Paul Pillar

Haley's Dishonest Speech About the Iran Nuclear Agreement

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the agreement that limits Iran’s nuclear program, is for Donald Trump one more of the Obama administration’s achievements to be trashed.  It goes alongside the Affordable Care Act, the Paris climate change agreement, and other measures (most recently the “dreamers” program involving children of illegal immigrants) as targets for trashing because fulfilling campaign rhetoric is given higher priority in the current administration than whether a program is achieving its purpose, whether there are any realistic alternatives available, or what the effects of the trashing will be on the well-being of Americans and the interests and credibility of the United States.

Nikki Haley, whose foreign policy experience has consisted of these past few months as the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations, has assumed the role of chief public trasher of the JCPOA for the administration.  Evidently no demands on the time of the U.S. ambassador in New York, from the issue of North Korea (which has real, not imagined, nuclear weapons) to the war in Syria were too important to keep her from giving a speech at the American Enterprise Institute that represented the administration’s most concerted and contrived public effort so far to lay groundwork for withdrawing from the JCPOA.  Haley has warmed to this cause both because of her own previous parochial interests, including those associated with financial contributions she has received, and because it is a convenient vehicle for playing to Trump’s urges.  Haley evidently feels no obligation to perform as one of the “adults” in the administration to whom the country looks to contain those urges.

The speech at AEI was Trumpian in some of the tactics it employed.  The performance should cement the ambitious Haley’s place on Trump’s short list of candidates to become secretary of state once Rex Tillerson’s unhappy and probably short tenure in the job ends.  The speech also used more twisted versions of familiar rhetorical twists that have been heard before from diehard opponents of the JCPOA.

Once familiar Trumpian tactic is blatant lying.  Haley lied when she said that the JCPOA “gave Iran what it wanted up-front, in exchange for temporary promises to deliver what we want.”  The truth is that Iran had to fulfill most of its obligations first—including disposing of excess enriched uranium, disassembling enrichment cascades, gutting its heavy water reactor, and much else—before the agreement was fully implemented and Iran got even a whiff of additional sanctions relief.  There is no correspondence between reality and Haley’s assertion that the agreement was a great deal for Iran but “what we get from the deal is much less clear.”  What we get is a cementing closed (even literally, in the case of the disabling of a reactor that otherwise could have produced plutonium) of all possible pathways to an Iranian nuclear weapon.  This isn’t just a promise; this is major, material, already implemented change.

A rhetorical challenge that Trump, Haley, and the drafters of her speech have faced is how to justify reneging on an agreement that, as the inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency have confirmed, Iran is observing.  One of the techniques used in the speech was to sow confusion about exactly what Iranian compliance entails.  Haley tried to make the subject sound like it is more complicated than looking at the terms of the detailed and laboriously drafted JCPOA and having IAEA inspectors, through continuous and highly intrusive monitoring, determine whether Iran is complying with the terms.  This subject is more of a “jigsaw puzzle,” said Haley.  “Iranian compliance involves three different pillars,” which are the JCPOA, United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231 (which was the international community’s formal endorsement of the JCPOA) and the Corker-Cardin legislation that governs the relationship of Congress to the president on Iran policy.

The big problem with Haley’s formulation is that Iran is a party to only one of those three “pillars,” the JCPOA.  The requirements for Iranian compliance are found entirely within the JCPOA.  Certainly Iran cannot be held responsible for whatever happens to go into U.S. legislation enacted by the U.S. Congress.  Some of the clauses in Resolution 2231 do reflect understandings reached during negotiation of the JCPOA, but the resolution does not incorporate additional obligations that Iran negotiated and undertook.  The much-commented upon clause regarding ballistic missile activity was carefully and intentionally drafted so as not to constitute a legal obligation.

Haley tried to blur together the subject of missiles with nuclear activities by saying that “missile technology cannot be separated from pursuit of a nuclear weapon.”  Yes it can, and it has, not just by Iran but by other nations.  Haley’s assertion disregards how, given Iran’s experience in the war launched against it by Iraq, and its situation in facing neighbors today with superior air forces, it is unrealistic that Iran ever would accept curbs on its development and possession of missiles without similar restrictions on others in the region.

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