by Paul R. Pillar
A major theme of those seeking to kill the Iran nuclear agreement, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), is that Iran is doing lots of other things, especially in the Middle East, deemed undesirable. Such rhetoric flows freely even though these other things are not covered by the JCPOA and are unrelated to the agreement. Arguments based on this rhetoric are just as dishonest as many other arguments of opponents, whose motivations involve not the terms of the JCPOA but instead other reasons they want to kill this accord and to oppose any agreement with Iran, on any subject and regardless of the terms. We know this because the death of the JCPOA clearly would not make matters any better according to the very criteria that opponents themselves offer. On some subjects, such as the sunset clauses that apply to certain provisions of the JCPOA, the death of the agreement would make matters even worse according to those same criteria.
Dishonest or not, the smoke produced by the rhetoric needs to be blown away for the benefit of those trying to consider the subject more honestly. The undesirable Iranian actions are usually mentioned in very vague, nonspecific terms, such as in referring to “nefarious, malign, destabilizing behavior”—or similar terminology. For stylistic concision, let us label this idea as NMDB. The notion of NMDB as customarily used in debate about Iran is beset by many problems. These usually include a failure to be more specific about exactly what Iranian actions are included, to examine how Iranian actions differ from what other states in the region are doing, to consider why Iran is doing what it does and whether there is any realistic hope of change, and most importantly to consider how Iranian actions do or do not conflict with U.S. interests. But let us set these problems aside and assume for the moment that NMDB exists as an identifiable concept while asking how it relates to the nuclear agreement.
One purpose of the opponents in talking so much about NMDB is to arouse an emotional aversion—to cultivate general distaste for Iran that will make people believe they will get their hands dirty by having any dealings with it. But sound foreign policy is not a matter of emotion and distaste. Many of the most important international agreements are ones reached with adversaries rather than friends, and are important precisely because they were reached with adversaries. Emotion and distaste are enemies of reason and prudence in advancing one’s national interests.
Opponents of the JCPOA also have tried to portray Iranian obligations as far more extensive than anything Tehran ever signed up to, as part of a strategy of getting people to believe, contrary to repeated findings of the international inspectors who scrutinize the Iranian nuclear program, that Iran has been violating the agreement. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley has been in the forefront of implementing this strategy, and NMDB has figured prominently in the implementation. The strategy includes speaking of congressional review legislation—which was written in a way that gives President Trump a hook on which to hang noncertification even if Iran continues to comply with all its obligations—as if it were part of the agreement that Iran signed, which of course it is not. The strategy also includes evoking a “spirit” of the agreement that is so fuzzy and broad that it can include anything that the opponent evoking it wants to include.
The lengths to which opponents, including the Trump White House, will go along this line is illustrated by their seizing upon a sentence in the preamble of the JCPOA that reads, “They [the parties to the agreement] anticipate that full implementation of this JCPOA will positively contribute to regional and international peace and security.” This is unexceptional preambular boilerplate that expresses in as nonspecific and ordinary way as possible the negotiators’ belief that their efforts have been worthwhile. The JCPOA is a significant step on behalf of nuclear nonproliferation; of course its full implementation positively contributes to regional and international peace and security. It is absurd to contend that this sentence in the preamble places on Iran additional obligations that don’t appear anywhere else in an agreement of 159 pages and that don’t even have to do with nuclear matters.
But set this absurdity aside just for a moment and consider who—if the failure of peace and serenity to break out in the Middle East really did constitute a violation of the JCPOA—is most in violation. An Iranian making the same kind of argument could make it more plausibly than the Trump administration by pointing to that administration’s unrelenting hostility toward Iran, its goading of Iran’s regional rivals to ramp up the rivalry, and its vigorous pursuit of confrontation with Iran all over the Middle East, including through armed force.
The Difference the JCPOA Makes
If one is genuinely concerned about Iranian NMDB, then the central question to ask regarding the JCPOA is: will NMDB likely be more of a problem with the JCPOA, or without it? There are two simple and honest ways to answer that question. One is that Iranian NMDB would be more of a worry if the pathways to a possible Iranian nuclear weapon were to be reopened—pathways that the JCPOA closed.
Another way to answer is to consider any reason that keeping or killing the JCPOA would induce Iran to do more NMDB or less of it. Opponents of the JCPOA have tried to make an argument about financial resources unfrozen by the agreement being used for NMDB, but that argument has ignored Iranian economic priorities and any consideration of how the position of Iranian political leaders depends overwhelmingly on applying resources to improvement of the domestic economy. Most of all, it ignores all the other influences on Iranian foreign policy and presumes that the level of NMDB is determined by how many rials are in the regime’s bank account. The same anti-JCPOA voices who so often describe Iran as under the sway of crazed mullahs describe Iran instead, for purposes of this argument, as a nation of bookkeepers.
Here’s a more clear-sighted way to approach the answer. Which of these two possible Irans is more likely to rely on NMDB? Is it an Iran that is being reintegrated into the community of nations, that sees material benefit from negotiating restrictions on itself and then scrupulously observing those restrictions, and sees the opportunity for gaining more respectability and influence as long as it plays by the international community’s rules? Or is it an Iran that is kept isolated and punished, sees any significant agreement that it does negotiate get destroyed or reneged upon by other parties, that is the target of unending confrontation and hostility, and that is treated forever as a pariah? The answer should be obvious.
The JCPOA has been in effect long enough that if there are to be any signs of increased Iranian NMDB as a result of the agreement—and not just as an artifact of the flow of events elsewhere in the region—we should have seen that by now. But we haven’t. To the extent there is measurable change in Iranian conduct that could be considered NMDB, it has if anything gone in the opposite direction. Those opposed to any dealings with Iran were talking plenty about NMDB before the JCPOA was concluded and before there was any sanctions relief.
It is a safe bet that the same opponents will still be fulminating about NMDB in the coming years, no matter what happens to the JCPOA. If you believe, in the event the JCPOA is killed, that those opponents will later be saying, “Ah, I’m glad to see that, having gotten rid of that awful deal from Obama, there is now less Iranian NMDB,” there is a bridge in Brooklyn you might want to buy.
Photo: US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, two opponents of the JCPOA (US Embassy Tel Aviv via Flickr).