talks could continue until dawn Tuesday.

“We are not talking about an extension,” Kerry said. “We are talking about getting an agreement.”

The Guardian: Skepticism grows over deal on Iran nuclear program as deadline looms

John Kerry joined Iran nuclear negotiations in Vienna as they entered a hectic final phase on Thursday night, fighting growing scepticism that they can be completed by the Monday deadline.

The US secretary of state was due to hold late-night talks with his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, in a last-ditch attempt to break the deadlock on unresolved issues.

But a former senior State Department official, involved in Middle East policy until only a few weeks ago, said it was now not “physically possible” to conclude a comprehensive agreement in the time remaining. He argued that an extension of up to six months might be necessary.