Paul Pillar

Killing the Iran Nuclear Agreement with a Thousand Cuts

Don’t be either fooled or relieved by President Trump’s waiving, for now, of nuclear sanctions on Iran, and thus his forgoing of an explicit withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), otherwise known as the Iran nuclear agreement.  Trump still is determined to destroy the agreement, though not necessarily in the way he threatens, or in a way some have feared.  He is set on destroying the JCPOA partly because of the same guiding principle, if it can be called that, steering so much of his presidency, which is to tear down any significant accomplishment of his predecessor.  His effort to destroy the accord also is motivated by his submission to elements that do not want anyone to reach agreements of any sort with Iran—such elements mainly being the right-wing government of Israel and its backers in the United States.

Trump’s effort is impeded by the fact that the JCPOA is working.  It continues, as confirmed by international inspectors, to fulfill its purpose of blocking all possible paths to a possible Iranian nuclear weapon.  Iran continues to comply with its obligations under the agreement.  As such, the JCPOA continues to serve the interests of the United States and of international security and the cause of nuclear nonproliferation.  These evidently are not interests that motivate Trump, but he cannot afford to be honest about his actual motivations.  The fact that the agreement is working prevents him from making any case for withdrawing from the agreement directly and explicitly.

Trump’s statement on this subject blows all the confusing smoke that can be blown about Iran and about the JCPOA, with much of it having nothing to do with the JCPOA.  As usual, the smoke is filled with misconceptions, such as that a cash settlement that resolved an issue of undelivered aircraft that the shah ordered 40 years ago supposedly was part of the nuclear deal, when in fact it was not.  Or that we should get angry over how Iran “has funded, armed, and trained more than 100,000 militants to spread destruction across the Middle East,” when some of those militants have been fighting on the same side as the United States and its allies against Islamic State (ISIS).

The portions of the statement that really are about the JCPOA revolve around the old, familiar notion of getting a “better deal”—a notion that seeks to bridge the gap between the reality of an agreement that is working and a desire to trash that same agreement.  The notion never was valid.  The JCPOA is the product of a long, laborious negotiation that thoroughly tested the limits of the bargaining space and of feasibility.  Just as athletes talk about an exhaustive effort as “leaving everything on the field”, the diplomats involved in crafting the JCPOA left everything on the negotiating table.  None of the other six parties to the agreement show any appetite for renegotiation, or see any feasible basis for it.  Moreover, it is just as valid now as when negotiations began that if each side tried to bring into the negotiations diverse unrelated grievances against another side, the negotiations would have failed and there never would have been any agreement restricting Iran’s nuclear program.

Trump’s statement seems to envision some sort of process in which the United States leans on the Europeans to make a one-sided imposition of additional terms on Iran.  Or as the statement puts it, to engage key European allies in “seeking to secure a new supplemental agreement”.  It is not clear whether this would involve real negotiation with Iran or a fiat imposed by the P5+1, or by the EU3+1, or something else.  Certainly there is no mention of how one has to give something to get something.  Probably Trump doesn’t have a clear notion of what this would mean in practice.  Probably he doesn’t care, because a more plausible interpretation is that this formulation is merely a sham on the road to hoped-for destruction of the JCPOA.

In parallel with whatever would be this U.S.-European affair, the statement also talks about legislation by the U.S. Congress that would move in a similar direction.  Here the form and effect of whatever Trump has in mind is just as hard to fathom, given that Congress cannot unilaterally change the terms of an already completed and implemented international agreement.  But a closer look at the “four critical components” that Trump says must be in any bill he would sign underscores the sham-like quality of what he lays out.

The first component is that any bill “must demand that Iran allow immediate inspections at all sites requested by international inspectors.”  So how exactly would that differ from the current situation?  No country would ever agree to give outsiders the run of the country, going wherever they wanted unannounced. The International Atomic Energy Agency has given no indication that its inspectors have been denied access to any site in Iran they had reason to inspect.  The JCPOA lays out in detail procedures not only for unlimited inspections of declared nuclear sites but also requested inspections of undeclared sites, including military bases—procedures in which the Iranians would be outvoted and the inspection would take place if there were disagreement between Iran and the IAEA about access.

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