President Donald Trump’s mid-May deadline for renegotiating the terms of the nuclear arms deal with Iran is rapidly approaching. So far, his words and actions seem to isolate the United States from its European and Asian allies while straining his credibility as a negotiator, which he needs for the scheduled meeting, also in May, with North Korea’s chairman, Kim Jong Un.
Trump’s fact-free diplomatic strong-arming of his country’s closest allies and refusal to recertify Iran’s compliance with the provisions of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, in October and again in January, have left even the most committed US centrists grasping in vain for possible policy purposes or benefits from Trump’s threats. More perplexing, the Trump administration has failed to provide clear technical specifications for what the president calls “disastrous flaws” that need fixing.
In a roundabout way, during a press briefing with the White House on Jan. 12, a “senior administration official” said, “He [the president] intends to work with our European partners on some kind of follow-on agreement that enshrines certain triggers that the Iranian regime cannot exceed related to ballistic missiles; related to a nuclear breakout period, to hold them to one year or less; to inspection; and that would have no sunset clause.”
Trump, the official elaborated, would remain in a “modified deal if it meets his objectives” that — as he said in his October Iran strategy speech — “denies Iran all paths to a nuclear weapon forever.”
For most diplomats and nonproliferation experts, these pickings are not only too slim but worse, they are also based on false interpretations of the Iran situation. Diplomats for the signatories to the JCPOA question Trump’s “facts” that he seems intent to use to trigger the snapback mechanism in the original UN sanctions:
• Triggers that the Iranian regime cannot exceed regarding ballistic missiles: Stripping Iran of effective means for self-defense was acknowledged as unacceptable during the JCPOA negotiations. Tehran’s right to either missile technology or to a much stronger air force was justified after it was targeted by missile attacks during the Iraq-Iran war, using weapons supplied by Western countries. With the current record sales of the most exotic military gear to Saudi Arabia by the US and Britain and to other unfriendly Gulf countries, Iran will likely face more daunting threats to its sovereignty.
• Triggers related to a nuclear breakout period: A fundamental confusion about the role of the JCPOA is that it does not replace any other obligations that Iran has accepted under the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Additional Protocol and the Nonproliferation Treaty. Regardless of the nuclear deal’s stipulations, Iran will always be prohibited from developing nuclear weapons.
• Triggers related to inspections: The often-claimed inability to access military sites, specifically Iran’s Parchin military complex, is being propelled by partisan media that question the UN atomic agency’s competence and the inspectors’ methodology. In fact, the IAEA director-general, Yukiya Amano, mooted this point by concluding that any evidence showing suspicious activities in the past were resolved with the agency’s inspection in September 2015 and subsequent electronic monitoring. The December 2015 Final Assessment on Past and Present Outstanding Issues Regarding Iran’s Nuclear Program confirmed this conclusion, as an official from the UN agency told Reuters: the IAEA has not visited an Iranian military facility since the agreement was implemented because it has had “no reason to ask” for access.
• Elimination of sunset clauses: The most virulently raised criticism of the nuclear deal is Iran’s alleged ability to restart the enrichment of uranium within 12 months of the deal’s end in 2023. This claim omits — perhaps deliberately — that the JCPOA does not replace, delay or eliminate Iran’s compliance obligations under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, to which 190 countries are signatories. The treaty blocks nuclear proliferations for all nations and imposes theoretical but unenforced obligations on the five declared nuclear states — Britain, China, France, Russia and the US — as well as the three undeclared nuclear countries: India, Israel and Pakistan. In Iran’s case, however, there are also stringent supplemental safeguard agreements with the Additional Protocol. As confirmed by 11 IAEA verification and monitoring reports, Iran has complied with all of its obligations, eliminating any reasonable risk of the feared “breakout” into new nuclear arms development.
Europe’s uncompromising response to Trump’s deadline for revising the JCPOA was terse: “The United States has no right to unilaterally terminate the Iran nuclear accord,” said Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s foreign affairs chief and lead mediator for negotiations on the Iran deal.
In a press conference held in Brussels on Oct. 13, shortly after the announcement of Trump’s new Iran strategy, Mogherini declared that “there is not one single country in the world that can terminate a UN Security Council Resolution that has been adopted, even more so, unanimously, that has been implemented and verified.”
Contradicting the American picture of a tyrannical Iran threatening global peace and security, Mogherini, with French President Emmanuel Macron, British Prime Minister Theresa May and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, said the nuclear agreement is “in our shared national security interest.”
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs released an endorsement of the JCPOA on Jan. 13 and expressed “hope that various parties can build political consensus, properly manage differences and promote steady and long term implementation of the JCPOA.”
And Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, took the extra step of telling Trump personally during his recent visit to Washington, D.C., “This is a compassionate and necessary agreement, the cancellation of which will lead to the fact that Iran will start implementing its program again.”
Even without growing international opposition, the overwhelming facts undermining Trump’s allegations regarding the need for an expanded JCPOA will likely become an obstacle to a US move on the matter in the Security Council. Under paragraph 11 of Resolution 2231, which cemented the Iran deal, the US should notify the Council of “issues” it believes to “constitute significant non-performance of commitments under the JCPOA.”
The Council would then have to negotiate and adopt a new resolution to address the issues. That outcome, however, is highly unlikely, given the lack of facts on which the US could build a case, in addition to the consistent reports by the IAEA that Iran is complying with the JCPOA. If the Council does not adopt a new resolution that follows the procedures under paragraph 11, the US could take advantage of paragraph 12, which enables the original nonproliferation sanctions to automatically snap back 13 days after notification.
In making such a unilateral move to trigger the snap-back option, “the United States would lose any negotiating credibility with North Korea,” according to Stewart Patrick of the Council on Foreign Relations, among many other observers. The stiffest and most principled resistance is coming from Europe. Hans Blix, the former Swedish foreign minister, has pertinent experience with groundless accusations by the US, notably the case of Iraq and claims of weapons of mass destruction there, when he served as the IAEA director-general.
Blix said in a commentary to the European Leadership Network, a think tank in London: “Europe should and — I believe — will point the way to its friend and partner: firmly, fully and in good faith implement the deal that the UN Security Council endorsed and mandated for all to respect.”
The real question now is how the US government can pull itself out of the political bottleneck into which it has been maneuvered by its president.
This essay is the first of a three-part series on the Iran nuclear deal, under the rubric of our new P5 Monitor column, which looks at the behavior of the Security Council’s permanent-five members: Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States. Please send your comments to email@example.com or leave a comment in the section under the article. –PassBlue editors