Paul Pillar

The Arguments Change, but the Effort to Kill the Iran Nuclear Agreement Continues

The one-year anniversary of the Iran nuclear agreement, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), is naturally an occasion for stock-taking, as such anniversaries commonly are. Much spinning is mixed in with the stock-taking, and it is worthwhile to take stock of the spinning as well as of the reality that is relevant to the agreement.

The most obvious and noteworthy part of the reality is that Iran has fully observed the extensive, very limiting and intrusive, provisions of the agreement regarding its nuclear program. The Iranian record of compliance actually extends back significantly longer than a year. Before the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action there was a preliminary agreement, the Joint Plan of Action, which came into effect in January 2014 and included most of the limitations on Iran that also would enter into the later agreement. Iran now has been in compliance for two and a half years with stringent restrictions on its nuclear program agreed to in multilateral negotiations.

Despite this record of compliance, efforts to destroy the agreement continue. Those efforts demonstrate that most opposition to the agreement has not been motivated by the ostensible reasons, and most of the actual reasons are not ones that would be satisfied or negated no matter how well and how long Iran conforms with its obligations. It always was obvious that the agreement would be superior to the alternative of no agreement in assuring that the Iranian nuclear program stays peaceful. The main motivations for opposition to the agreement have had nothing to do with nuclear nonproliferation and instead have to do with not wanting to have any agreement of any sort with Iran.

That opposition has centered in two overlapping places. One is Republican determination not to let Barack Obama have a major foreign policy success. The other is the objective of the right-wing Israeli government—with everything such an objective customarily implies regarding domestic U.S. politics—to keep Iran permanently ostracized and not to have anyone (especially the United States) do any business with it, and thereby to keep Iran forever as a bête noire that is portrayed as the “real” source of trouble in the Middle East, to continue to use it as a distraction from any other troubles the Israeli government prefers not to talk about, to make sure there will be no competition to Israel as supposedly the only reliable U.S. partner in the Middle East, and to keep a major regional competitor to Israel weak and isolated.

The talking points of opponents of the agreement have shifted as their earlier arguments have become less tenable. We used to hear a lot more about a danger of Iranian cheating. That line of argument has become less credible as the highly intrusive international inspection procedures that the agreement itself put into place have been working as they were supposed to work and have confirmed Iranian compliance. So we don't hear so much about cheating anymore. Arguments that we do still hear under that heading tend to be patently weak. For example, in one of a series of anniversary pieces by the anti-agreement Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Simon Henderson suggests we should worry because “some analysts fear” that Iran may have technical cooperation with North Korea and Pakistan, whose uranium enrichment centrifuges are similar to the ones Iran uses. So what? Iran already has the technology, and no matter where the technology may have originated, this doesn't affect the inability of Iran to exceed any agreed limitations on uranium enrichment when its facilities are crawling with international inspectors.

The entire nuclear side of the issue—even though the specter of an Iranian nuclear weapon was the big supposed threat that those wanting to keep Iran isolated had been exclaiming about, more than any other issue, for years—has come to play a much reduced role in the talking points of opponents of the agreement, as it became obvious how the agreement was superior to the alternative regarding nuclear nonproliferation. We should remember—and note how far things have come in the interim—Benjamin Netanyahu's display of a cartoon bomb before the United Nations General Assembly. Even the preliminary agreement drained Netanyahu's bomb, and the JCPOA has cemented the limitations and inspection procedures that will keep it drained. That reality underlies the support for the agreement among Israeli security officials.

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