National Security & Defense

Iran Got a Far Better Deal Than It Had Any Right to Expect

Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty)

Reading the 150-page agreement with Iran takes less time than one might have anticipated, because it isn’t really a 150-page agreement.

Why not? Because roughly 60 pages consist of lists — lists of all the sanctioned entities that will henceforth have sanctions lifted. These lists include the nicely titled “Foreign Sanctions Evaders List.”

We learn several things from perusing those lists.

First, it has taken decades to build the structure of international sanctions against Iran, and now we are entirely abandoning it. To believe that these sanctions can or will “snap back” — 60 pages’ worth of listed firms, entities, companies, ports, ships, banks, individuals, and on and on — if Iran engages in some violation is foolish. Rob Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy has made a related point:

There is only one penalty for any infraction, big or small — taking Iran to the UN Security Council for the “snapback” of international sanctions. That is like saying that for any crime — whether a misdemeanor or a felony — the punishment is the death penalty. In the real world, that means there will be no punishments for anything less than a capital crime. . . . But the problem with snapback gets worse. The agreement includes a statement that Iran considers a reimposition of sanctions as freeing it from all commitments and restrictions under the deal. In other words, the violation would have to be really big for the Security Council to blow up the agreement and reimpose sanctions. That effectively gives Iran a free pass on all manner of small to mid-level violations.

Quite right: and that even assumes that the Obama administration will wish to use the agreement’s elaborate procedures, get disputes to the Security Council, re-sanction Iran, and prevent violations of its commitments. But the administration has most recently acted as Iran’s lawyer, defending its violations of the previous agreement and attacking the press for suggesting that violations had occurred.

And Satloff has noted another remarkable aspect of the agreement. It seems that “all contracts signed by Iran up until that point are grandfathered in and immune from sanctions. That means one can expect a stampede of state-to-state and private sector contracts — some real, many hypothetical — all designed to shield Iran from the impact of possible reimposition of sanctions, thereby weakening the impact of the punishment.” That’s my reading as well. And let’s be realistic: Soon enough, the EU will have a huge economic investment in Iran and its companies and trade unions will strongly resist any sanctions that could hurt profits or employment. The idea of restoring the sanctions regime is a fantasy.

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Second, we learn from the lists and the conditions surrounding them how far the Obama administration has gone in accommodating Iran. Here is paragraph 25 of the text of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action:

25. If a law at the state or local level in the United States is preventing the implementation of the sanctions lifting as specified in this JCPOA, the United States will take appropriate steps, taking into account all available authorities, with a view to achieving such implementation. The United States will actively encourage officials at the state or local level to take into account the changes in the U.S. policy reflected in the lifting of sanctions under this JCPOA and to refrain from actions inconsistent with this change in policy.

Think about that: Obama has agreed that the federal government will fight any move by any state to impose or maintain state sanctions on Iran — for example, for human-rights violations, support of terror, aggression in the region, or any other reason. Because, you see, state sanctions of any kind, interfering with finance or commerce in any way, are surely “inconsistent with this change in policy.”

The administration has most recently acted as Iran’s lawyer, defending its violations of the previous agreement and attacking the press for suggesting that violations had occurred.

How far we have come. Initially U.S. policy aimed at a sort of zero option: Iran zeroes out its nuclear program, and we zero out sanctions. Satloff summarizes where we went next:

Then, the United States conceded to Iran the right to have its own nuclear reactors but not to develop indigenous capacity to enrich nuclear fuel, which doubles as the core element of nuclear weapons. Then, the United States conceded to Iran the right to enrich but under strict limitations. Then, the United States conceded to Iran that the strict limitations on enrichment would expire at a certain point in the future.

Iran has been arguing for years that it has the right to enrich uranium under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The United States has always said “no way” — until now. The George W. Bush administration insisted that before our allies Jordan and the UAE could sign a civil nuclear-cooperation agreement with us, they had to agree they would not enrich uranium — not spin one centrifuge. Now we allow Iran 6,000 centrifuges, and indeed the JCPOA legitimizes Iran as a nuclear state. Decades of American nonproliferation policy are dead.

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What has Iran gained in this agreement? The New York Times’s Thomas Erdbrink tweeted the speech of Iran’s President Rouhani:

Our objective was to have the nuclear program and have sanctions lifted. At first they wanted us to have 100 centrifuges now we will have 6,000. They wanted restrictions of 25 years now its 8. First they said we could only have IR1 centrifuges, now we can have IR6, 7, and 8, advanced centrifuges. Heavy water plant at Arak had to be dismantled but now it will remain with heavy water under conditions. Fordo had to be closed now we will have 1000 centrifuges there.

There are of course other ways to measure. Iran has four Americans being held hostage, and apparently it keeps all four; indeed Kerry rejected the idea that he should have tried to insist on their freedom before signing a deal. Iran has always argued that its nuclear program was legal, and we said it was illegal; now we give that up. Iran has not had to disclose previous work on nuclear warheads to the International Atomic Energy Agency. Iran will get an immense cash haul, perhaps $150 billion, plus the profits from future oil sales, gas development, and trade and investment. And worst of all, the arms embargo ends in five years, and the embargo on helping Iran build ballistic missiles in eight.

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So the third thing we learn from reading the JCPOA is the neat sequencing. At five years, Iran begins rearming without any limits; at eight years, it begins modernizing and enlarging its ballistic missiles; after ten years, the nuclear limits start falling away. That is, Iran can then develop warheads and it will have the missiles on which to put them. And its years of conventional military buildup will make any U.S. or Israeli military strike against the Iranian nuclear-weapons program much harder and more dangerous.

The fourth thing we learn from reading the JCPOA is what has changed. On its very first page the document says the the deal “will mark a fundamental shift” in how we approach Iran and its nuclear program. You betcha; that’s one true line in the document. Once upon a time, faced with an implacable enemy, Ronald Reagan said we would do what Truman and Kennedy had done: persevere until we had won, until there was a fundamental shift in Soviet conduct or an end to the Soviet Union. Obama is instead throwing in the towel: The fundamental shift in behavior comes from the United States, not Iran. The Islamic Republic remains an implacable enemy, holding hostages, supporting terror, organizing “Death to America” marches even as its negotiators sat in Vienna and Lausanne smiling across the table at John Kerry.

#related#Of course Obama has a theory: The main problems in world politics come from American militarism, aggression, bullying, and the like, and if we open our “clenched fists” to embrace Iran, it will respond in kind. We’ve seen the results of such policies in Russia and North Korea, and most recently in Cuba. In fact Obama’s Iran deal is based on his “Cuba model”: Hand a lifeline to a regime in deep economic trouble and ignore the population of the country and their quest for human rights and decent government. Call it a historic achievement, and above all don’t bargain hard for recompense. For, you see, in these openings to Iran and Cuba we are only righting the historical wrongs America has committed and for which we need to apologize.

People who do not live in and bicycle around in Lausanne or Vienna, but rather try to survive in Israel and the Persian Gulf countries, understand all of this. Iran has won a great victory: A weak country has outmaneuvered and outnegotiated the United States and the EU. Kerry and Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif will probably share a Nobel Peace Prize, which is disgraceful, but Zarif does deserve recognition for producing a far better deal for Iran than he had any right to expect. He owes a huge debt of gratitude to Barack Obama and his view of the world. For the rest of us, the rise of Iran means great danger ahead.

Elliott Abrams was special representative for Iran in the Trump administration. He chairs the Vandenberg Coalition and is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.


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