The Persistence of Falsehoods About the Iran Nuclear Agreement

by Paul R. Pillar

The biggest current threat to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the agreement that limits Iran’s nuclear program, comes from Donald Trump’s obsession with killing the accord. That obsession is driven by his impulse to undo whatever Barack Obama did and to fulfill campaign rhetoric based on such contrarianism. The power of that impulse should not be underestimated, no matter how much it collides with truth, reason, and the best interests of the United States. Trump has demonstrated parallel obsessions in pulling out of the Paris climate change agreement in the face of an overwhelming scientific and global political consensus, and in his current posture on health care, in which he evidently is willing to harm the health of the American people in an effort to make his rhetoric about Obamacare appear to come true.

Perhaps the best hope for slowing Trump’s pursuit of his obsession about the JCPOA is the transparently ham-handed way he is going about it. His own statements have corroborated the gist of other reporting that Trump has made up his mind to kill the agreement and will bend whatever facts he needs to bend, and try whatever stratagems he needs to try, to achieve that result. Those stratagems include asserting Iranian compliance even though international inspectors say Iran is complying with the agreement, or demanding inspections of non-nuclear sites in Iran even without providing reason to believe that any prohibited activity is occurring there. The game being played is so obviously concocted to get a predetermined result that anyone, either foreign or domestic, with a sense of integrity ought to have a hard time going along with it while keeping a straight face.

Yet another technique is to make the United States so noncompliant with its obligations under the agreement that the Iranians will get sufficiently fed up to abandon the JCPOA. With Iran filing a formal complaint about the newest U.S. sanctions against it, the Trump White House probably has its hopes up that this approach to killing the agreement may work.

The Opposition Movement

Trump’s pursuit exploits a much larger opposition to the JCPOA that goes back more than two years to when the agreement was still under negotiation. As with Trump, little of this opposition has to do with nuclear weapons or with the terms and purpose of the JCPOA. Also as with Trump, some of the opposition, including much of the Republican Party in Congress, is based on an oppose-anything-Obama-did posture. Much of the opposition has to do with a desire to keep Iran’s status as a perpetually isolated and castigated adversary that is blamed for all or almost all of the ills in the Middle East. That desire characterizes certain other regimes in the Middle East (especially Israel and Saudi Arabia) that are rivals of Iran, want outside powers to take their side, and hope to divert international scrutiny from their own contributions to regional instability.

The opposition to the JCPOA became a major, well-funded movement that came close to killing the agreement in its infancy. Well-rehearsed talking points, including misleading or false ones, had ample opportunity to gain air time and column space. The opposition offensive slackened once the JCPOA took effect and was no longer a front-page item. Then the election of Trump, with his campaign rhetoric excoriating the agreement, re-energized the opposition to the JCPOA. It has repeated many of the same old themes, notwithstanding the agreement’s success in the meantime in being implemented and maintaining its tight restrictions on, and scrutiny of, Iran’s nuclear program. And like Trump, who keeps repeating falsehoods about crowd sizes, voter fraud, and much else regardless of how many times his assertions are disproved and debunked, the misleading or false anti-JCPOA themes keep getting repeated despite having been refuted long ago. The sheer repetition gets many people believing what is repeated.

Trump himself is one of the offenders in using such themes about the JCPOA. Last week at a campaign-style rally in Ohio, for example, he repeated one of the hoariest of the anti-JCPOA assertions: that the United States “gave” Iran $100-150 billion in assets under the agreement and separately “gave” Iran $1.7 billion in cash. In fact, the United States has not given Iran a penny. All of the money was Iran’s in the first place. Most of the assets in question had been frozen in foreign financial accounts. The separate cash payment was the resolution of a very old claim dating back to the time of the shah, in which Iran paid for some airplanes that the United States did not deliver. Pallets of cash were used because sanctions continued to shut Iran out of the international banking system.

Trump ought to be familiar with such situations from his business career, given the number of times he reportedly stiffed suppliers and sub-contractors. The only difference is that with Trump’s business, goods were delivered but never paid for. In the aircraft deal with Iran, the Iranians paid but the United States never delivered the goods.

Much faith has been placed in the “adults” in the administration to rein in Trump’s worst tendencies. Reportedly the adults, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, last month urged a resistant Trump to recognize reality and certify that Iran was complying with the JCPOA. One’s faith ought to be weakened by how Tillerson, at a press briefing this week, voiced some of the same old, familiar, and thoroughly refuted falsehoods and misleading themes.

Tillerson’s Errors

The biggest outright whopper was Tillerson’s assertion that Iran “got the immediate lifting of the sanctions before they ever had to deliver on anything.” Any look at the history of implementation of the JCPOA, according to the carefully negotiated schedule, shows how drastically false that statement is. In fact, the asymmetry in the implementation of the agreement worked in the opposite direction. Iran had to do nearly all it was going to do to curtail its nuclear program and significantly extend the “breakout” time to a possible nuclear weapon before it got an ounce of new sanctions relief under the JCPOA. This Iranian work included gutting its heavy-water research reactor, disposing of excess heavy water, cutting back its uranium-enrichment cascades, taking all excess centrifuges off line, ceasing uranium enrichment at the underground Fordow facility, providing international inspectors a comprehensive inventory of centrifuge equipment, and many other measures. It was only after the International Atomic Energy Agency certified that Iran had completed all these required steps that the parties moved to “Implementation Day,” which was when the United States and the Europeans began sanctions relief.

Not specifically a lie, but highly misleading about the nature and purpose of the JCPOA, was Tillerson’s comment that “there’s another part of that agreement that talks about the fact that with this agreement, Iran will become a good neighbor—now, I’m paraphrasing a lot of language—they’ll become a good neighbor, that Iran is called upon to no longer develop its ballistic missiles.” Tillerson accused Iran of violating “the spirit of the agreement” because of these issues. Tillerson’s remark wasn’t a paraphrase; it was a fantasy expansion of the agreement that has been another favorite of the agreement’s opponents, who criticize the JCPOA for not causing peace to break out in the Middle East. Neither has it led to a cure for cancer.

It was clear to all parties from the beginning of the negotiation that no agreement, and no limitation of the expanding Iranian nuclear program, would be possible unless the agreement focused specifically on the nuclear issue and on sanctions that supposedly are about the nuclear issue. If the United States or other Western governments brought into the negotiation other things they did not like about what Iran was doing, then Iran would raise all the other things it doesn’t like about what the United States is doing. And then nothing, including nothing about curtailing the nuclear program, would ever be agreed to.

Nothing in the JCPOA obligates Iran not to stop developing, testing, and possessing ballistic missiles. Sanctions that involved materiel relevant to missiles were part of the sanctions that were supposed to be in place because of Iran’s nuclear activities. And from the standpoint of U.S. national interests, Iranian missiles are nearly irrelevant as long as nuclear weapons are not part of the picture, which is part of why preservation of an agreement preventing any Iranian development of a nuke is so important. The implementing resolution of the United Nations Security Council makes a nod to the desirability of restraint in developing missiles, but this clause was by design a vague exhortation with no binding power. Iran—facing threats from neighbors with missiles and superior air power—would never have agreed to anything firmer than that.

When Tillerson says “while this agreement was being developed, it was kind of like we put blinders on and just ignored all those other things,” this not only misrepresents what was in the field of vision and consciousness of the policymakers and diplomats who negotiated the JCPOA. The comment also ignores how the very people who are leading the renewed charge against the JCPOA were, pre-JCPOA, singling out the Iranian nuclear program as the preeminent security issue towering above everything else. It wasn’t Barack Obama who had elevated that specific issue. Mitt Romney, running for president against Obama in 2012, said that an Iranian nuclear weapon was the greatest security threat the United States faced anywhere in the world. The nuclear issue was the issue about which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put on the first-ever cartoon show at the UN General Assembly. Then, when negotiations successfully resolved that issue, those whose true agenda was centered on other objectives, such as isolating Iran in perpetuity or bashing Obama, began talking about blinders and allegedly ignoring other things.

As for good neighborliness and observing the spirit of the JCPOA, there was not a hint of anything in Tillerson’s remarks, just as there usually isn’t in any of the comments of opponents of the agreement, about any obligations along those lines on the part of the United States. But one can get an idea of the symmetry involved by noting how the Iranian parliament, in response to action by the U.S. Congress on a “Countering Iran’s Destabilizing Activities Act” (which included the sanctions later folded into another bill and leading to Iran’s formal complaint), initiated action on its own “Bill Against U.S. Adventurist and Terrorist Activities in the Region.” Although “destabilizing” would have been a more appropriate term than “terrorist” in this bill too, the Iranians have plenty to point to, such as the U.S. support for the highly destructive Saudi-led war in Yemen.

All this is happening in Iran’s neighborhood, not America’s. And it is accompanied by unrelentingly hostile rhetoric against Iran from the current U.S. administration, which also has been emboldening Iran’s regional rivals to promote even more confrontation. If not being a good neighbor constitutes a violation of the spirit of the JCPOA, then the Trump administration would need to look in a mirror to see who is most in violation.

Donald Trump’s serial lying, and his penchant for repeating lies long after they have been disproven, is in a class by itself regarding dishonesty by a top American leader. But the zombie-like continuation of some familiar but already disproven assertions about the JCPOA is very Trump-like. The drumbeat of even vague or discredited criticisms of the agreement may be enough to persuade many people, including those who see through Trump’s clumsy manipulations to kill the agreement, to accept the JCPOA’s demise. If the adults in the administration want to keep that from happening, they will need to try harder and not say the sorts of things Tillerson is saying.

Photo: Rex Tillerson (courtesy State Department via Flickr).

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).



  1. Paul Pillar’s August 3 piece on Iran makes a number of good points, and it adds to the growing body of commentary on LobeLog about the issue of the U.S. versus Iran. This becomes very important as the third U.S. Congressional (de)certification date in October grows closer.

    With constructive intent, I offer four points of clarification.
    1. Use of the term ‘compliance’ is convenient, but the terminology adopted in the UN Security Council resolution S/RES/2231 (2015) is “significant nonperformance of commitments.” The Security Council, which would decide on “nonperformance,” will consider the meaning of “significant” with respect to its mandate to maintain international peace and security. If it is believed that a State is looking for justification for military action against Iran, that would indeed be deemed “significant.”

    2. The opposition to JCPOA does go back two years, but more importantly the U.S. opposition to Iran goes back to 1979, the hostage taking and overthrow of the U.S.-supported Shah. After almost 40 years, some people feel that the time to bring about “regime change” in Iran has at last come.

    3. In reaction to Secretary of State Tillerson’s talk of Iran becoming a “good neighbor”, let us not forget the preambular paragraphs of RES/2231, agreed by the UNSC including the U.S. These include:
    Affirming that conclusion of the JCPOA marks a fundamental shift in its consideration of this issue, and expressing its desire to build a new relationship with Iran…
    Emphasizing that the JCPOA is conducive to promoting and facilitating the development of normal economic and trade contracts and cooperation with Iran…

    4. To use the phrase that RES/2231 “makes a nod” about ballistic missile restraint, and that Iran would never have agreed to more than that, misses the very significant point that ballistic missiles appear only in Annex B, Statement, of RES/2231. Annex B is a statement of requirements imposed by China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the U.S. The UN Security Council voted to accept the Statement, append it to RES/22231 as Annex B and make it’s several requirements binding on all UN member states; Iran, not being a member of the Security Council, did not vote on Annex B. Yes, the paragraph in Annex B on ballistic missiles only “calls upon” Iran for restraint, but the desire behind that phrase for the U.S. and others was stronger than that.

  2. You can see how the Iran lobby and its supporters are trying to push issues such as terrorism and missiles off the front pages by talking about the nuclear deal, when the nuclear deal isn’t even the issue being debated by Congress and the Trump administration.

    This is the “new” grand lie of the Iran lobby and its supporters. They hope that by focusing on the JCPOA and Iranian regime’s continued “compliance” with the agreement that mullahs’ regime in Iran is somehow still a good global citizen. The lobby never addresses the ballistic missile program or the threat it poses, especially with heightened concerns over North Korea. It also never deals with the horrific human rights violations Iranian regime and its IRGC has perpetuated in the Syrian conflict.

  3. It is more than sad that the one thing Trump presented in his campaign for POTUS was avoiding wars with Russia and even others, which has now been completely tossed out with his new threats to China and the disgraceful bipartisan “punish them all” recent laws.

    Rexxon Tillerson, the “reasonable” member of the team on Iran, is deeply involved in the developing destruction of Venezuela, which dares to follow Chavez in trying to care for its people, a non-no for the USA.

  4. It was reported in the 

    Washington Post that the US Secretary of State, Mr Rex Tillerson, said the following words,
    “I would like to assure the North Koreans that the USA is not their enemy; does not want any harm to come to them; they have nothing to be afraid of; the US does not seek regime change or the forced unification of the Korean peninsula, and the North Koreans need have no fear of any military invasion from the USA.”
    He then went on to say that the North Korean ballistic missile program is a serious threat to the US. Therefore, it is exerting peaceful pressure on North Korea and would urge them to come to the negotiating table and start peaceful negotiations with the US.

    He also confessed that,
    “The US does not have any good options available for it to limit the North Korean ballistic missile program.”
    These are very conciliatory words from the foreign minister of the most powerful country in the world directed to Kim Jong Un, a puny military dictator of an economically bankrupt country.
    On the face of it, one would think that such a speech would allay any fears the North Korean have and that the US would come around to adopting a more reasonable stance. This is more so since there have been open hints that a peaceful settlement of such matters could be accompanied by significant economic incentives.
    So, what does the little guy have to lose? On the face of it, it seems to be a perfect win-win situation.
    However, during the same briefing, Tillerson went on to say that the US is examining the P5 +1 nuclear agreement with Iran very closely to find out how it can prove that Iran has violated the agreement. This could then become grounds for it to tear up the agreement.
    He made this statement only days after the State Department had certified that the Iranians had held up their end of the bargain. However, Tillerson said that even though this may be so, they have not adhered to the spirit of the agreement in view of their involvement in several regional conflicts which expose their regional ambitions.
    It appears that if a country enters into an agreement with the US on a particular issue, it should also follow their lead on all other peripheral issues – even if these matters may have nothing to do with the issue on which the original agreement had been signed on.
    This seems like a pact with the devil. You succumb to one temptation and find yourself sliding down to hell.
    The saving grace in the case of the nuclear deal is that the US is not the only power with whom the agreement has been signed. Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China are also a party to it. The other powers are content that the agreement managed to end a major area of uncertainty and instability in the world. They are sure that its signature and continued adherence are essential for Iran to not be able to develop nuclear weapons, for a short while at least. They view this as a very positive development for regional and world peace.
    Numerous people in the world, including myself, applauded the signing of the Iran nuclear deal and complemented former President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani for their foresight and statesmanship.
    However, in view of the unfolding attitudes of the US and some Arab nations in the region, there is an alternative view taking hold, one that believes that it may have been a “historical mistake” on the part of Iran to sign this agreement. This view is based on the fact that many of the concessions made by Iran are irreversible.
    As a result of this deal, Iran has dismantled most of its centrifuges and given up the stock pile of nuclear fissile material it had accumulated. Furthermore, it has agreed to open its nuclear facilities for international inspection in order to assure the world that it has no plans to back out of this agreement. In return for their actions, the United Nations lifted previous sanctions off of some embargoed funds.
    In view of the inspections, it would be extremely difficult for Iran to reassemble the bank of centrifuges or build up a stockpile of fissile material. Even if Iran was to back out of the agreement, any attempt to reassemble its nuclear potential would most likely be met with military action from the US, Israel and some Arab states. They may be able to get the support of the Europeans also.
    On the other hand, the concessions made by the other powers are not irreversible.
    The “snap-back” provision in the deal allows the sanctions and other economic restrictions to be reinstated immediately in case of any violations by Iran.
    As of now and despite arguments emerging from Washington, the rest of the world still believes that the Iran nuclear deal was a great measure for world peace and to limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
    The Iranian regime continues to say that the agreement was accepted in order to demonstrate that it never had any intention of making nuclear weapons. It was not agreed upon because of some clever negotiations by the other powers.
    If the US does decide to take unilateral action in breaking the agreement under some pretext, despite Iran’s adherence to the deal, Iran’s views on the deal being a big mistake would gain unanimity.
    In any case, the US’ attitude towards the Iranian deal has dealt a fatal blow to their credibility. This should serve as a lesson for any country negotiating issues with the US.
    It has also made potential negotiations with the North Koreans all the more difficult. It gives Kim the message that all this sweet talk from Tillerson may just be a subterfuge to get the North Koreans to the table, make some irreversible concessions and then leave them high and dry.
    At a time when the whole world is watching the US with a close eye, the last thing they need is another nail in the coffin to worsen the already negative light the world views them in.

  5. The lengher the article to still appease these 40 years proven incapable liar, world’s number one violator of human rights, state sponsee terrirism, instability, false crisis, seek atomic energy for a country that does not need any other form of energy,,, & all & every & any deception & nonesensr fake news & lie,,,, the better these lobbyists will get paid. Yeah put more BS in your article & muddy the water & miss the WHOLE point that these terrorist killers cannot be trusted with anything,,, look at 3500 executions in four years, look at all the lies & misrepresentation of facts, 40 years of it,, giving these criminal every chance & doubt,,,,, & Iraq & Lebenan & Palestine/Hamas/Hezbollah & Suria & Yemen & Taleban & & & is not enough let’s allow them to develop NUK as well?????!!!!!!!! Beyond Shamefull & Dumb

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