Media analysts and Obama administration officials are working overtime to blame President Donald Trump for Iran’s decision, announced Wednesday, to breach key limitations on its nuclear operations that Teheran had accepted in 2015 in the framework of the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), otherwise known as the nuclear deal.
Had Trump not withdrawn from the JCPOA, and had he not adopted and implemented an alternative policy of maximum pressure on Iran, then Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s announcement on Wednesday that Iran is ending its compliance with key provisions of the 2015 nuclear deal would never have been made, they argue.
That is nonsense.
On Wednesday, Rouhani announced that Iran is suspending its commitment to export all excess uranium and plutonium to third countries. That is, he said that Iran is stockpiling plutonium and enriched uranium.
Rouhani also announced that unless the European Union (EU) breaches U.S. sanctions and allows Iran to export oil and use the international banking system, Iran will increase levels of uranium enrichment in sixty days.
Despite what Trump’s critics claim, there is no causal connection between Rouhani’s announcement and Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal and renewal of U.S. economic sanctions on Iran.
To understand why that is the case, it is important to recall the nature of the nuclear deal itself.
The JCPOA was based on a fiction. Obama and his EU counterparts asserted, in the face of massive, long-standing countervailing evidence, that Iran was a credible negotiating partner. They insisted that Iran’s regime could be trusted not to develop nuclear weapons if the U.S., Europe, and other key players offered it sufficient quantities of cash and other monetary gains. This fiction, in turn, was based on an even more basic lie: that Iran’s nuclear program was peaceful rather than military.
This foundational fiction – that the purpose of Iran’s nuclear program was peaceful — was always fanciful. Iran, with its massive deposits of natural gas and oil, has no need for nuclear energy. Moreover, if it were truly interested in peaceful nuclear energy, it could have found ways to secure legal nuclear power capabilities. Tehran had no need to spend hundreds of millions of dollars over decades to construct hidden nuclear installations inside of mountains and underground if all it sought were radioactive isotopes for medical research.
And yet, Iran, in the absence of any energy deficit and at great cost, materially breached the nuclear non-proliferation pact and secretly built nuclear installations in Qom, in Isfahan, Natanz, Fordo, Parchin, and other sites throughout the country. It used these secret nuclear installations to enrich uranium illicitly, to develop plutonium, and to engage in other illicit nuclear weapons projects. It similarly breached non-proliferation treaties in its illicit pursuit of ballistic missiles.
Moreover, it engaged in all of these activities in secret and then refused to open its illegal nuclear facilities to UN nuclear inspectors – again, in material breach of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (TPT).
Obama; the Europeans; China; and Iran’s chief overt nuclear partner, Russia, all ignored these basic realities and chose instead, at President Barack Obama’s urging, to conclude a nuclear deal with Iran that took account of none of these things. Instead, they embraced the demonstrated fiction that Iran’s nuclear program was peaceful, and that Iran would give it up for sufficient sums of money.
A year ago, on April 30, 2018, the fiction was exposed conclusively. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shocked the world when he exposed Iran’s nuclear archive, which Mossad officers located, seized and spirited out of Iran. Iran’s nuclear archive proved conclusively that Iran’s nuclear program was a military program. Iran had gone to extraordinary lengths to mask its nature. But its copious documentation of its nuclear knowledge, and the lengths it went to preserve that know-how, showed that the basic assumptions of the JCPOA were fraudulent.
Netanyahu’s revelation of Iran’s nuclear archive set the stage for Trump’s announcement, a week later, that he was abandoning the nuclear deal and enacting a new strategy to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
In truth, once its true nature of Iran’s nuclear program was finally exposed, there was no rational way the U.S. could have remained in the nuclear deal. The nuclear archive made clear that the nuclear deal was not a non-proliferation agreement. It was a payoff.
Iran agreed to suspend some of its nuclear work for a limited time. In exchange, the U.S. and its partners agreed to pay Iran billions of dollars in cash and sanctions relief, and accept that Iran has a right to nuclear development in contravention of the NPT.
Under the deal, the Iranians have three paths to achieve military nuclear capabilities. They can keep the agreement, and wait for its limitations to expire. After its expiration, as Obama himself confessed, the nuclear research and ballistic missile activity the agreement permits Iran to undertake during the course of the JCPOA would have positioned Iran to develop a nuclear arsenal immediately.
Second, the Iranians could just as easily develop a weapon during the lifespan of the JCPOA by cheating. Since the deal allowed Iran to define nuclear installations as military sites and to bar UN inspectors from entering military sites, the UN had no effective means of determining Iran’s nuclear capabilities. And indeed, for the past four years, since the JCPOA went into effect, the UN’s biannual determinations that Iran was abiding by the JCPOA’s limitations on its nuclear efforts obscured more than they revealed. After all, the UN’s compliance certifications are based on only partial access to Iran’s nuclear installations. And, as such, they have no credibility.
Finally, Iran can achieve nuclear weapons by abandoning the JCPOA and renewing its nuclear operations. Since the deal was based not on preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons but on international monetary payoffs to Iran, Iran’s decision to walk away from the deal now that it is no longer receiving payoffs is perfectly predictable.
Does this mean that the cause of nuclear non-proliferation has been set back? Not at all. The JCPOA itself set back nuclear non-proliferation efforts by inventing a fictional Iran that was credible and appeasable while ignoring the real Iran which is neither of these things.
Given this state of affairs, Trump’s strategy of maximum pressure on Iran, including his decision to deploy the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier group to the Persian Gulf, is entirely reasonable.
There are only two moves the U.S. and its allies can make to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. The first is to apply crippling sanctions on Iran. And the Trump administration is certainly doing that.
By undermining Iran’s financial stability, the U.S. makes it difficult, if not impossible, for Iran to pay for its illicit nuclear and other operations. Iran’s reported curtailment of its financial support for Hezbollah and Hamas is an indicator that the sanctions are having the anticipated positive effect on the region. The more precarious the Iranian regime’s position becomes, the more difficult it will be for it to carry out its nuclear work and maintain its support for terrorism in the Middle East and worldwide.
The second is to develop a credible threat to use force. Over the past year of steadily increasing U.S. economic pressure on Iran, coupled with stalwart U.S. support for Israel and the Sunni Arab states threatened by Iran, President Trump has built up his personal credibility in the Middle East. In the context, his decision to deploy the carrier group to the Persian Gulf constitutes a credible threat to use military force against Iran if it fails to comply with U.S. demands.
Rouhani’s announcement Wednesday was eminently predictable. The regime is clearly hoping that Europe will run to its side to save Iran from Trump’s effective policies. But if the EU’s tepid responses to the move are any indication, it appears that the ploy backfired. Trump has demonstrated his seriousness of purpose to Europe no less than he has to Iran. And so far, the EU is not willing to breach its relations with the U.S. in order to give in to Iranian nuclear blackmail.
While there is every reason to be concerned that unforeseen events will place the U.S. and its allies in challenging positions vis-à-vis Iran and its terror proxies, and the U.S. and its allies must prepare for the worst, Iran’s announcement that it is stockpiling plutonium and enriched uranium is not proof that Trump’s policy of maximum pressure is failing. It is proof that it is working.