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Joint Plan of Action in Our Time

As we approach the one-month anniversary of the “historic” six-month “Joint Plan of Action,” the Plan remains all plan and no action. Not even the starting date has been set.

The plan for starting the Plan was to have experts decide what the Plan meant, and then convene the P5+1 and Iran to meet again to set the starting date. Before the expert meetings began this past week, State Department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf said she did not know how long the expert process would take, nor when a date for the follow-up P5+1 meeting would be scheduled. On Friday, after four days of expert meetings ended without an agreement, Ms. Harf was asked, “what’s the next step?” She responded as follows:

[E]veryone will get together, I think, probably back in Vienna to continue the technical talks about implementation, and as soon as we can, be able to say this is the date, the six-month start, this is exactly the timeline for certain parts of implementation in terms of what the Iranians have to do, what we have to do, and lay out a real plan for how the Joint Plan of Action will be implemented. [Emphasis added.]

So there is not yet a “real plan” for implementing the Plan, much less a starting date. 

Then there was this colloquy, regarding the whirring of the Iranian centrifuges while all the planning for the Plan goes on:

QUESTION: I just have one other question. Do you know whether the Iranians are still enriching?

MS. HARF: As we speak?

QUESTION: As we speak, there is no deal. They could do –

MS. HARF: I can check.

QUESTION: I mean, and if they do, presumably that’s okay because there’s no deal.

MS. HARF: Well, let me check on what the status is today. I think whatever the answer is – and I just don’t know, but let me check – I think it underscores the importance of moving quickly to put in place the first step and move towards a comprehensive agreement, because obviously the goal is for them not to be able to make progress on their nuclear program, which this first step does.

I can answer the question for her: the centrifuges are whirring. They were whirring before the Plan; they have been whirring during the planning for the starting date of the Plan; they will keep whirring during the six-month period of the Plan (if the six months ever start); and they will keep whirring after the Plan ends, since the stated object of the Plan is not to stop them but to reach agreement on an “enrichment program.”

In other words, the Plan is to discuss for six months how the centrifuges will continue whirring after the six months. Unless, of course, more than six months is required: the Plan provides that the six-month period is “renewable by mutual consent,” so the six-month Plan may become a one-year plan.

The Plan provides that the Obama administration, “acting consistent with the respective roles of the President and the Congress, will refrain from imposing new nuclear-related sanctions.” The administration has been frantic to stop Congress from considering new sanctions–even ones that would take effect only at the end of six months–because the Plan obligates President Obama to veto them (consistent with his respective role in the process), and a presidential veto would probably poll poorly. To convince a skeptical Congress, the administration sanctioned 19 new companies Thursday, issuing a press release saying it showed it would “relentlessly enforce” existing sanctions. As Jonathan Tobin noted earlier, Iran announced that the new designations constitute “new sanctions” that violate the yet-to-be-commenced Plan. 

So right now, there is not yet any real plan; nor a date set for a new meeting to announce the starting date of the Plan; nor any agreement on what constitutes “new sanctions” under it. The administration’s official slogan for its negotiations leading to the Plan was “no deal is better than a bad deal.” At this point, it appears to have achieved both. 



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