President Trump made a tough call last week. European diplomats and an “echo chamber” in the mainstream media were insisting he “recertify” the nuclear weapons deal his predecessor concluded with Iran’s rulers in 2015.
He didn’t want to. He has said repeatedly that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) fails to do what it was meant to do: stop — not just delay — the acquisition of nuclear weapons by the rulers of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Instead and perversely, the deal legitimizes, enriches and emboldens a regime openly dedicated to the defeat of America and its allies. How could he now tell Congress that the JCPOA is “vital to the national security interests of the United States”?
So why not just scuttle the deal as Iran hawks have been urging? A number of reasons, but prominent among them: Iran’s rulers would have cast themselves as victims. “We’ve kept our part of the bargain and this is how we’re treated by America’s rogue president!” they’d have cried. Other nations committed to the JCPOA would have taken their side. The Atlantic alliance would have been more divided — a clear win for Iran.
In the end, Mr. Trump settled on a third option. He declined to recertify the deal but didn’t abrogate it — for the present. He set in motion a process to correct the agreement’s worst flaws. The odds are against that outcome, but now it’s at least within the realm of the possible.
You’ll recall that President Obama framed the JCPOA — the most consequential nuclear arms limitation agreement of the century — not as a treaty, but only an “executive agreement.” That sidelined Congress. Decertification puts Congress back in the mix, providing an opportunity for it to do what it did numerous times during the Cold War: improve bilateral and multilateral arms control agreements.
A decision by Congress to reimpose sanctions suspended under the JCPOA would terminate the deal. More probable: Congress will penalize Tehran for other nefarious behaviors that the Obama administration spent eight years ignoring. Even Antony Blinken, deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration and a vehement deal defender, said last week that he would support “targeted sanctions on Iran that do not violate the nuclear accord.”
For example, sanctions could be imposed for Iran’s continuing development of missiles that can deliver nuclear warheads to targets anywhere in the world, its aggressive pursuit of hegemony over its neighbors, its support for the mass-murdering Assad regime in Syria, its incitement of genocide against Israel, its taking of American hostages, and its domestic violations of human rights. The JCPOA does not constrain sanctions for such conduct — notwithstanding Iranian claims and some media reports to the contrary. Such sanctions could both send a message and exert pressure.
Significant as decertification is, it’s only one component of the broader strategy announced last week. Other “core elements” include revitalizing America’s “traditional alliances and regional partnerships,” restoring “a more stable balance of power in the region,” and denying funding and international legitimacy to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps by designating it in its entirety under a “global terrorism” executive order.
Decertification has already produced one positive result. French President Emmanuel Macron and several other European leaders now appear willing to go to Iran’s rulers and say (in effect): “Look, we believe you’re not developing nukes and don’t intend to do so. But we have to get along with that cowboy in the White House and if he makes us choose between the U.S. market and the Iranian market, what are we to do? So why not make a few minor adjustments?”
European leaders must know, even if they won’t say, that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has not confirmed that Iran is coloring within the lines. My colleague and former IAEA deputy director general Olli Heinonen tells me: “Based on a careful reading of the IAEA’s reports to date, we can’t conclude that Iran is fully complying with all obligations arising from the JCPOA. The language used in the IAEA statements is not enough to make such a conclusion at a high level of confidence.”
It may be worse than that. A report released by the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), alleges that Tehran’s “weaponization program” remains “fully operational.” It identifies four military complexes containing large underground tunnels providing “the possibility and flexibility of covering up the activities of the warhead project.” It adds that North Korean experts have been “particularly helpful” in design aspects of the project.
Is this report reliable? I don’t know. What I am certain of: IAEA inspectors should be all over these sites. But Iran’s rulers have declared their military facilities off-limits. Reassurances by Obama administration spokesmen that the JCPOA would authorize “anytime, anywhere” inspections haven’t held up.
Amendments to the JCPOA could repair that dangerous defect as well as eliminating “sunset” clauses that end restrictions beginning in six years on the deployment of easier-to-hide advanced centrifuges, industrial-scale enrichment of uranium, reprocessing of plutonium, and other elements of Iran’s illicit nuclear weapons program.
President Trump said last week that his aim is to “deny the Iranian regime all paths to a nuclear weapon.” The alternative is to procrastinate as successive administrations did vis-a-vis North Korea.
With the current deal in place, self-proclaimed jihadis and the world’s leading state sponsors of terrorism could, within about a decade, have an arsenal of nuclear-tipped ICBMs modeled on those produced by their friends in Pyongyang. Iran’s ruling mullahs could then use them to achieve their most ambitious goals. We can hope that doesn’t happen. But, as I’m not the first to point out, hope is not a strategy. In this case, it’s more like slow-motion surrender.
• Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.
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