Newly-confirmed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s travel schedule mainly signals how concerned the Trump administration has become about the growing probability of war breaking out imminently between Israel and Iran, with Iran’s Syrian and Lebanese proxies fighting on Iran’s behalf against the Jewish state.
Pompeo went straight to Andrews Air Force base from his confirmation ceremony at the Supreme Court last week to embark on his first diplomatic mission.
He travelled to Brussels for a summit of NATO members and is scheduled to continue on to Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia before returning to Washington late next week.
Several Israeli media outlets claimed Pompeo’s decision to visit Israel during his first trip abroad as Secretary of State is an expression of his support for the Jewish state.
While that may be true, the administration is also worried about the region.
The likeliness of war, he said, owes to the fact that “Iran continues to do its proxy work there [in Syria] through Hezbollah,” and is “bringing advanced weapons for Hezbollah through Syria.”
Israel, he said, “will not wait to see those missiles in the air and we hope Iran would pull back.”
During the same testimony, Mattis repeated his support for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), better known as the nuclear deal with Iran, which the Obama administration — together with France, Britain, Germany, Russia and China — concluded with the Iranian regime in 2015.
Mattis argued that the nuclear deal limits Iran’s nuclear capabilities through its inspections regime. In his words, “It is written almost with an assumption that Iran would try to cheat. The verification, what is in there, is actually pretty robust as far as our intrusive ability to get in,” to Iran’s nuclear installations is concerned.
It is notable that Mattis addressed the prospect of war between Israel and Iran in Syria and the JCPOA in the same testimony.
Throughout the Obama administration’s nuclear negotiations with Iran, and since the deal was concluded in July 2015, its supporters have insisted that Iran’s support for terrorism, its regional aggression, and its ballistic missile program have to be dealt with separately from Iran’s illicit nuclear weapons program.
During his address to the Munich Security Conference in February, former Secretary of State John Kerry, who led the U.S. negotiating team with Iran, defended that position. Kerry said that singling out Iran’s nuclear program and ignoring the rest of its rogue activities “was not a concession, but was a matter of strategic thinking.”
Kerry has acknowledged that Iran used the billions of dollars it received as a result of acceding to the nuclear agreement to finance terror. But, he insisted at the Munich conference, Iran’s nuclear program was so advanced by the time the talks began in earnest, that the only way to stop Iran from developing a nuclear arsenal without bombing its nuclear facilities was by concluding a deal that dealt only with limitations on its nuclear progress and ignored all the other things Iran does to destabilize the Middle East.
That is, according to the circular reasoning Kerry and his colleagues employed during the nuclear talks with Tehran and continue to employ today, any attempt to restrain Iran’s rogue operations in terror, regional aggression, and ballistic missile development – which all exacerbate the risk of war — endanger the nuclear deal. And without the nuclear deal, there will be war.
In other words, the nuclear deal was necessary to prevent war, while any effort to prevent war threatens the nuclear deal, by Kerry’s illogic.
And now as Mattis told Congress, and as Pompeo’s hasty trip to the Middle East make clear, even as the U.S. has maintained the nuclear deal, the prospect of war has become a near certainty.
Which brings us to the question of the desirability of retaining the nuclear deal.
President Donald Trump set a May 12 deadline for U.S. and European negotiators to improve the nuclear deal in key areas. These include improving the inspections regime and eliminating the deal’s so-called “sunset clauses,” which lift all restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities between 2025 and 2030. If, as appears likely, the U.S. and its allies to do not agree on changes to the nuclear deal, Trump will abandon it. His act will cause the reinstatement of U.S. sanctions against Iran’s banking and oil sector, which were suspended with the conclusion of the nuclear deal. Although France and Germany have pledged to remain loyal to the agreement, the practical effect of such a move by the U.S. will be to end the deal.
In light of Trump’s apparent determination to walk away from the nuclear deal in two weeks, Mattis’s defense of it before Congress was notable for several reasons.
First Mattis’s defense of the deal’s verification regime was disingenuous. Contrary to Mattis’ claims, the agreement’s verification mechanisms are not strong. The nuclear deal does not allow UN inspectors to freely access nuclear sites. Under the deal, Iran can label any nuclear site it wishes a “military site.” And under the agreement, UN inspectors need to request permission to enter military sites and Iran can refuse them access.
An appeals procedure to an Iranian move to block access to “military sites” is drawn out — and in the event Iran’s veto of inspections is overruled, Iran can delay UN inspectors’ arrival for 24 days, more than ample time for the Iranians to remove or conceal anything they don’t want inspectors to see.
As a consequence, the UN inspectors’ claim that Iran is in compliance with the agreement does not mean that Iran is not developing nuclear weapons. It simply means that within the narrow limits of UN inspection power, Iran is cooperating with inspectors.
Military sites are not the only sites that UN inspectors are blocked from visiting. The deal does not permit UN inspectors to visit suspected nuclear sites.
As Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu explained in his speech before the joint houses of Congress in 2015, Iran hid the existence of its key nuclear facilities – at Isfahan and Qom – from the International Atomic Energy Agency. Given its track record, the notion that Iran does not have other covert nuclear installations is absurd. And under the deal, if such installations are discovered by foreign intelligence agencies, Iran is not required to permit UN inspectors to see what is happening inside them.
Finally, the question of inspections, while important, is not central to the problematic nature of the nuclear deal. Under the deal, Iran retains its nuclear installations. It is permitted to develop the means to produce far more advanced centrifuges than the ones it was known to be operating in 2015.
So even if Iran follows the deal to the letter, it will still be able to develop nuclear weapons as soon as the nuclear restrictions it accepted as part of the deal expire in seven years.
Far from blocking Iran’s path to a nuclear arsenal, the deal guarantees Iran will become a nuclear power.
Given that the inspection regime is not “robust,” and that even if it were robust, it still wouldn’t prevent Iran from developing a nuclear arsenal, Mattis’s decision to lump together his position on the nuclear deal with his warning of imminent war between Israel and Iran indicate that Mattis views the two issues as related.
Specifically, Mattis’s defense of the deal signals that he agrees with Kerry’s view that the risk of war will rise if Trump abandons the nuclear deal.
If Mattis – and Kerry – are right, then Trump should simply maintain faith with the nuclear deal as the Germans and French are hoping he will.
But are Mattis and Kerry right?
If Trump maintains the nuclear deal, he will empower the Iranian regime. He will signal to the Europeans that Iran is open for business and give a lifeline to the rapidly collapsing Iranian economy. Trump will communicate to the Iranian regime and the Iranian people alike that the U.S. is deterred by the regime’s threats.
Conversely, abandonment of the nuclear deal by the U.S. will weaken, if not cripple the regime. Reinstituting U.S. sanctions against Iran will hasten the downfall of the Iranian economy, which is already coming apart at the seams. Iran’s current economic woes owe to its limited access to foreign currencies through the international banking system. Further U.S. economic sanctions will limit that access still further, and send hundreds of thousands of Iranians into the streets to protest as what is left of their rial-backed savings are rendered worthless by skyrocketing inflation.
If the regime is destabilized, its desire to go to war against Israel will likely diminish rather than increase. During the countrywide anti-regime protests last December and January, the demonstrators protested against the regime’s diversion of billions of dollars away from the public to pay for the war in Syria and to underwrite Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Houthis. The protesters called out, “No Gaza, No Lebanon, No Syria, My life for Iran!”
At the UN Security Council on Thursday, Israel’s UN Ambassador Dani Danon revealed new details about Iran’s burgeoning military presence on Syria. “There are over 80,000 extremists from all over the Middle East who are members of Shia militias in Syria under Iranian control,” he said.
Danon shared satellite imagery of what he claimed is an Iranian recruitment center just five miles outside Damascus. His presentation dovetailed with satellite imagery released by the Israeli military earlier in the month detailing five Iranian-controlled air bases in Syria. The release of the air base data was interpreted as a signal to the Iranians that Israel intends to bomb the bases if Iran carries out its threat to retaliate for Israel’s air assault on the Iranian drone base T-4 outside Palmyra, Syria immediately after the US-led airstrikes on Syria’s chemical weapons installations on April 7.
All of these recent events, and the rising threat of war, show that opponents of the Iran nuclear deal were correct and that Kerry’s circular reasoning, which prevented the U.S. and its allies from taking effective action against any of Iran’s nuclear and non-nuclear operations, was dead wrong.
Not only does the nuclear deal pave Iran’s path to a nuclear arsenal rather than block it, by enriching Iran, the deal also rewarded Iranian aggression and increased the chance of a major regional war.
The way to diminish that prospect is not to empower the Iranians still further by maintaining the deal. The way to diminish the chance of war is by weakening Iran. Leaving the deal, while standing with Israel and with opponents of the regime inside Iran, means doing just that.