Donald Trump refuses to certify that Iran is complying with the 2015 nuclear deal. Despite media pronouncements, this does not bring the Middle East closer to conflagration; it does not even mean the end of the grandiloquently named Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). What it means is that Trump has put Iran on notice.
The president’s decision has been denounced by everyone, except those most likely to be affected by it. May, Merkel and Macron reaffirmed their belief in the deal, as did the EU, Russia and China. On the other hand, Israel has warmly supported Trump, and the Sunni nations of the Middle East such as Saudi Arabia have welcomed Trump’s ‘firm strategy’.
The JCPOA is not a formal treaty, it is a deal patched together by the Obama administration. Obama was eager for a comprehensive agreement with Iran, but couldn’t assemble the cross-party coalition required to sign a formal treaty or rescind the existing sanctions, which remain on the books.
Instead Obama’s negotiators cobbled together a deal based on exploiting existing loopholes. The Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Disinvestment Act of 2010 allows the president to waive various aspects of the sanctions laws when ‘it is in the national interest of the United States’. Under the JCPOA deal Iran sanctions would be lifted if Iran agreed to cease its development of nuclear weapons.
Iran jumped on the deal. Sanctions were lifted and Iran gained access to $100billion in frozen assets. In addition, previously secret aspects of the deal have emerged showing that the Obama administration freed Iranian prisoners accused of major crimes related to the nuclear and missile programmes.
The world powers swiftly agreed to the deal, hoping that appeasement would put Iran’s nuclear weapons development on the political back-burner.
Under the deal, the White House must issue Iran sanctions waivers every 120 days as its part of the bargain. The president has an additional requirement, under the 2015 Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, to certify every 90 days that Iran is complying with the agreement.
Trump has declared that it is ‘the worst deal ever’ and ‘an embarrassment to the United States’. His assessment is: ‘We got weak inspections in exchange for no more than a purely short-term and temporary delay in Iran’s path to nuclear weapons.’
JCPOA has severe deficiencies, the greatest of which are insufficient verification procedures. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) admits that it is unable to ensure Tehran is not engaged in ‘activities which could contribute to the development of a nuclear explosive device’.
The IAEA is barred from inspecting Iran’s military sites, where this type of weapon development would be likely to take place; military sites where Tehran is known to have conducted secret nuclear weapons work.
Russia, for its own geopolitical ends, is blocking moves to broaden the IAEA’s inspection authority. Russia argues the IAEA has no authority to police the broadly worded Section T of the deal. Section T bans ‘activities which could contribute to the development of a nuclear explosive device’.
Examples listed include using computer models that simulate a nuclear bomb or designing multi-point explosive detonation systems. Lacking means of rigorous inspection of such important aspects of nuclear weapons development, it would be reckless folly for the White House to rubber-stamp Iran’s compliance every 90 days.
If Trump had refused the 120-days waiver it would appear that the USA had reneged on the deal. Refusal of the 90-day certification suggests that Iran has either broken the deal or is unable to demonstrate that it is complying with it. Trump is not reneging on the deal, he is implementing it. If there is no verification there can be no certification.
This decision is prudent. Refusing to certify Iran’s compliance with the agreement does not abrogate the JCPOA. But it gives Congress the opportunity to pass legislation, if it chooses, to reimpose sanctions on an accelerated schedule. More importantly, it could motivate Iran to give greater access to international inspectors before the next deadline for Trump to issue sanctions waivers. The ball is now firmly in Iran’s court.
JCPOA does not cover Tehran’s ballistic missile programme, which could become a nuclear delivery system. Publicly the Islamic Republic of Iran has taken a strong line, maintaining that its ballistic missiles are non-negotiable. Iranian diplomats, however, have reportedly made back-stairs approaches to discuss limits to the programme. The Iranians are coming to terms with the fact that in negotiations Trump is not the pushover that Obama was.
Iran’s other unacceptable behaviour is untouched by JCPOA. There are valid concerns about Iran’s continued support for terrorism and its intervention in Syria, where the civil war is drawing US-backed forces ever closer to open conflict with Iranian militias.
The public do not know how much money Iran has received under the JCPOA deal, or how much of it has been used to fund Iran’s global terrorist network. It is possible that some of it has underwritten Iran’s intervention in Syria.
June’s state-sponsored cyber-attack on British MPs’ email accounts now seems have come from Iran. Blindly trusting a nation with the track record of the Islamic Republic of Iran is no path to international security. Should we trust Iran regarding nuclear weapons development?
Decertifying the nuclear deal with Iran is a step toward fixing those severe faults in the JCPOA which leave Iran on a path to developing nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles whilst continuing its terrorist activities.
Obama hoped the deal would moderate Iran’s behaviour; it was no more likely to do that than his response to North Korea would stop the DPRK developing nuclear weapons. Trump has made a clear statement that the United States is no longer willing blindly to trust rogue regimes. It is now up to the terrorist theocracy in Tehran. It is time for them to wake up and smell the coffee.