Iran: Does President Trump Have a Case?

Trump reinstate sanctions against Iran (White House photo by Shealah Craighead)

by Peter Jenkins

The Iranian nuclear problem has been on my mind for the last 15 years, and I am a fan of the diplomatic solution that was found in July 2015, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). So, I am pleased to have this opportunity to explain why I think President Trump’s May 8 decision to withdraw the United States from that agreement was unjustified and foolish.

It’s not entirely clear why Trump took that decision. Possible reasons include:

  • To induce Iran to request a renegotiation in which he would show himself a better negotiator than Barack Obama;
  • To induce Iran to offer a pretext for a US military assault on Iran;
  • To so cripple the Iranian economy through sanctions that a popular uprising could lead to the overthrow of the Islamic Republic.

On May 8, however, Trump laid out his reasons for U.S. withdrawal and the re-imposition of the sanctions suspended by Obama. Some of those reasons are unrelated to the JCPOA. But I will address them all as this will give me an opportunity to touch on Iran’s regional behavior, often referred to as “malign.”

It’s a murderous fiction that Iran desires only to make peaceful use of nuclear energy; Iran seeks to hold the US hostage to nuclear blackmail.

Back in 2003 when the world first learned of Iran’s nuclear safeguards violations, Western governments believed that Iran was bent on acquiring nuclear weapons. They knew that Iran had obtained uranium enrichment technology covertly. They assumed Iran intended to use that technology to produce the HEU that can form the core of a nuclear weapon. But later in the decade they learned that during 2003 the Supreme Leader had ordered a halt to all research into nuclear weapon design and they judged with high confidence that a decision to acquire nuclear weapons had not been taken.

As far as I know that assessment still stands. So, reasonable observers tend to the view that Iran’s leaders have opted for a nuclear hedging strategy: they would like to position themselves close to the nuclear weapon threshold but are well aware that crossing the threshold in the absence of a threat justifying the acquisition of a nuclear deterrent would be an act of self-harm. Being a threshold state is not illegal. There are plenty of them.

Recent Israeli documents prove that Iran wants to possess nuclear weapons.

No, they don’t. Of course, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has done his best to convey that Impression. But so far as an outside observer can tell, what these documents do is confirm what we’ve known for a decade: that Iran conducted extensive research into nuclear weapon design prior to 2004. They may suggest that this research went further than previously thought, but they do not invalidate the hedging strategy hypothesis.

The 2015 deal allows Iran to continue enriching uranium and so reach the brink of nuclear break-out. The deal’s sunset provisions are totally unacceptable .

From 2003 to 2005, in light of the belief that Iran was intent on acquiring nuclear weapons, the UK, France, and Germany sought to persuade Iran to abandon uranium enrichment. The attempt failed. Iran was adamant that as a sovereign state it had a right to enrich uranium to fuel nuclear reactors—which is true. Even the oil and banking sanctions that the West imposed after 2011 failed to shift Iran. So, eventually, under the JCPOA, the West conceded uranium enrichment in return for a host of Iranian concessions. Chief among these are very good access for the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) nuclear inspectors and 15-year restrictions on the scale and technological sophistication of Iran’s enrichment program. In light of those Iranian concessions it is untrue to say that under the JCPOA Iran can reach the brink of nuclear break-out. The JCPOA is designed to keep Iran at least a year away from break-out.

But what about the fact that those restrictions will lapse between 2026 and 2031 (unlike Iran’s “in perpetuity” non-proliferation commitments)? Does that justify pulling the United States out of the JCPOA? No. A lot can happen between now and 2031. The right time to deal with those sunset provisions will be the period preceding 2031, when the outlook may be different from what it was in 2015 or is now. Ideally, by 2031 Iranian compliance with its non-proliferation obligations, and an IAEA finding that there are no undeclared nuclear facilities or material in Iran, will have increased international confidence in Iran’s nuclear intentions.

The deal is incapable of preventing, detecting, or punishing cheating. Access to important military sites is limited.

These charges relate to the IAEA inspection regime in Iran. Only once has the IAEA had better access: in 1991 the UN imposed “anytime, anywhere” access on a defeated Iraq. It was inconceivable that an undefeated Iran would concede such humiliating terms. The IAEA is satisfied with the inspection regime. True, it can’t walk into military sites without warning. But it can request access to military sites if it has reason to do so, and Iran cannot refuse the agency without provoking a political crisis.

The deal creates conditions for a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

I don’t have the time to unravel all the fallacies underlying that charge. Suffice it to say that it’s not the deal that creates potential for a nuclear arms race, and that short of external aid Saudi Arabia is light years away from being able to develop nuclear weapons. Yet Trump is toying with asking Congress to acquiesce in Saudi purchase of a uranium enrichment capability.

The deal fails to prevent Iranian development of nuclear-capable missiles.

Iran resisted Western pressure to put an and to its ballistic missile program through the JCPOA. The West had to settle for a non-legally-binding call in the UN resolution that endorses the JCPOA. Iran is under no treaty obligation to refrain from developing missiles. There is no agreed definition of “nuclear-capable.” Iran has never tested long-range missiles and says it has no intention of acquiring them. So, the United States and most of Europe have nothing to fear.

True, Iran’s neighbors see its expanding missile capabilities as a threat. But Iran, too, sees the expanding capabilities of those neighbors as a threat. So, the U.S. response ought to be to promote a regional dialogue on missile proliferation, not to withdraw from the JCPOA.

Meanwhile, although the UN has prohibited Iranian export of missiles, there’s little doubt that exports have continued. So, this is a fair cop!

The deal gave the regime many billions of dollars for terror.

This entails an inappropriate use of a verb. The JCPOA did not give any money to Iran. It merely led to the release from foreign bank accounts of Iranian funds that had been frozen as part of the West’s pressure campaign. Whether some or all of those unfrozen funds have been channeled into alleged terror operations, I doubt any Westerner knows.

Iran is a leading state sponsor of terrorism; Iran supports terrorist proxies.

It’s a rhetorical U.S. trope that Iran is the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism. Yet when the Congressional Research Service published a substantive assessment in 2016, it was only able to list three “major Iran or Iran-related terrorist acts or plots” since 1996: an October 2011  plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington, the February 2012 wounding of the wife of an Israeli diplomat by Lebanese Hezbollah in Delhi and a July 2012 bombing in Bulgaria, ascribed to Lebanese Hezbollah, that resulted in the death of five Israeli tourists.

During those 20 years, the world’s leading terrorist organizations were al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and the Islamic State. Iran neither sponsored nor sponsors any of these. On the contrary, they are Sunni enemies of Shia Iran.

Over the last 12 months, Iran’s intelligence service is suspected of having sponsored one assassination and plotted two terrorist attacks in Europe. That’s bad but not enough to put Iran on a par with the leading contemporary state sponsors of terrorism.

In reality, the United States justifies its charge by pointing to Iranian support for Lebanese Hezbollah and Palestinian Hamas. The United States considers these to be terrorist organizations. True, both have undertaken terrorist operations in the past. But both have evolved into more complex entities. So, that characterization can be challenged.

The deal fuels conflicts across the Middle East. It imposed no limits on malign activity in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Afghanistan.

Has the JCPOA fueled conflict across the Middle East? Has the JCPOA emboldened Iran to be more active? I do not know enough to be sure, but my hunch is that what determines the scale of Iranian activity in foreign theaters is an assessment of threats and opportunities, not the JCPOA. In Syria for instance, when it seemed likely that Bashar al-Assad would fall, Tehran would have seen that as a very serious threat to its ability to supply Hezbollah so that Hezbollah can deter Israeli attacks on Iran. In Yemen, modest support for the Houthis has been a low-cost opportunity to bugger up the war plans of Iran’s neighbour, rival, and, currently, sworn enemy: Saudi Arabia.

Has Iranian regional behavior been malign? It seems to me that international law is the only reasonable basis for condemning a state’s behavior. If a state is merely acting in a way that annoys you because that behavior harms your interests or the interests of an ally, but is not illegal, then condemnation lacks an objective justification. It is merely an ethical judgement that is an expression of emotion.

Iran has annoyed the United States because it has helped to thwart the U.S. wish to overthrow Assad and the Saudi desire to subdue and oppress the Houthis, and because Israel is increasingly fearful of Hezbollah’s Iranian-supplied military capabilities. But neither Russia nor Turkey, to take but two examples, sees that Iranian behavior as malign. In other words, malignity is in the eye of the beholder (and ought to be banished from diplomatic discourse).

Finally, allow me to touch on just two of the 12 demands that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made of Iran on May 21. It was a list of demands that reminded me of the 1914 Austro-Hungarian ultimatum to Serbia.

Pompeo demanded that Iran release all the U.S. citizens it has jailed under trumped-up charges (no pun intended). This is eminently reasonable. Iranian hostage-taking is completely unacceptable. I am confident President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif would agree. But they represent only one of several power centers within the Iranian establishment and so far have been unable, it seems, to persuade the Supreme Leader to put a stop to this practice. In any case, non-nuclear sources of pressure should be found to bring about hostage release. Nuclear non-proliferation is too essential an end in itself to be used as a means to an end.

Second, Pompeo demanded that Iranian crowds cease chanting “Death to Israel.” Personally I would rather be on the receiving end of a hostile Iranian chant than on the receiving end of Mossad-sponsored assassinations, Stuxnet viruses, and crippling economic sanctions.

This article is based on a talk in London on November 27.

Peter Jenkins

Peter Jenkins was a British career diplomat for 33 years, following studies at the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard. He served in Vienna (twice), Washington, Paris, Brasilia and Geneva. He specialized in global economic and security issues. His last assignment (2001-06) was that of UK Ambassador to the IAEA and UN (Vienna). Since 2006 he has represented the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership, advised the Director of IIASA and set up a partnership, The Ambassador Partnership llp, with former diplomatic colleagues, to offer the corporate sector dispute resolution and solutions to cross-border problems. He was an associate fellow of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy from 2010 to 2012. He writes and speaks on nuclear and trade policy issues.



  1. Dear Mr. Mostofi
    If you can ever get over your racist views that we were taught as children that Persians are superior to Arabs, Turks, Pakistanis, Afghanis and just about everyone else. You’d realize Irans human rights situation is much better than just about all the nations in the region. Yes Iran is not Denmark or such, but compare Iran to the Saudis, Emartis even Israelis then you really don’t have a case.

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