Blogs: Paul Pillar

Truth-Killing as a Meta-Issue

Diverting Attention from the Tragedy of Palestine

Destroying the Planet, and U.S. Leadership Along With It

Straining to be Anti-Iran

Paul Pillar

The day after the certification was sent to Congress, Tillerson made a statement to the press that was designed to disseminate as much compensatory anti-Iran rhetoric as possible.  Tillerson’s statement had all the usual generalities that pay no attention to what anyone else in the region is doing (such as in Yemen, where the Saudi and Emirati intervention in that civil war has been far more destructive and destabilizing than anything that Iran has done), but perhaps the most preposterous part of the statement was its linkage of Iran to the most salient international security problem du jour, North Korea.  Tillerson said, “An unchecked Iran has the potential to travel the same path as North Korea, and take the world along with it.  The United States is keen to avoid a second piece of evidence that strategic patience is a failed approach.”  And then later in the statement, “The JCPOA fails to achieve the objective of a non-nuclear Iran; it only delays their goal of becoming a nuclear state. This deal represents the same failed approach of the past that brought us to the current imminent threat we face from North Korea. The Trump administration has no intention of passing the buck to a future administration on Iran.”

Huh? Far from passing a buck, the Obama administration, through an immense diplomatic effort, accomplished far more to resolve what had been widely and loudly touted (such as by the 2012 Republican presidential nominee) as the number one security problem facing the United States than any other administration before or after.  Far from leaving Iran “unchecked”, the JCPOA imposes the most severe limitations on, and most extensive international monitoring (which continues in perpetuity) of, a national nuclear program.  If “strategic patience” has characterized some aspect of past U.S. policy on Iran, it was the earlier, pre-Obama, approach of simply piling on more sanctions and hoping that somehow that would persuade the Iranians to curtail their nuclear activities.  Instead, the result was more and more centrifuges spinning and more and more uranium getting enriched—a process that the JCPOA not only halted but reversed. 

Whatever one may think, pro or con, about the Agreed Framework that attempted to address North Korea’s nuclear activities, it was a far cry from the much more detailed, effective, and enforceable JCPOA.  Bottom line: Iran does not have nuclear weapons, and all possible paths to making an Iranian nuclear weapon have been closed.  That represents a world of difference from what we face with North Korea, and it is ridiculous to talk about these two cases together in terms of a “second piece of evidence”.

North Korea is the severe challenge that it is today because of its nuclear weapons—which is the dimension that kept getting emphasized about Iran until, after the JCPOA closed the nuclear weapon option, those who have wanted to maintain hostility toward Iran have searched for other rationales for their hostility.  Without its nukes, we would hardly be caring at all about the North Korean hermit kingdom.  If Trump or anyone else could obtain an agreement with North Korea that was anything like the JCPOA, it would be a huge diplomatic triumph—and no doubt touted as such.  It also would have been a huge diplomatic triumph a decade or two ago, when such an agreement might have been more reachable than it is today.

Trump himself has joined in the overtime effort to pump out anti-Iran rhetoric. At a press conference this week with the Italian prime minister, Trump again denounced the JCPOA as a “terrible agreement” that was “as bad as I’ve ever seen negotiated.”  As usual, no hint was given as what any better alternatives would look like, or why we should believe that any such alternatives are, or would have been, attainable.  Then Trump asserted that Iran is “not living up to the spirit of the agreement.”  What could he possibly be referring to?  Trump didn’t say.

If one focuses on the nuclear obligations in the JCPOA itself, it would be difficult to find any lack of good spirit in Iran’s verified adherence to the letter of the panoply of commitments it undertook.  (Iran completed its initial requirements under the agreement, such as reducing its supply of low enriched uranium, with alacrity and more promptly than many expected.) If spirit instead refers to a larger relationship beyond the nuclear agreement itself, the first thing to remember is that the parties that negotiated the agreement realized that if they attempted too broad an agenda—including Iran’s grievances against the United States as well as U.S. complaints about Iran—then it probably would have been impossible to conclude a nuclear accord.  The next thing to note is that the preponderance of hostility is coming more from the Trump administration toward Iran than the other way around, as the most recent wave of rhetoric illustrates.  It was a change of administrations in Washington, not in Tehran, that resulted in discontinuation of what had been a channel of communication at the foreign minister level that was effective at addressing problems (such as U.S. sailors straying into Iranian territorial waters) beyond the nuclear issues.

And it is not just rhetoric.  The most significant departure in the last three months by either government regarding actions in the Middle East was the Trump administration’s direct armed attack on Iran’s ally Syria.

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Trump's Muddled Military Messaging

Paul Pillar

The day after the certification was sent to Congress, Tillerson made a statement to the press that was designed to disseminate as much compensatory anti-Iran rhetoric as possible.  Tillerson’s statement had all the usual generalities that pay no attention to what anyone else in the region is doing (such as in Yemen, where the Saudi and Emirati intervention in that civil war has been far more destructive and destabilizing than anything that Iran has done), but perhaps the most preposterous part of the statement was its linkage of Iran to the most salient international security problem du jour, North Korea.  Tillerson said, “An unchecked Iran has the potential to travel the same path as North Korea, and take the world along with it.  The United States is keen to avoid a second piece of evidence that strategic patience is a failed approach.”  And then later in the statement, “The JCPOA fails to achieve the objective of a non-nuclear Iran; it only delays their goal of becoming a nuclear state. This deal represents the same failed approach of the past that brought us to the current imminent threat we face from North Korea. The Trump administration has no intention of passing the buck to a future administration on Iran.”

Huh? Far from passing a buck, the Obama administration, through an immense diplomatic effort, accomplished far more to resolve what had been widely and loudly touted (such as by the 2012 Republican presidential nominee) as the number one security problem facing the United States than any other administration before or after.  Far from leaving Iran “unchecked”, the JCPOA imposes the most severe limitations on, and most extensive international monitoring (which continues in perpetuity) of, a national nuclear program.  If “strategic patience” has characterized some aspect of past U.S. policy on Iran, it was the earlier, pre-Obama, approach of simply piling on more sanctions and hoping that somehow that would persuade the Iranians to curtail their nuclear activities.  Instead, the result was more and more centrifuges spinning and more and more uranium getting enriched—a process that the JCPOA not only halted but reversed. 

Whatever one may think, pro or con, about the Agreed Framework that attempted to address North Korea’s nuclear activities, it was a far cry from the much more detailed, effective, and enforceable JCPOA.  Bottom line: Iran does not have nuclear weapons, and all possible paths to making an Iranian nuclear weapon have been closed.  That represents a world of difference from what we face with North Korea, and it is ridiculous to talk about these two cases together in terms of a “second piece of evidence”.

North Korea is the severe challenge that it is today because of its nuclear weapons—which is the dimension that kept getting emphasized about Iran until, after the JCPOA closed the nuclear weapon option, those who have wanted to maintain hostility toward Iran have searched for other rationales for their hostility.  Without its nukes, we would hardly be caring at all about the North Korean hermit kingdom.  If Trump or anyone else could obtain an agreement with North Korea that was anything like the JCPOA, it would be a huge diplomatic triumph—and no doubt touted as such.  It also would have been a huge diplomatic triumph a decade or two ago, when such an agreement might have been more reachable than it is today.

Trump himself has joined in the overtime effort to pump out anti-Iran rhetoric. At a press conference this week with the Italian prime minister, Trump again denounced the JCPOA as a “terrible agreement” that was “as bad as I’ve ever seen negotiated.”  As usual, no hint was given as what any better alternatives would look like, or why we should believe that any such alternatives are, or would have been, attainable.  Then Trump asserted that Iran is “not living up to the spirit of the agreement.”  What could he possibly be referring to?  Trump didn’t say.

If one focuses on the nuclear obligations in the JCPOA itself, it would be difficult to find any lack of good spirit in Iran’s verified adherence to the letter of the panoply of commitments it undertook.  (Iran completed its initial requirements under the agreement, such as reducing its supply of low enriched uranium, with alacrity and more promptly than many expected.) If spirit instead refers to a larger relationship beyond the nuclear agreement itself, the first thing to remember is that the parties that negotiated the agreement realized that if they attempted too broad an agenda—including Iran’s grievances against the United States as well as U.S. complaints about Iran—then it probably would have been impossible to conclude a nuclear accord.  The next thing to note is that the preponderance of hostility is coming more from the Trump administration toward Iran than the other way around, as the most recent wave of rhetoric illustrates.  It was a change of administrations in Washington, not in Tehran, that resulted in discontinuation of what had been a channel of communication at the foreign minister level that was effective at addressing problems (such as U.S. sailors straying into Iranian territorial waters) beyond the nuclear issues.

And it is not just rhetoric.  The most significant departure in the last three months by either government regarding actions in the Middle East was the Trump administration’s direct armed attack on Iran’s ally Syria.

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