New Deals, Old Deals, and Non-Deals with Iran

Brian HookBrian Hook

by Paul R. Pillar

The discussions at the White House with French President Emmanuel Macron about devising, in Macron’s words, a “new deal with Iran” may be an instance of different governments using similar words to mean very different things. In that regard, it may be akin to how “denuclearization” means different things in the Korean context depending on which government uses the term. Although Macron can be criticized for some aspects of how he has handled the task he has taken on, especially with respect to the effect of his moves on Iranian perceptions and intentions, give him credit for taking on the task at all. To try to preserve an agreement that serves the interests of both France and the United States as well as the cause of nuclear nonproliferation, he has had to propitiate a bully—one who in front of the press in the Oval Office even added the bullying touch of flicking alleged dandruff off Macron’s suit coat.

No matter what Trump may have said to Macron in private, the French leader cannot be sure that he attained agreement on anything—and Macron himself later said that he probably failed to persuade Trump. European critics of Macron’s approach have argued, with good reason, that the strategy of making concessions to Trump about Iran is no assurance of getting any cooperation from him in return. With Trump’s tendency to be swayed by the last person who talks to him, with John Bolton (or Mike Pompeo) being in good position to be that person, and with Trump’s undiminished desire to wreck anything Barack Obama did, Trump is still likely to keep looking for ways to kill the existing nuclear agreement with Iran, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Macron has been talking about new deals with Iran to try to preserve the old deal. That’s not what Trump is talking about, even if he uses some of the same words. And any killing of the old agreement is one of the worst things that could happen to prospects for reaching any new agreement with Iran. Why would the Iranians, not to mention the Russians and Chinese, make any new commitments if the Trump administration refuses to honor existing ones?

Excluding Iran from Negotiations

An interview on NPR with State Department policy planning chief Brian Hook—who has been discussing these issues with European counterparts—shows where the administration is going better than Trump’s blustery and fickle language. Hook made clear that the administration does not have in mind new negotiations with the Iranians, or even with the Russians and Chinese. Rather, it seeks an agreement with the European parties to the JCPOA to pressure Iran in additional ways separate from, and possibly in violation of, the JCPOA. The prospects for any success in this approach of pressure-without-negotiations would be no better than it was during the years in which ever-increasing sanctions on Iran over nuclear issues were met by Iran spinning ever more centrifuges and enriching more and more uranium. That cycle was broken only when the Obama administration sat down to negotiate with Tehran.

If the new forms of pressure violate the JCPOA—for instance, by re-imposing under a different label what had been nuclear sanctions—then there would be no progress on whatever is the issue on the new label, such as ballistic missiles or activity in Syria or whatever. Moreover, abrogation of the JCPOA through such a U.S. violation would relieve Iran of its obligations under the agreement. That means going back to additional centrifuges spinning and more uranium getting enriched, and without the intrusive international inspections. In any event, there would be no “fix” of the agreement and no “better deal,” because there would be no new deal with Iran at all.

But even that wasn’t the most extraordinary thing Hook said in the interview. When the interviewer referred to the existing agreement, Hook interjected, “It’s not a treaty. It’s not an executive agreement. It has no signatures. It has no legal status. It is a political commitment by an administration that is no longer in office.” In short, the Trump administration feels no obligation to abide by the JCPOA at all, no matter how diligently Iran observes its obligations, merely because the United States has had an election in the interim.

The first thing to note about this is that there is no necessary connection between the specific art form that an international agreement takes and the significance, value, detailed nature of, or care in negotiating the agreement. The JCPOA, laboriously negotiated over two years, is 159 pages. By comparison, the U.S.-Russian strategic arms reduction treaty currently in effect is 17 pages. (The immediately preceding strategic arms treaty was two pages.)

The next thing to note is that a statement like Hook’s, and the fact that it reflects the Trump administration’s attitude toward U.S. obligations, has already dealt U.S. credibility a severe blow regardless of what eventually happens to the JCPOA. Such an attitude, by eliminating much of the nation’s ability to bind itself in return for concessions from other states, in effect destroys much of the diplomatic instrument that otherwise would be in the hands of the United States.

And then, of course, there are the implications for obligations of the counterparty. Does Hook’s comment about “no signatures” mean that Stormy Daniels is correct that she is under no obligation to observe her nondisclosure agreement with Trump about their affair because Trump never signed it?

Relieving Iran of its Obligations

Of more consequence, does Hook’s formulation mean that Iran can, just as easily as the United States, brush aside its obligations under the JCPOA? If so, why all the fuss about fine print in this piece of paper with “no legal status” when it comes to things like sunset clauses or anything else? If an election or change of leadership is what supposedly triggers a release from obligations, bear in mind that Iran will have a new president, and very likely a new supreme leader, well before any of those sunset clauses come into play.

So, the Trump administration says an agreement really isn’t an agreement. Maybe one way to save the agreement that is the JCPOA is for Trump to be able to claim that a non-deal is a deal. That’s what Macron has been hoping will happen—that Trump will point to European acquiescence to some new forms of pressure on Iran and boast that he has gotten a “deal” to “correct flaws” in the JCPOA, even though Iran will have not have signed up for anything new or different.

If such a tactic were to preserve the JCPOA, it would be worth it. But it still would be a shame that accomplishing such a goal requires manipulating the urges of a narcissistic demagogue rather than just conducting a sober analysis of what is in the interests of the United States, international security, and the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons.

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Paul Pillar

Paul R. Pillar is Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Studies of Georgetown University and an Associate Fellow of the Geneva Center for Security Policy. He retired in 2005 from a 28-year career in the U.S. intelligence community. His senior positions included National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia, Deputy Chief of the DCI Counterterrorist Center, and Executive Assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence. He is a Vietnam War veteran and a retired officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. Dr. Pillar's degrees are from Dartmouth College, Oxford University, and Princeton University. His books include Negotiating Peace (1983), Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy (2001), Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy (2011), and Why America Misunderstands the World (2016).

9 Comments

  1. Thanks for another great piece Dr Pillar. The west, specifically the US, want to scrap JCPOA agreement but they want Iran to back out first rather than themselves! hat they’re currently doing is an internal negotiation within the western group being the US and the EU3 without having the main party of the agreement involved at all! The EU3 are stuck between the rock and a hard place! On one hand they’re not sure if Trump will last for another 3 years so they’re showing a little resistance and also they’re being bullied on the other hand about their relationship with the US and possible trade problems if they don’t go along with the bully man! Tehran will not over react to this one sided maneuvering and it will resist the outcome of this one sided conversation!

  2. Great piece. Shocking demonstration, by Brian Hook, of contempt or disdain for crucial international agreements made by the US.

  3. The absence of any mention of UN Security Council Resolution S/RES/2231 (2015) could be interpreted as Paul Pillar believing that the whole procedure of UN Security Council resolutions is worthless. He should know and understand that the parties to the JCPOA completely understood that by itself the agreement had a flimsy legal basis, and therefore, within a week of agreeing on the JCPOA—unprecedented short period—it was incorporated into a Security Council resolution–which the US approved–making it valid under international law and applicable to all members of the United Nations – especially the provisions of Annex B, Statement. You can bet that Brian Hook is well aware of that, and was purposely avoiding any mention of that U.S. government commitment. I am disappointed, almost shocked, that Paul Pillar essentially supported that machination by Brian Hook.

    The future direction of the Iran nuclear saga becomes clearer by the day. The U.S. will violate its obligations under RES/2231 and take aggressive actions against Iran. One can only wonder if Secretary of State Pompeo’s immediate trip to Saudi Arabia and Israel is to reach agreement on those actions. Why else would he need to hurry there? The Israel-Palestine peace treaty? Unlikely. No, the trip is about the planning of “maximum pressure” on Iran, including scuttling the JCPOA.

    So what will Iran do? Iran sees from the DPRK case that the only way to effectively counter US military/economic/political pressure is to possess nuclear weapons. I believe they hoped it would not go this way, but now the writing is on the wall. So, Iran will apply Article X and withdraw from the NPT, using (as DPRK did) the existential threat from the US as reason, and will go full bore for a uranium nuclear weapon. They will have to assume that the US public will not accept a full-scale war with Iran; they may be wrong about that. But if it has to come to war with the US, so be it; they know that the US will find that its losses will be far greater than in Iraq or in Afghanistan. And there will be no “mission accomplished’ moment for the US President to boast about.

    Isn’t it a shame that such things have to be written?

  4. Oh, how Trump must lng for the unlimited (storied) powers of Oriental Potentates of old! No restircitons on sexual or any other behavior, beyond the whim of the Mighty One. Or what’s mightiness for?

    Positively G-d-like. sounds like the Inner Trump, to me.

    Of course, there were always assassins lurking … The Morality Police?

  5. It is clear that the bully in the WH is a danger to peace and security of the World. In order to preserve the international law and order, all the countries of the world, esp. those who are militarily strong should unite to push back against Trump and his war cabinet. Nothing less than survival of the international order is at stake. Don’t underestimate the danger of an ignoramus at the helms of the most power. You can’t appease a bully, you can only oppose it.

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