by Peter Jenkins
The decision to sell the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran (the JCPOA) to the US Congress and public as closing all pathways to Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons is returning to haunt us.
That slogan implied two things: that Iran was intent on acquiring nuclear weapons, and that the United States had succeeded in thwarting that ambition by imposing nuclear restrictions on Iran.
A major problem results from that. Common sense leads most people to think that, if the JCPOA is the only obstacle to Iran becoming nuclear-armed, it would be folly to allow the nuclear restrictions to lapse between 2025 and 2031 as the agreement envisages. And, if a mix of persuasion and coercion worked to impose the JCPOA in 2015, then that same mix will surely work to impose the extension of restrictions way beyond 2025, if not in perpetuity.
The current president and secretary of state seem both to have come to this common sense view. “Trump Pushes to Revisit Iran Nuclear Deal” was a New York Times headline on September 20. “Iran Nuclear Deal Must Change,” says Tillerson was an Asia Times headline the same day.
Unfortunately this common sense view fails to do justice to the complexity of the events that led up to the JCPOA.
The JCPOA became an option for resolving worldwide concern over Iran’s “pursuit of a policy of concealment” between 1985 and 2003, and concomitant violation of nuclear safeguards obligations, only after a US intelligence finding that Iran’s leaders had closed down a nuclear weapons program (probably not much more than selective research) in 2003 and had not taken a decision to acquire nuclear weapons.
Before that finding, published in November 2007, Europe and the United States had judged that it would be dangerous to allow Iran to possess a capacity to enrich uranium, since highly enriched uranium is nuclear bomb material. Persuading Iran to renounce enrichment had, therefore, been the goal of European diplomacy between 2003 and 2006. In 2005 the Europeans had rejected an Iranian offer severely to restrict enrichment for a number of years, but not to renounce it, precisely because their underlying fear was that Iran sought nuclear weapons.
In other words, it was growing confidence after 2007 that Iran was not intent on acquiring nuclear weapons that allowed Europe and the United States to cut a deal that allowed for continuing enrichment in Iran and that envisaged a growing output of low-enriched uranium (non-weapon grade), scrutinized by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), after 2030.
Meanwhile, the offer Iran made in 2005 and their reaction to the nuclear-related sanctions that accumulated after 2006 revealed much about the terms on which Iran’s leaders were ready to do a deal.
They were ready to pay a price in the form of temporary restrictions, and perpetual transparency, to build international confidence in the peaceful, non-military nature of the post-2003 nuclear program. They were not ready to humiliate themselves by renouncing a sovereign right, conditioned only by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), to make peaceful use of enrichment technology. They disliked being subjected to sanctions but were determined not to succumb to this form of diplomatic pressure, whatever the economic costs of that determination.
In other words, Iran’s leaders saw the JCPOA as a confidence-building agreement that will allow Iran to move on from the disreputable position in which it found itself in 2003. They see it also as an agreement that they offered of their own free will, not as an “unequal treaty” imposed on them by stronger powers.
The JCPOA itself makes no mention of “closing all pathways.” Instead it states:
[Iran envisions that] the initial mutually determined limitations described in this JCPOA will be followed by a gradual evolution, at a reasonable pace, of Iran’s peaceful nuclear programme, including its enrichment activities, to a commercial programme for exclusively peaceful purposes, consistent with international non-proliferation norms.
The E3/EU+3 envision that the implementation of this JCPOA will progressively allow them to gain confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s programme.
All this suggests that President Trump and Secretary Tillerson will find it impossible to impose additional nuclear restrictions on Iran, short of defeating Iran militarily and occupying a country much larger than Iraq (at enormous political and financial cost). Their best bet, rather, will be to engage Iran diplomatically. If they do so, they are likely to find Iran much readier to contemplate additional confidence-building transparency measures than additional restrictions on enrichment. In support of any diplomatic initiative, the United States must continue to uphold the JCPOA. To decertify Iran or encourage Congress to re-impose nuclear-related sanctions—to exert “pressure” on Iran—would be utterly counterproductive.
Wise statesman might also set about dispelling the notion that only the JCPOA is preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. But that is probably too much to expect.
Photo: Press conference with Ali Akbar Salehi of the Atomic Energy Agency of Iran and IAEA chief Yukia Amano.