Paul Pillar

The Persistence of Falsehoods About the Iran Nuclear Agreement

Much faith has been placed in the “adults” in the administration to rein in Trump’s worst tendencies.  Reportedly the adults, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, last month urged a resistant Trump to recognize reality and certify that Iran was complying with the JCPOA.  One’s faith ought to be weakened by how Tillerson, at a press briefing this week, voiced some of the same old, familiar, and thoroughly refuted falsehoods and misleading themes.

The biggest outright whopper was Tillerson’s assertion that “they [Iran] got the immediate lifting of the sanctions before they ever had to deliver on anything.”  Any look at the history of implementation of the JCPOA, according to the carefully negotiated schedule, shows how drastically false that statement is.  In fact, the asymmetry in the implementation of the agreement worked in the opposite direction.  Iran had to do nearly all it was going to do to curtail its nuclear program and significantly extend the “breakout” time to a possible nuclear weapon before it got an ounce of new sanctions relief under the JCPOA.  This Iranian work included gutting its heavy water research reactor, disposing of excess heavy water, cutting back its uranium enrichment cascades, taking all excess centrifuges off line, ceasing uranium enrichment at the underground Fordow facility, providing international inspectors a comprehensive inventory of centrifuge equipment, and many other measures.  It was only after the International Atomic Energy Agency certified that Iran had completed all these required steps that the parties moved to “Implementation Day,” which was when the United States and the Europeans began sanctions relief.

Not specifically a lie, but highly misleading about the nature and purpose of the JCPOA, was Tillerson’s comment that “there’s another part of that agreement that talks about the fact that with this agreement, Iran will become a good neighbor – now, I’m paraphrasing a lot of language – they’ll become a good neighbor, that Iran is called upon to no longer develop its ballistic missiles.”  Tillerson accused Iran of violating “the spirit of the agreement” because of these issues.  Tillerson’s remark wasn’t a paraphrase; it was a fantasy expansion of the agreement that has been another favorite of the agreement’s opponents, who criticize the JCPOA for not causing peace to break out in the Middle East.  Neither has it led to a cure for cancer.

It was clear to all parties from the beginning of the negotiation that no agreement, and no limitation of the expanding Iranian nuclear program, would be possible unless the agreement focused specifically on the nuclear issue and on sanctions that supposedly are about the nuclear issue.  If the United States or other Western governments brought into the negotiation other things they did not like about what Iran was doing, then Iran would raise all the other things it doesn’t like about what the United States is doing.  And then nothing, including nothing about curtailing the nuclear program, would ever be agreed to.

Nothing in the JCPOA obligates Iran not to continue to develop, test, and possess ballistic missiles.  Sanctions that involved materiel relevant to missiles were part of the sanctions that were supposed to be in place because of Iran’s nuclear activities.  And from the standpoint of U.S. national interests, Iranian missiles are nearly irrelevant as long as nuclear weapons are not part of the picture, which is part of why preservation of an agreement preventing any Iranian development of a nuke is so important.  The implementing resolution of the United Nations Security Council makes a nod to the desirability of restraint in developing missiles, but this clause was by design a vague exhortation with no binding power.  Iran—facing threats from neighbors with missiles and superior air power—would never have agreed to anything firmer than that.

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