From all the behind-the-scenes reporting, it seemed as though the Trump White House was of two minds on the Iran nuclear accords. The president wanted the deal gone, but his advisors feared that the risks of such a course outweighed the rewards for the United States. So President Trump gets to have it both ways.
On Friday, he will declare that the Iran nuclear accords are not in America’s best interest and he will not certify that Iran is in compliance with the deal. He will not, however, abrogate the agreement. Instead, Trump will kick it to Congress with instructions to set “trigger points” making it clear where Iran might cross a line in the future thus initiating some course of American action.
Like all half measures, this should make everyone miserable.
The Obama administration knew what it was doing when it frontloaded the Iran nuclear accords with benefits for the Islamic Republic. Iran got what it’s going to get out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The tens of billions of dollars in unfrozen assets and sanctions relief, the repatriation of suspected terrorists that Barack Obama’s own Justice Department said were risks to American national security, and renewed commercial ties with Europe; none of this can be undone. All that is left is for the West to appease Iran. To anger Tehran by calling its behavior into account might compel them to develop a fissionable device out of spite, or so the self-referential thinking goes in emotive dovish circles.
Trump’s decision will commence a 60-day review process in which Congress gets to decide how much blame it is willing to accept for keeping the Iran nuclear deal. Many Republicans who were outspoken opponents of the JCPOA in 2015 have softened their position today because, in reality, they simply cannot turn back the clock. Democrats and their allies in media have, however, sloppily taken all this to mean that Iran is in full compliance with the JCPOA and anyone who wants the deal rolled back is ideologically blinkered. The dirty open secret is that Iran is not and has never been in full compliance with the nuclear accords.
Trump’s own administration has advanced the idea that the only party in danger of violating the nuclear accords is the United States. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said Iran is in “technical compliance” with the Iran nuclear deal. Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress that “Iran is adhering to its JCPOA obligations.” Unsourced reports have even suggested that National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster is a double agent working to advance the Democratic line on the Iran deal from inside the White House, even if he occasionally appears on television saying otherwise.
The idea that Iran is in compliance with the JCPOA may be the only narrative advanced by the Trump administration that the press uncritically accepts without a second thought. There is plenty of evidence to suggest they’re telling only a portion of the story.
The inspections regime supposedly imposed on Iran by the deal has been a joke from the start. Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency initially negotiated an arrangement that would restrict to the point of uselessness any access to a military site at Parchin. A confidential 2015 IAEA report indicated that satellite imagery found Iran taking steps to hinder the West’s ability to confirm that Tehran is not continuing to test components associated with a nuclear device at that site as they had in the past. Even today, what IAEA Chief Yukiya Amano dares to call the “world’s most robust” nuclear inspection effort has no authority to access Iranian military sites. Iran’s allies in Moscow say the IAEA has no jurisdiction over these sites because the deal does not specify how Iranian compliance should be verified on the ground, and they’re absolutely correct.
We don’t know a lot about how Iran is complying with the deal, but what we do know isn’t encouraging. As early as July of 2016, German intelligence charged and Chancellor Angela Merkel confirmed that Iran violated not just the spirit but the letter of the deal by engaging in clandestine efforts to obtain “high-level” nuclear technology without United Nations Security Council permission.
While Iran’s heavy water reactor at Arak was being reconverted with Russian assistance, Iran’s Tansim News Agency reported on joint Russian and Iranian efforts to transform the underground military facility at Fordo into “installations for heavy isotope production.”
In testimony before the House subcommittee on national security in April, President of the Institute for Science and International Security David Albright illustrated the extent to which Iran has violated not just the JCPOA but a variety of UNSC resolutions. Though he noted that “the extensive secrecy surrounding the implementation of the deal and its associated parallel arrangements” have hindered his organization’s ability to make an accurate assessment of the JCPOA, what he could assess was troubling.
With varying degrees of significance, Albright illustrated the extent to which Iran has cheated by continuing with centrifuge development and materials procurement, natural-uranium imports, uranium-enrichment levels and amounts, and by denying inspectors access to suspect sites. He ultimately concluded, though, that it was impossible to fairly judge whether Iran was in full compliance with the JCPOA because the deal was structured in a way to ensure that compliance was always going to be subject to the observer’s interpretation.
And that’s where we find ourselves today. Now Republicans are compelled to take up where Democrats left off, pretending for the sake of the dance that Iran is technically, theoretically, in principle complying with the nuclear accords. To say otherwise would present the United States with only bad options.
Congress will now be compelled to do what Trump would prefer to avoid: having to confirm Iran’s compliance with the the JCPOA despite all indications to the contrary. And Congress will do just that because, right up to the minute that Iran detonates a fission device, the fiction of the Iran nuclear deal is far preferable to its reality.