What’s more important to European leaders and American proponents of the Iran deal? Preserving the accord or preventing an Iranian nuclear fait accompli?
As recertification looms in October, debate the United States has revolved around whether President Trump will certify Iranian compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or find Iran non-compliant. Just as in the aftermath of the 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea, many of those whose legacies are most tied up with the nuclear diplomacy are bending over backward to defend the agreement’s effectiveness to the point where they effectively become defense counsel. For them, Iran’s surpluses of heavy water beyond the limits set by the JCPOA are not deal-breakers and the fact that Iranian officials acknowledged the surplus is evidence that Iran is trustworthy.
Defenders of the deal are also likely to embrace Iran’s interpretation of UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2231 to argue that Iran’s ballistic missile work is not a violation because, even if the missiles can carry nuclear warheads they are not exclusively designed to do so. As for Iranian transfers of weaponry into Syria—that’s a direct violation of UNSCR 2231. Then again, even though UNSCR 2231 was supposed to enshrine the JCPOA in international law, those seeking to cut Iran slack argue that it’s the JCPOA that matters, not UNSCR 2231. When Trump talks about the spirit of the law, they point out that only its letter matters (no matter that when Iran exceeds its heavy water limits, the same proponents argue that it’s the spirit that’s important).
All of these points, however, pale before Iran’s refusal to allow full inspections of its military sites where suspect nuclear work might be ongoing. This, of course, is nothing new. Preventing inspection of Fordow was among the Supreme Leader’s make-or-break red lines, and numerous Iranian officials, including Ayatollah Khamenei, subsequently put other military sites off-limits to inspectors.
President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry—desperate for a deal to cement their legacy and perhaps win a Nobel Prize—sought to sidestep the issue, as did European diplomats whose priority was always more about lifting sanctions and enabling trade with Iran. They crafted a “compromise” on Parchin where some suspect work had occurred in which Iranian officials would provide soil samples to international inspectors rather than have inspectors themselves examine the facility and collect material. As many analysts pointed out at the time, that was akin to have major league baseball or NFL teams provide urine samples from their own players rather than have independent monitors do so; simply put, it was an invitation for cheating. Obama and Kerry did not care.
Sidestepping the problem simply removed an obstacle. They and European diplomats were in no rush to press the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to inspect suspect sites if doing so would derail the deal. The IAEA, for its part, risks permanently tarnishing its legacy and legitimacy by watering down standards to ensure a passing grade.
This—more than anything Trump says or Congress does—is really the make-or-break moment for the JCPOA. If Iran does not allow international inspectors onto its military base or if the IAEA declines to inspect in order to maintain a positive relationship with Tehran, then, in effect, the deal becomes meaningless. Groups like the Arms Control Association have already undermined their reputation by their willingness to promote “echo chamber” talking points above objective analysis. To seek to argue that inspections of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps sites don’t really matter to compliance would make them laughing stocks.
Washington, as always, might focus on its own political soap operas and the defense community might worry most about North Korea right now. That Iran has thrown down the gauntlet on inspections, however, puts the very concept of a diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear work at risk. If the State Department or their European counterparts are to have any credibility on the national security challenges of the day, it’s time to face Iran down and accept nothing short of its surrender on the issue. Sometimes, if nuclear agreements are to be worth more than the paper on which they are written, there simply can be no compromise.