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Time’s up for Iran deal

Time’s up for Iran deal

Reuel Marc Gerecht
8th May 2018 - Washington Examiner

It is now nearly certain that President Trump is going to walk away from his predecessor’s nuclear deal with Iran, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The president in his announcement Tuesday may provide a bit of wiggle room by slowing the reinstitution of sanctions lifted by the accord in the hope that the Europeans will eventually join the United States in demanding tougher restrictions on the regime. But the effect most likely will be the same: The deal is dead.

Washington will soon be confronted with the thorny issue of what the president, Europeans, Russians, Chinese, and, last but not least, Iranians will do in response. The accord’s denouement could bring an enormous trans-Atlantic rift, preventive military strikes against the Islamic Republic’s nuclear sites, Iranian terrorism against U.S. troops and civilians, Russian arms deliveries to Tehran, and even a bipartisan congressional revolt against the president. That probably isn’t where this is going, but the possibility remains that the White House could poorly handle its escape from a deeply flawed arms-control agreement, leaving the United States in a worse position than where it was with the JCPOA.

Last October, Trump decertified the atomic accord under the authority of the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, which requires the president to inform Congress every 120 days that the JCPOA remains in the interests of the United States. However, he continued to waive sanctions lifted by the accord, effectively keeping it alive.

In January, the president promised that by May 12 he would cease waving sanctions unless the Europeans and the Americans devise addendums to the agreement that, on paper, solve its worst flaws. The major areas of concern: Tehran’s continuing development of long-range ballistic missiles, which the JCPOA didn’t touch; Iran’s unchecked regional aggression and the concomitant financial rewards the nuclear deal has brought the mullahs; inspections of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps bases where Western intelligence services have long suspected atomic-weapons research has taken place; unrestricted access to Iran’s nuclear files and personnel that would allow a politically cowed International Atomic Energy Agency to address finally the “possible military dimensions” of Iran’s nuclear program; and the deal’s sunset clauses that allow Tehran in under a decade to start producing advanced centrifuges and ever-more voluminous enriched uranium irrespective of whether the clerical regime has changed its spots. The recent Israeli heist of part of Iran’s nuclear archive has, if nothing else, certainly amplified the need for more vigorous inspections and IAEA access to the clerical regime’s nuclear secrets.

The Iranians have, of course, refused to recognize the legitimacy of any changes to the nuclear accord; the Russians and the Chinese, who were also a party to the talks, have backed Tehran. Until recently, the Europeans didn’t believe that Trump would walk, but the firing of both Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and national security adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, who were in favor of retaining the accord, and the selection of two ardent critics of the agreement, Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, as their replacements, have finally convinced the Europeans that the JCPOA’s days are numbered.

Europe's fixes

As the head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi has explained, Tehran constructed the entire deal around the sunset clauses. Salehi needs another four to six years to develop efficient and reliable high-velocity centrifuges. The MIT-educated nuclear engineer didn’t like the primitive IR1s, which are the vast bulk of the machines that the JCPOA disconnected. They often break and require large cascades and facilities that are difficult to hide (the clerical regime tried and failed in 2002). The nuclear agreement allows for the research and development of the more advanced machines, with production commencing in 2025. As Salehi put it: “We do not take that [JCPOA restrictions] as a constraint. So I would say on R&D, the apparent limitations that we have accepted, that we have agreed to, it’s not really a limitation.”

Once perfected, these advanced models — the IR6 and IR8 — could be deployed in small, easily concealable cascades, dispersed throughout the country. It would take a near miracle, a perfect human-source penetration or a series of intercepts, for American intelligence agencies to detect uranium enrichment at these locations. Given the nuclear agreement’s restrained inspections regime, which closely monitors known sites but leaves Revolutionary Guard bases effectively outside the scope of intelligence-collecting International Atomic Energy Agency inspections, only an extraordinary Western intelligence coup could detect nuclear-weapons research in unmonitored locations.

More honest than most of their Obama administration counterparts, the European diplomatic elite who have tracked Iran’s nuclear progress don’t long quibble about the JCPOA’s defects and readily admit that they weren’t content with Obama’s too-concessionary, too-quick approach in the nuclear talks. But now they don’t want to risk war. It’s essential to recall that the EU3 consisting of Germany, Britain and France energetically embraced nuclear diplomacy with Iran in 2003 because they feared Israeli or American military action. Trump’s perceived bellicosity excites their fears even more than Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s relentless anxiety about the Islamic Republic’s atomic ambitions.

Also EU trade with Iran is, again, at stake. So, too, principle and pride. If the Europeans agree with the views of Trump, a man despised by the Western European elite, it also means that they had agreed in 2015 to an egregiously deficient accord, that their entire investment in diplomacy with the Islamic Republic, easily the most consequential diplomatic initiative so far undertaken by the European Union, had ended with an American-dictated agreement. In other words, the Europeans would have shown themselves, twice, to be American functionaries. They just won’t do that.

The late April visit to Washington of French President Emmanuel Macron, who appears to be the only European leader who knows how to handle Trump, was the last chance for those who want Washington to stay in the deal. The French president’s “four pillars” strategy for countering Iran, the first of which seeks to keep the JCPOA as a short-term solution to the clerical regime’s atomic ambitions, is just a restatement of what French diplomats have been trying for weeks to advance with Hook. The French, who are the most serious among the Europeans about countering the Islamic Republic and nuclear proliferation, are sincere in their desire to find a means to curtail the development of Iran’s ballistic missiles and regional aggression (pillars two and three), especially in Syria, where Paris has been begging Washington to be more assertive.

And there is little reason to doubt Paris’ wish to find some long-term, non-military means to thwart the mullahs’ nuclear ambitions after the JCPOA expires (pillar four). Unlike many within the Obama administration, the French are under no illusions about the regime’s continuing quest for the bomb. And unlike the British and the Germans, who still seem to hold tight to the hope that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani can lead the Islamic Republic to a felicitous modus vivendi with the West, the French have few illusions about the evolutionary potential of this cleric.

But what the French and the other Europeans have so far suggested as “fixes” to the JCPOA and the ballistic-missile threat are mostly future adjustments, something that might bite the Iranians post-JCPOA. Bolton and Pompeo appear to be allergic to those fixes. That some European diplomats have so openly collaborated with Democrats in their efforts to save Obama’s legacy — the French ambassador Gérard Araud, who frequently fulminates on Twitter, stands out — also hasn’t politically helped their cause in hyper-partisan Washington.

Not wanting to be boxed in, Macron has already signaled an alternate approach to dealing with a post-JCPOA America: He seeks to exempt Europeans from any secondary American sanctions that are at the heart of the non-military coercive power the U.S. has over the Islamic Republic. Such exemptions would, for example, allow European banks to use U.S. dollars in financial dealings with the Islamic Republic. The existing exception for the $12 billion Airbus deal with Tehran, which requires an American waiver given the use of American-made parts in every Airbus plane, wouldn’t be revoked even if the $17 billion Boeing sale to Iran is canceled. The likely imminent collapse of the Boeing deal probably signals that the White House will also cancel the Airbus sale.

Macron is playing to Trump’s weakness, which is that the president doesn’t appear to have a firm grasp on how American sanctions work. Trump once gave an interview to Fox News where he gave a green light to French and German businesses to invest in Iran even though McMaster had explicitly warned the Europeans not to invest in sectors dominated by the Revolutionary Guards, which is exactly where the Europeans want to put much of their money. European officials have committed that interview to memory. Though not likely (even for Trump, certain contradictions are challenging), it’s possible that he could grant Europeans exemptions that would in effect gut American economic power.

A trans-Atlantic perfect storm could develop over America’s withdrawal from the JCPOA. It certainly is bad timing that Trump has chosen to raise tariffs on European goods at the same time he’s moving against the nuclear deal. The two will cross-fertilize. Without “America First economics” intruding, there is a near-zero chance that the European business community, which has more influence on European Union politics than its American counterpart has on Washington’s foreign policy, would tolerate European officials who want to trash trans-Atlantic ties over the Islamic Republic, whose commercial possibilities are trivial compared to the American marketplace.

Even though the president is emphatically not a trans-Atlanticist, the Trump administration may remain sensitive to Western disunity and alter its approach somewhat to accommodate the Europeans. This primal American concern for our allies may induce the White House to take a go-slow “snap-back” of sanctions, giving the Europeans another six months to change their minds about joining the United States. A slowly-dying JCPOA would, in theory, give an opportunity for Bolton and Pompeo to devise a proper strategy, and build a team, for dealing with all the ramifications of America’s withdrawal. For those Republicans who fear Trump’s inexperience and incoherence, which is a lot of Republicans in Washington, a gradually evanescing nuclear agreement gives hope that a “fix” might still be possible, and that such a fix would lessen the chance that this president would lead America into a military confrontation with the Islamic Republic.

But this is where Bolton is likely to be decisive. The national security adviser is a buzz-saw: He will slice through the arguments for “fixes” and going slow on the demise of the JCPOA, keeping the focus on Iran, not trans-Atlantic ties. He has been relentlessly critical of the idea of “fixing” the deal since it was first put forward by his predecessor. He will surely focus on one question: What brings maximum pressure on the clerical regime the quickest? A consummate bureaucrat, he is aware that Washington’s national security bureaucracies are unlikely to commit themselves to the task of countering Iran until the JCPOA is actually gone. Bolton’s skeptical approach will dovetail with the president’s distaste for the nuclear agreement, with his evident wish to just be done with it.

Military action?

Bolton’s position is premised on a willingness to use force if the clerical regime were to dash to a bomb or even reconnect the IR2m centrifuges at the under-the-mountain facility at Fordo and turn off IAEA cameras. That scenario isn’t likely. Salehi wants more time to develop advanced centrifuges and Rouhani will probably default to his 1990s playbook of trying to separate Europe from the United States, which will be tricky to do if the clerical regime rapidly ramps up uranium enrichment. Senior officers of the Revolutionary Guards, especially the overall commander Mohammad Ali Jafari and the dark prince of the Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani, would not have so openly backed the nuclear diplomacy and the deal if Salehi’s centrifuge logic had not appealed to them.

The Iranians will, however, test American will to see what they can get away with once the nuclear deal’s restraints have been removed. A credible U.S. threat of military action will remain indispensable. That obviously isn’t a problem with Bolton, who is an über-hawk, or as a Revolutionary Guard newspaper put it, “Mr. Trump’s Raging Bull.” Ditto for Pompeo. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is, however, a question mark. Once upon a time, Mattis wanted to fire cruise missiles into Iran to punish the regime for killing American soldiers in Iraq. He has been notably less aggressive since taking control of the Pentagon. In responding to Bashar Assad’s use of poison gas, Mattis has twice advised doing less, not more. He has consistently supported the JCPOA. The Iranian press now views him favorably.

The biggest question, however, is Trump, who rode to office in part castigating America’s recent military adventures in the Greater Middle East. An enormous and potentially paralyzing incongruity in Trump’s Iran policy is that he hasn’t turned his harsh rhetoric against Iranian imperialism into a serious effort to push back against the Islamic Republic in Syria and Iraq. His policy has essentially been a muscled version of Obama’s. Trump’s sympathy for continuing American retrenchment ought to make him inclined to preserve the JCPOA. Strategically, the atomic accord is supposed to supply a decent interval for the United States to downsize its responsibilities and footprint in the region, or as Obama oddly put it, to give the Islamic Republic and Saudi Arabia time to learn how to “share” the Middle East. Obama’s overall approach to the region was harmonious, if shockingly baleful to the denizens of Iraq and Syria. Trump’s is not.

If the president decides to leave the JCPOA, common sense should tell him that he must be prepared for military conflict even if the chances of a clash grow less if he is prepared to wage war against Iran throughout the region. Trump’s credibility globally — especially with the Russians, Chinese, and North Koreans, all connoisseurs of machtpolitik — goes up if it’s clear he isn’t deterred by a violent confrontation with the mullahs.

Bolton and Pompeo understand that if there is to be any progress on the North Korean front, that if the United States is to stop its unsuccessful policy of attempting to bribe a totalitarian state to give up its nuclear arsenal, Washington must signal that American bribery/foreign blackmail will no longer work. It’s an excellent guess that Kim Jong Un would love to have his own JCPOA, that is, billions in Western funds in exchange for a short respite from his quest to build nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The appeal of the Iran nuclear deal — and its appeal among Republicans is probably much greater than Republican hostility to Obama’s diplomacy would lead one to believe — was the tried-and-true allure in democracies of punting problems down the road. Obama’s handiwork gave us a temporary surcease to our atomic anxiety and the ugly question of whether we were prepared to go to war to stop nuclear weapons in the arsenal of the Revolutionary Guards. Washington offered cash to Iran and a blind eye to how that money was used, especially in Syria where Western largesse has helped to finance the mass murder of Sunni Syrians and the obliteration of a country.

Does Trump see the ramifications of his nixing the JCPOA? We don’t yet know. But if the president decides to leave behind his predecessor’s deal, if he decides not to gut his own foreign policy by granting Europeans exemptions from American sanctions, if he decides to follow his tough Iran speeches to their logical conclusion (a policy that focuses on the regime’s dismal socialist economy and vast internal contradictions in an Iranian version of George Kennan’s strategy against the Soviet Union), then Tuesday will likely be transformative for this administration.

If the president is prepared to use force against the Islamic Republic, then time is on his side. Fear of the mullahs’ racing to a nuke will no longer produce compromises and concessions. America’s vast power — something many in Washington willfully downplayed during Obama’s presidency — offers many avenues for containing, enfeebling, and even overturning the clerical regime.

Democrats will, of course, go wild. Many populist Republicans in the isolationist Pat Buchanan and Tucker Carlson camps will become very upset. “Realist” Republicans will express their dismay. But the Iranians will be deeply depressed. The Russians, Chinese, and North Koreans will be concerned. If the president can just avoid immolating himself domestically, he may, just possibly, be on the path of making America great again — at least overseas.

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. 

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