The Iran deal: Five questions diplomats don’t want you to ask

On May 8, President Trump announced the United States was withdrawing from the Iran nuclear “deal” and reinstating US sanctions on Tehran. Predictably, what dominated the news wasn’t the President’s reasons for the withdrawal but prophecies of the apocalypse to come.

It’s all quite tiresome. Once upon a time, one could count on major media outlets and noted commentators to make a decent effort to explain the rationale behind a decision they disagreed with before jumping all over it. Now, even former diplomats often can’t be bothered. A diplomat clambering aboard a bandwagon is not a pretty picture.

Herewith five questions “pro-dealers” would rather people not ask.

1. Why was it called a “deal” and not an agreement or a treaty?

It was called a “deal” because that was all there was when the seven states (plus the EU) ended their exhaustive negotiations on 14 July 2015. The “deal” was the text they left on the table after they couldn’t agree on something they could sign, i.e. a treaty. To this day, few realize that the “deal” had no standing in international law. Nobody signed it; nobody even initialled it for forwarding to capitals for final approval. The parties simply declared they had “successfully” concluded their negotiations and smiled for the cameras, leaving it to the gullible everywhere to laud whatever they thought the “deal” was as a breakthrough for peace. How many ever read “the deal”?

When Congressman Mike Pompeo (R-Kansas) — now US Secretary of State — first saw the “deal” (officially titled the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), he said he thought he had been given a draft and asked for the final signed copy. There wasn’t one, wrote the State Department:

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is not a treaty or an executive agreement, and is not a signed document. The JCPOA reflects political commitments between Iran, the P5+1 (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, China), and the European Union … The success of the JCPOA will depend not on whether it is legally binding or signed, but rather on the extensive verification measures we have put in place, as well as Iran’s understanding that we have the capacity to re-impose — and ramp up — our sanctions if Iran does not meet its commitments.

Political commitments? You’re right if you think this is not the usual way democratic states negotiate something as consequential as preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons. It is shameful that the United Kingdom, France and Germany went along with the US-driven charade — though French foreign minister Laurent Fabius stretched out the negotiations by two years trying to firm up Iran’s commitments and the inspection regime.

2. But wasn’t the “deal” approved by the US Congress?

No. In normal circumstances, the Obama administration would have been expected to submit the “deal” in treaty form to the US Senate for its approval, as required by Article II section 2 of the US Constitution. But the Administration knew it could never get the two-thirds majority required for approval. It hadn’t consulted with Congress as the negotiations proceeded and there was widespread dissension even among Democrats over the contents of the “deal”.

Instead, the Administration exploited Republican-originated legislation intended to check the President’s ability to lift economic sanctions against Iran without the support of Congress. In a reversal of the normal consent process, Obama faced a resolution disapproving the “deal” which he vetoed, counting on the fact that all he needed to sustain his veto was a one-third vote in either the Senate or the House. Which is what happened. So the “deal” wasn’t approved, just not “disapproved” — despite majorities in both houses being on record opposing it.

Europeans have argued that the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the “deal” indicates the United States can’t be trusted to honour its agreements. But as Walter Russell Mead wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal, “The Europeans should have checked the relevant clauses in the American Constitution, assessed the state of congressional sentiment, and realized that Mr. Obama simply lacked the authority, political or constitutional, to commit the country permanently to such an agreement.” As one observer noted: “The JCPOA did not represent America’s word, it represented Obama’s word”.

3. Okay, but isn’t the “deal” still worth preserving?

No, because it doesn’t do what people think it does. It makes things worse.

At the outset of the negotiations, some 13 years earlier, the goal was nuclear non-proliferation. Between 2006 and 2010, there had been six UN Security Council resolutions whose purpose was to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and whose central demand was that Iran suspend the uranium enrichment program required to produce nuclear weapons.

But the “deal” didn’t do either of these things. It didn’t even mention nuclear weapons, except in a boilerplate sentence in the Preamble. And it didn’t come anywhere near suspending uranium enrichment. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action didn’t suspend just limit uranium enrichment, and not forever but only for eight years, with reductions in centrifuges to begin only in ten years, with excess enrichment capacity not to be removed or destroyed but “stored” on site at previously clandestine nuclear facilities, and with no restrictions on R&D or missile testing. With the whole “deal” terminating on 18 October 2025 (actually titled Termination Day). Meanwhile, economic sanctions would terminate almost immediately, no new sanctions would be allowed, and Iran would receive a financial windfall up-front of over $100 billion in unfrozen bank assets ($1.4 billion delivered in cash in a secret night flight).

The headline of an idiot’s guide to the “deal” posted by the Obama White House asserted what was patently not true, that “The US just secured a deal that achieves what we asked for: preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon”.  The falsehood was clear from the first bullet under the headline. The “deal” would “Increase the time it would take Iran to acquire enough material for 1 bomb from 2-3 months to at least a year”. So the “deal” would not prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. It would just slow it down and lengthen Iran’s “breakout” period should Iran choose not to wait ten years — and it would allow Iran to do whatever it wanted after Termination Day.

This isn’t “better than nothing”. It is world powers agreeing that Iran will be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons in ten years (now seven) — and to continue testing the missiles (there have been at least 23 tests since the “deal”) to deliver them. It takes only a modicum of intelligence to understand that Israel, whom Iran has vowed to annihilate, cannot let this happen. Nor do the three other powers in the region — Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey — have any intention of allowing their Shiite arch-enemy to have a nuclear weapon without each having their own. It’s a near certainty they have all accelerated the nuclear weapons programs each has undoubtedly been quietly working on. This is nuclear nonproliferation?

To put it bluntly, the “deal” isn’t the road to peace but to a fierce war of a wholly new kind. The “deal” desperately needed to be scrapped and a new policy developed to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

4. Wouldn’t the “extensive verification measures” ensure Iran abides by its commitments?

No. This is where the “deal” shifts from ignominious to farcical.

Consider first the nature of what is to be verified. As the State Department has confirmed, Iran’s commitments are “political”. And as the “deal” itself stipulates, the measures Iran has agreed to are “voluntary”. So the task of the IAEA is to monitor and verify Iran’s compliance with “political” and “voluntary” commitments, not legally binding ones. What’s to stop Iran from interpreting those commitments any way it wants? And what authority does the IAEA have to take issue with anything Iran does and doesn’t do?

Second, the mandate of the IAEA inspection regime is much narrower than it used to be. Where once the agency provided broad reporting on Iran’s nuclear program, which included two in-depth reports on “Possible Military Dimensions to Iran’s Nuclear Programme”, it is now limited to monitoring only what Iran has undertaken to do under the “deal”. If it’s not in the “deal”, it’s not monitored. Moreover, an annex to the “deal” stipulates that requests for access “will not be aimed at interfering with Iranian military or other national security activities”. Remember: the negotiations were supposed to be about weapons.

The IAEA’s newly restricted mandate was confirmed at the 15 December 2015 meeting of the IAEA Board of Governors (on which Canada sits), which directed the agency to cease reporting on Iran’s compliance with its obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and past UN Security Council resolutions. It later emerged that the limitations on what the IAEA would be allowed to report on resulted from a US-brokered side deal between the IAEA and Iran — not disclosed to Congress let alone the rest of the world.

It is nonsense, then, to believe that the “extensive verification measures” the Obama administration cited would guarantee at least a one-year warning of Iran’s intention to produce a nuclear weapon or that Iran could not  clandestinely develop a nuclear weapon during the ten-year span of the “deal”, let alone after the “deal” terminates.

5. Wouldn’t the threat of reimposing sanctions deter Iran from cheating?

Economic sanctions can be useful in putting pressure on a rogue state, and they helped bring Iran to the negotiating table in the first place. But they took years to put in place over the strenuous resistance of the business interests which would lose out (governments never pay a price). Once ended in 2015, the notion that economic sanctions could be “snapped back” at the first hint of Iranian malfeasance was pure fantasy.

Within days of the “deal”, German, French and Russian government ministers and corporate executives were in Tehran negotiating new business deals worth billions. Since the US withdrawal, the European Union has taken action to try to protect those deals by prohibiting EU businesses “to comply actively or by deliberate omission with the listed US sanctions against Iran” unless their interests would “seriously be threatened or damaged” (as judged by the European Commission). Iran knows this.

Conclusion

By way of summary, some final points:

  • Iran’s official position, repeated often at the highest levels, has been that it has no intention of acquiring nuclear weapons and has never had a program to do so. Given the character of the regime in Tehran and its declared geopolitical aims, it would be astounding if this were true. It is not. There is overwhelming evidence, from the IAEA and other sources, that puts the lie to Iran’s claims.
  • Against this background, it should have been obvious to those who wished to hold Iran to its declared position that Tehran would have to provide categorical assurances backed up by an essentially unlimited monitoring and verification regime (trust but verify). All the onus would have to be on Tehran to demonstrate its intentions through concrete and irreversible actions. Conversely, others would have to insist on nothing less.
  • In previous cases of states declaring their willingness to abandon their nuclear weapons — Argentina, Brazil, South Korea, South Africa, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Libya — negotiations took a few weeks or months, the states granted entry to others to work directly with local authorities to remove or dismantle weapons, materials and facilities, and transparency was assured through states acceding to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and signing on to the full IAEA safeguards regime.
  • In contrast, Iran had to be forced to the table through UN Security Council resolutions and increasingly draconian sanctions, and the negotiations stretched over 13 years. Iran never admitted it had a nuclear weapons program and never provided an accounting for it. It continually obstructed IAEA inspection efforts to access military and “undeclared sites”, and it completely excluded its missile program from the negotiations. It signed the NPT and agreed to the first level of inspection in its nuclear safeguards agreement with the IAEA, but instead of unconditionally agreeing to abide by the more stringent level of inspection (the Additional Protocol), Iran committed only to apply the protocol “provisionally” and to ratify it only in eight years. And it took a laboriously negotiated 159-page document to record what Iran had and had not agreed to — which it didn’t sign. How much more evidence did the world need that Iran had no intention of abandoning its nuclear weapons program?
  • The fact that the P5+1 indulged Iran and, at the end, settled for half-measures which would in any case lapse in ten years will surely be judged as one of the most egregious derelictions of responsibility by the United States, Britain, France and Germany in recent diplomatic history. Instead of engaging in a full-court press (political, economic and military) to denuclearize Iran and prevent a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, they crafted a Potemkin agreement and sold it as “peace in our time”.
  • Let’s hope there is a special place in hell for democratic leaders who don’t have the stomach to do what the security of citizens requires — and for the diplomats who abet them.

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Feature image: Donald Trump signing the 8 May 2018 presidential memorandum to begin reinstituting US nuclear sanctions on the Iran regime (WordPress)

Paul H. Chapin

Paul Chapin is Executive Editor of The Vimy Report. During a 30-year career in the Canadian foreign service, he served in Tel Aviv, Moscow, at NATO, and in Washington where he was head of the political section. He can be reached at pchapin@rogers.com.

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