The Iran Nuclear Deal: What’s Going On?

EXPLAINER

On Friday, October 13, after weeks of threats, President Trump announced his decision to decertify the 2015 Iran nuclear deal (also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA), and threatened to back out entirely if further Iranian concessions are not made.

Trump has openly criticized Iranian leadership and the deal, saying in his decertification statement, “We will not continue down a path whose predictable conclusion is more violence, more chaos, the very real threat of Iran’s nuclear breakout.”

Let’s focus on facts. The JCPOA focuses squarely on ensuring that Iran does not use its nuclear program to build military weapons. The deal ensures that Iran reduces its uranium stockpile by 98% over 15 years, and limits uranium enrichment to 3.67% — enough to fuel nuclear power plants, but short of the 90% enrichment needed to make nuclear weapons. Iran also agreed to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to continuously monitor Iran’s nuclear sites and prevent covert activity. The deal increased Iran’s break-out time (the time Iran would need to make a usable bomb from its current assortment of materials) from two months to over a year. The International Atomic Energy Agency, nuclear watchdog of the United Nations, has also verified that Iran is in full compliance with the terms of the agreement.

The deal was made in October 2015 after years of multilateral negotiations, and signed by then-Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Seen as one of the Obama administration’s top international security accomplishments, the signatories to the deal also include the United Kingdom, Russia, France, Germany, and China.

In a live television address immediately following Trump’s announcement, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani harshly criticized Trump’s decision. “I would invite the U.S. president to read more about history, geography, international commitments, politeness and ethics, and international conventions,” he said.

Rouhani continued: “We cooperated with the International Atomic Energy Agency and within the framework of international treaties and the JCPOA and we will continue to do so, but if one day our interests are not guaranteed and the other parties want to violate their commitments, they must know that Iran will not hesitate a second and will respond to them. What was heard today from US officials was nothing but the repetition of incorrect words, false accusations and insults that have been repeatedly said during the past 40 years.”

Proponents of the deal argue that Trump is further isolating America and destabilizing the Middle East. In a joint statement, British Prime Minister Theresa May, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and French President Emmanuel Macron condemned Trump’s decision, saying:  “The nuclear deal was the culmination of 13 years of diplomacy and was a major step towards ensuring that Iran’s nuclear program is not diverted for military purposes.”

Trump’s decision also seems to go against the advice of many of his top advisors — including embattled Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who told CNN on October 16, “We’re going to stay in. We’re going to work with our European partners and allies and see if we can’t address these concerns.” The deal also has the support of Defense Secretary James Mattis, who, when asked on October 3 by Angus King (I-Maine) of the Senate Armed Services Committee if he thought remaining in the deal would be in the interest of national security, responded, “Yes, senator, I do.”

So why has Trump done it?

Trump’s decision to decertify, in going against the advice of many of his top aides and international experts, follows a trend in his presidency.  He’s shown a willingness to play to his base, following through on his loudest campaign promises, with little regard for the advice and censure of his advisors. He also seems to have made it a priority to undo what he can of the Obama administration’s foreign policy and trade achievements, and has taken a hard-line stance on Iran that aligns with the most extreme right-wingers in Washington and abroad.

Trump has long been vocal in his criticism of the deal. In 2015, then-candidate Trump called it “the worst deal ever.”  He is supported in his criticism by recently embattled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (under investigation for corruption), who was the chief opponent of the deal during its negotiation, and who praised Trump’s decision as “the right decision for the world.”  

Trump’s action was also praised by David Friedman, the bankruptcy lawyer Trump appointed as ambassador to Israel, who has a history of opposing everything Palestinian, everything Iranian, everything relating to Obama, the nuclear deal, and its negotiators. In a 2015 piece for Arutz 7, a right-leaning Israeli news site, he wrote: “The accusation that any Jewish American who opposes this ridiculous deal is elevating the interests of Israel above the United States is complete hogwash maliciously conceived and advanced by Democratic operatives” (language which raises questions about the speaker’s ability to evaluate dispassionately the best interests of America and the world).

But Netanyahu and Friedman do not speak for most Israeli experts. Power players in Israeli foreign policy and intelligence community to speak out in favor of the deal include Uzi Eilam, former head of the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission; Uzi Arad, former National Security Advisor and head of Mossad, the Israeli Intelligence Service; and Ehud Barak, the former Prime Minister who said in October, “It would be a mistake for President Trump to decertify the Iran nuclear deal. Even if America decides to pull out of it, no one will join — not the Chinese, not the Russians, not even the Europeans. It will serve the Iranians.”

Trump has, however, won praise from Saudi Arabia, a longtime regional rival to Iran, and the Saudis’ close ally, the United Arab Emirates.  Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. are Sunni-majority countries, while Iran is the Middle East’s most prominent Shia-majority country. The Sunni-Shia split dates back to the year 632, and has, since the Iranian revolution of 1979, brought forth a Shia agenda in that country’s foreign policy that was perceived by conservative Sunni monarchies as a threat to their regimes. As Iran supports Shia political parties and militias around the world, and Saudi Arabia invests in other Sunni governments and organizations, the Sunni-Shia tension has grown, playing a major role in recent Middle Eastern conflicts. There is great concern that the U.S. president Donald Trump does not understand the complexities of that tension, nor the extent to which his lack of understanding is being exploited by Saudi Arabia.

And now what?

Legislature passed by Congress in 2015 gives the President the option to certify or decertify the deal every 90 days. By decertifying the deal, President Trump does not kill it.  He merely passes the decision whether or not to impose further sanctions — or scrap the deal altogether, and significantly increase tensions with Iran — on to Congress, which then has 60 days to debate the issue.  

Notable Congressional Republicans, now faced with this massive foreign-policy decision, have been largely critical of Trump’s recent actions. Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who is retiring from the senate after this term, said on October 3 that Trump’s rhetoric and threats towards other countries could put the U.S. “on the path to World War III.”

More than a month after the President announced his intention to decertify, the U.S. Congress has yet to pass any legislation that would change the terms of the agreement. Bob Corker and Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas), Republicans in charge of the legislation, have yet to release a draft or find a Democratic partner.  

If Congress is unable to pass legislation, Trump may take the matter into his own hands. “In the event we are not able to reach a solution with Congress and our allies, then the agreement will be terminated,” he said last month.

Bottom line: That the Iran nuclear deal is in the security interests of the U.S., Israel and the world has been confirmed by the current U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson; current U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis; former Secretary of State John Kerry; former U.S. President Barack Obama; chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker; former head of the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission, Uzi Eilam; former director of Israel’s Shin Bet General Security Service, Carmi Gillon; former head of the Israeli Mossad Intelligence Service, Uzi Arad; former Prime Minister of Israel, Ehud Barak; as well as all signatories to the agreement, including the leaders of Britain, France, Russia, Germany and China. And Iran’s compliance has been confirmed by the International Atomic Energy Agency of the United Nations.

But President Trump disagrees, as does the current prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu. Both are currently facing serious investigations in their countries Trump for potential collusion with Russia in the 2016 U.S. election, and Netanyahu for corruption.

Last week, Haaretz reported:  “Former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said at Chatham House in London Monday that the leaders of Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt had all urged President Barack Obama to bomb Iran early on in his term. But none of them tried to do it themselves. That still seems to be the situation.”

by Tim Mainella  (Well, The Netherlands)

 

 

 

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