Paul Pillar

Haley's Dishonest Speech About the Iran Nuclear Agreement

Most importantly, Haley’s assertion disregards how, in the absence of nuclear weapons, Iran’s missile activity would barely merit an asterisk on any list of U.S. national security concerns.  She apparently missed the irony, or the actual lesson that should be drawn, when she followed her comment about missiles and nuclear matters by saying, “North Korea is showing the world that right now.”  If a JCPOA-type agreement for North Korea were in force right now, precluding the development or possession of any North Korean nuclear weapon, Pyongyang’s missile tests would receive a small fraction of the market-shaking attention they receive.

Another technique in the speech was innuendo, in generating suspicion that there are Iranian violations that somehow, despite the intrusive inspections, we don’t know about.  One version of the innuendo was the notion that supporters of the JCPOA are so anxious to preserve the agreement that “the international community has powerful incentives to go out of its way to assert that the Iranian regime is in ‘compliance’ on the nuclear side.”  But Haley—who presumably has access to all the classified information on the subject—gave no evidence of any violations, or even any hint of what such an Iranian violation would look like.

Further innuendo about unseen violations involved a topic Haley has talked up on earlier occasions, which is inspection of sites not declared as nuclear sites.  She quoted an ill-considered Iranian remark about not giving foreigners the run of Iranian military installations, and strove to create the impression that Iran is denying access to suspect facilities.  It is not.  She said nothing about the carefully-defined procedure that the JCPOA lays out for inspection of non-declared sites.  If the IAEA is given reason to suspect prohibited activity at any such site, it can request a visit.  If the IAEA and Iran cannot agree on such a visit, the matter is ultimately decided in the Joint Commission—where Iran can be outvoted, and the inspection authorized.  There has been no Iranian denial of access, and again Haley provided no reason for suspecting any violations.

The speech offered the usual litany of bad things Iran has done through the years, as part of the usual effort by opponents of the agreement to make people feel as hostile to Iran as possible.  Never mind that, also as usual, Haley provided no context for any of this bill of particulars or any of the reasons Iran has done what it has done. The most pertinent lesson that should be drawn from this, and that Haley failed to draw, is that the more concern one has about Iranian activity in the Middle East, the more important it is to keep closed all of its possible avenues to an Iranian nuclear weapon.  That’s exactly what the JCPOA does.

Haley talked about past Iranian deception and concealment on nuclear matters.  Again, she failed to draw the obvious and important conclusion: that this is all the more reason to have the unprecedently intrusive inspection arrangement that the JCPOA created.  In fact, it is the inspection arrangement, and the assurance it provides, that is probably the most important feature of the agreement, more so even than the specific limits placed on elements of the Iranian program.

The speech used other hoary techniques to confuse and deceive—the use of straw men, for example, to make it seem that supporters of the agreement had misled people.  “We were promised an ‘end’ to the Iranian nuclear program,” Haley said, but all we got was “a pause.”  She never identified who supposedly made such “promises,” and never provided any evidence of them having been made.  It always was quite clear from the beginning of the negotiations that produced the JCPOA that zero enrichment of uranium was not a feasible goal and that the agreement would be a limitation on a peaceful nuclear program and not the elimination of it.

Haley’s speech strongly suggests that at the next due date for certification in October, the administration will, even if it still has no evidence of Iranian violations, withhold certification by taking advantage of a vague clause in the Corker-Cardin legislation that refers to whether continued sanctions relief is appropriate, proportionate, and in U.S. national security interests.  The administration will assert, as Haley did in the speech, that this will “not mean the United States is withdrawing from the JCPOA.”  The speech also had a bizarre passage that tries to blame the terms of the agreement itself for death of the agreement, the idea being that re-imposition of sanctions is the only way of penalizing Iranian non-compliance. But if the Republican-controlled Congress re-imposes nuclear-related sanctions, which noncertification would be an invitation for Congress to do, make no mistake: it would be the United States that will have reneged on its commitments and violated the agreement.  If the JCPOA dies, it will be the Trump administration that killed it.

Haley claimed to welcome debate about whether the JCPOA is in U.S. national security interests.  She asserted that “the previous administration set up the deal in a way that denied us that honest and serious debate.”  No it didn’t: there was plenty of debate, including during the enactment of the very legislation to which she referred.  If her speech at AEI is an indication, she is not really interested in the part about honesty and sincerity.