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. While there is a difference between a treaty and an executive agreement domestically, there is no distinction internationally. All treaties are political agreements. The truth is, no matter how many compromises Iran makes the US will simply move the goalposts yet again, because this dispute is not really about nukes and nuclear weapons proliferation — and never was. That was always just a pretext for a policy of imposing regime-change in Iran, and preventing any chance of US-Iran engagement in the meantime.

    This was precisely what was going on before, and continues now. On numerous occasions Iran made BETTER nuclear compromise offers, that the US side either ignored or even actively undermined (the Turkey-Brazil deal that Obama killed off during his first term, after Iran had unexpectedly said “yes” is but one example) and moved the goalpost.

    Nothing short of regime-change will satisfy them, there is no point in any more negotiations.

  2. It’s not an “extraordinary thing” to say that the JCPOA is not a treaty, it’s a simple fact. The Congress has allowed the president to make international agreements without making a peep about the flaunting of the Constitution in this regard. The last such example was the military withdrawal agreement that Bush-43 made with Iraq. The Senate never made this an issue either, that such an important international agreement constitutes a treaty and requires Senate advice and consent under Aricle II, Section 2 of the Constitution.

    The US attack on Obama’s agreement was part of Trump’s political campaign, and he won the election. Now that Iran has made a chump of the US in Syria this anti-Iran action has a greater imperative than it had before.

  3. History in reverse, if we look at the oil nationalization period in Iran say from 1949 through 1952, we can see a Secretary of State in Dean Acheson that was assisted by George McGee at the State, with both McGee and Acheson initially favoring and promoting the 50-50 deal that Dr. Mossadegh negotiated in Washington with the US administration only to be later nullified by the rejection of the British. This is despite the fact that there were many people inside and out side the US administration of Truman that pointed to the potential disastrous long range consequences. US placated the “arrogance” of the British, as it has been reported and placated it by plotting the over throw of Mossadegh which happened at later years, and we all know the rest….

    Now, it seems that it is the EU and the Europeans that are sensible and promoting dialogue and maintenance of a unanimously approved UN Security Council resolution with Iran, and it is the arrogance of the new American administration that is in the way!

    It seems that history is repeating itself in reverse.

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