Trying to Saddle a Crocodile: Iran and JCPOA

Trying to Saddle a Crocodile: Iran and JCPOA
Bushehr nuclear power plant in southern Iran on Aug. 21, 2010. (IIPA via Getty Images)
Peter Huessy

The nuclear agreement with Iran, known by the strange title of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), is on life support and badly in need of a complete overhaul.

But any serious change to this “deal” requires that the parties involved recognize their options. Those options are accepting that they will soon have a nuclear-armed Iran because of the flaws in the current agreement, or they admit the deal isn’t comprehensive enough to do the job and they need to change it.

What the deal required was a minimum of showcase photo-ops of centrifuge equipment that met JCPOA requirements, but actually helped with camouflaging the building of what former CIA and NSA Director Gen. Michael Hayden described as an Iranian “industrial-strength nuclear technology” that will ultimately provide Tehran with the ability to quickly build an arsenal of nuclear weapons, the very capability the “deal” was supposedly designed to stop.

The current Iranian diversion of “interfering with oil tanker traffic in the Gulf” actually provides the very opportunity to cement a strong alliance not just for maritime security, but for them using that coalition as a springboard to secure a new nuclear agreement, while also maintaining genuine ”maximum pressure” on Iran.

Before delving into these points, some current background is needed.

1. The EU, led by its business interests, is still trying to work around U.S. sanctions on Iran to keep the JCPOA on life support. The bloc is trying to convince Iran that the EU won’t have to abide by existing economic sanctions as it seeks (recently successfully) waivers from the United States for the EU’s profitable nuclear projects in Iran;

2. The Iranians continue to breach portions of the JCPOA deal banning the enrichment of uranium, and will continue to do so until the United States rolls back all sanctions;
3. Iran seeks to further split the United States from its allies by grabbing oil tankers in the Straits of Hormuz, and then claiming innocence by blaming the United States for the interference;

4. Germany, a JCPOA supporter, won’t join the U.S.-led naval force in the Gulf to protect shipping, although the UK and Israel will;

5. The Russians are placing naval and other military assets at two Iranian bases in the Gulf, promising to protect Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and other Iranian naval assets, thereby raising the stakes for any U.S. and allied military action.

The most immediate fight in Washington is the disagreement about the extent to which limited waivers should be granted to European companies that, in the words of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), permit Tehran to “conduct sensitive nuclear work at a military site that many believe allows Iran to march toward the eventual production of nuclear weapons.” If the limited waivers weren’t allowed, European, Chinese, and Russian firms would have to be sanctioned because they have projects inside Iran that were prohibited at the 2015 JCPOA deal. Those projects include modifying the heavy water reactor in Arak and the enrichment center in Fordow, as well as the Tehran Research and the Bushehr nuclear reactor fuel exchanges.

All these issues are important and must be faced. But far more importantly, and what President Donald Trump sees that others are unwilling to acknowledge, is that the key issue is that the “deal” enables Iran to get nuclear weapons, not now, but in the post-2025 period. While not explicitly denying that it’s the case, JCPOA supporters cling to the assumption that while a better deal is needed, all that can realistically be accomplished now is a temporary delay in Iranian nuclear objectives, and that, while not optimal, the current deal is better than the alternatives: (1) an end to the JCPOA and an Iranian sprint to nuclear weapons production within months, or (2) warfare between Iran and the United States to compel Iranian concessions that satisfy the United States.

In short, we can have a nuclear-armed Iran now or get a short reprieve. But beyond “mowing the nuclear grass,” trying anything else would be akin to the question: “Have you ever tried saddling a crocodile?”

What Iran and its supporters want to avoid, including authors of the deal who are still embedded in the U.S. bureaucracy, is addressing the JCPOA’s lethal defects. They are getting help from European, Chinese, and Russian elements hungry for business deals with Iran, while still wedded to the fake idea of a “nuclear deal.”

If one analyzes the timelines in the JCPOA, it becomes unmistakably clear that Iran can build nuclear weapons just around the nuclear corner. Like in the 1970s, the Oslo “peace process” in the 1990s, “reset” with the Russians in 2009, and the “end of history” after the end of the Soviet Union, the narrative of a nuclear-free Iran being a solid achievement irrespective of Iranian cheating and bad faith, is simply a talisman the “deep state” can’t give up.

Andy McCarthy, in his newly published book “Ball of Collusion,“ writes of the JCPOA, ”The table [Obama] gave away the store, agreeing to the promotion of Iran’s industrial nuclear capabilities (rationalized as civilian use); abiding continued [advanced] centrifuge development; delegating verification duties to the U.N.’s feckless International Atomic Energy Agency; choreographing side deals between Iran and the IAEA which would not be disclosed to Congress; tweaking the deal when Iran was out of compliance to avoid any ’snap back' [of sanctions]; and orchestrating ransom payments for the release of U.S. hostages,” to say nothing of giving Iran $150 billion in escrowed oil revenue without any restrictions on the use of the funds, such as building more ballistic missiles or increasing support for terrorist groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah, and Islamic Jihad.
Supporters of the deal concede that’s true, but insist there is a good chance that Iranian behavior in other areas—missile tests and terrorism support—will modify as economic sanctions are lifted and Iran modernizes and moderates. On top of which former Secretary of State John Kerry assured us that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, told him there was an Islamic fatwa, a religious order, which he had issued against building nuclear weapons. So what could there possibly be for us to worry about?

Iran is trying to avoid an analysis of the deal because when its terms are closely examined, the JCPOA is revealed as an agreement that generates nuclear weapons, as revealed by the trove of nuclear documents that Israel recovered. Making matters worse, the Iranians continue to deny access to military sites where earlier nuclear work was completed; the International Atomic Energy Administration has caved on that score.

What then are our options? A way forward is available in two steps.

A significant number of legislators, on a bipartisan basis, are now pushing the administration to enhance the campaign of “maximum pressure.” Fifty U.S. lawmakers, in a July 17 letter to the president, urged the administration to cancel the Iran nuclear sanctions waivers once and for all and eliminate nuclear projects established under the deal.
One signatory, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), said the goal is to get Iran to “permanently abandon its nuclear ambitions and stop sponsoring terrorism” including agreeing to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s 12-point plan and, as the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) required of Iran, implement the group’s 2016 crackdown in terrorist financing.

Here we get to the second promising pathway. As the Foundation for Defense of Democracies recently put it, “wanting to do business with Iran should not trump imposing serious penalties on Iran for violations of international norms.” This involves more than just the provisions of the JCPOA in which Iran has dragged its feet, adhering to the so-called Additional Protocols, but by insisting Iran open all its nuclear sites to inspection and, as already noted, dispose of its plutonium and enriched uranium stocks.

The best means to get Germany and other U.S. allies to agree to redo the nuclear deal with Iran is to get them on board by upholding another key international legal norm, and that is freedom of navigation. While the norm of stopping the proliferation of nuclear weapons is at the heart of the JCPOA, the norm of freedom of navigation is critical to international trade and economic prosperity. How does it benefit the supporters of the JCPOA to earn a few million dollars running nuclear projects in Iran if it means the loss of billions of dollars in diminished trade and rising oil prices?

Iranian interference in oil tanker shipping in the Gulf is harming everyone’s economic interests. Rather than submit to Iranian piracy, the United States and its allies should mimic what President Ronald Reagan did in 1987—reflag Kuwaiti tankers that could be attacked by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. That action ended Iranian interference in Gulf shipping and would be an important first step in challenging Iran with a united front.

As U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell explained, “German participation would help de-escalate the situation,” and with a united West, would also undo Russian mischief in the Gulf, while undercutting the mullahs.

What does Iran seizing tankers have to do with the nuclear deal? Not much, except that it’s part of Iran’s plan to change the subject, while letting them secure nuclear weapons in the future as they continue missile testing, supporting terrorism, and convincing the West to accept the Alice in Wonderland narrative that JCPOA supporters are promoting.

A far superior alternative? Start with re-establishing the international norm of freedom of maritime navigation and then, building the anti-nuclear coalition that would put a saddle on the Iranian nuclear crocodile.

Peter Huessy is the president of Geostrategic Analysis of Potomac, Maryland, a defense and national security consulting firm. 
Peter Huessy is the president of Geo-Strategic Analysis of Potomac, Md., a defense and national security consulting firm.
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