Politics & Policy

The Obama Administration Races to Finalize a Bad Nuclear Deal

Iranian president Hassan Rouhani (Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty)
Democrats and Republicans are increasingly worried about Iranian behavior.

Despite the victory lap President Obama took in last night’s State of the Union address on his nuclear diplomacy with Iran, Democrats and Republicans are worried about Iran’s increasingly belligerent behavior and the Obama administration’s refusal to do anything about it.

This concern was worsened yesterday by Iran’s reported “temporary” seizure of two small U.S. Navy ships and their crews yesterday, an issue that the president did not address in his speech. Iran released the ships and their crews early today after the U.S. government apologized for their accidental straying into Iranian waters.

The president said the nuclear deal with Iran (the July 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) is a great success, and that Iran has complied with its agreement to roll back its nuclear program by sending enriched uranium out of the country and disassembling centrifuges.

Mr. Obama’s remarks tracked with similar statements by Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian president Hassan Rouhani that Iran has met the requirements for “Implementation Day,” an important benchmark of the nuclear agreement when most sanctions against Iran worth up to $150 billion will be lifted. According to Kerry and Rouhani, the U.S. could lift sanctions in a few days.

For Iran to reach Implementation Day, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) must verify that Iran has taken a series of steps to roll back its nuclear program. These include disassembling and storing all but about 6,000 uranium-enrichment centrifuges, diluting or sending out of the country all but 300 kg of enriched uranium in exchange for an equivalent amount of uranium ore, and removing the core of the Arak heavy-water reactor. This reactor is to be redesigned with Chinese assistance so that it will produce less plutonium than its original design.

There are some uncertainties that Iran has reached the Implementation Day requirements. First, the IAEA has not yet verified Iran’s actions.

Second, there are discrepancies in figures cited on how much enriched uranium Iran has sent out of the country. Kerry said over 25,000 pounds. An Iranian official said 8.5 metric tons, which equals 18,740 pounds. Further complicating this, the IAEA said in a November report that Iran had 12,639 kg of enriched uranium, equivalent to 27,864 pounds.

Third, an Iranian official yesterday denied reports that Iranian technicians had dismantled the core of the Arak heavy-water reactor and filled it with concrete. The official said he expected this to be done soon.

Even if Iran meets all of the Implementation Day requirements, there are many in Congress — including some Democrats — who are worried about lifting sanctions when Iran has not complied with all the commitments it made during the nuclear talks, amid growing indications of belligerent Iranian behavior.

Iran’s test of two ballistic missiles last fall sparked new bipartisan concern on the Hill about the nuclear deal. While President Obama and Secretary Kerry claimed last July that under the nuclear deal, Iran had agreed to comply with U.N. Security Council resolutions barring missile tests for up to eight years, it turned out this was not true. There is nothing in the nuclear deal’s text barring Iranian missile tests. The only language concerning missile tests is in an annex to a Security Council resolution that endorsed the deal. Iranian officials have said they will not comply with this language.

The Iranian missile tests especially alarmed Congress after the Obama administration notified the Hill on December 29 that it was sanctioning Tehran over these tests, then backtracked two days later because Iran threatened to retaliate by ramping up its missile program if the sanctions were implemented. Making things worse, the sanctions announcement came days after Iran fired rockets in the Strait of Hormuz that came within 1,500 yards of a U.S. aircraft carrier.

The ballistic-missile tests rattled Congress so much that some Democratic supporters of the Iran deal called on President Obama to impose sanctions. Last week, seven House Democrats — Nita Lowey (N.Y.), Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (Fla.), Eliot Engel (N.Y.), Albio Sires (N.J.), Gerald Connolly (Va.), Susan Davis (Calif.), and Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.) urged President Barack Obama in a letter to sanction Iran for the missile tests. Lowey, Engel, and Sires voted against approving the Iran deal in September. The others probably signed this letter because many of their constituents opposed their votes supporting the nuclear deal and are angry about Iran’s behavior over the last few months.

House Republicans are moving to respond to Iran’s missile launches with a bill scheduled to be voted on today (Wednesday), the Iran Terror Finance Transparency Act, authored by Republican congressman Steve Russell of Oklahoma, that will bar the president from lifting sanctions against Iranian persons and entities unless the administration can certify that the person or entity is not a terror financier or human-rights abuser or involved in the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Yesterday, a group of six Senate Democrats took the floor of the Senate to defend the Iran nuclear deal. Three of them, Senators Cory Booker (N.J.), Bill Nelson (Fla.), and Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), called for sanctions in response to the missile tests. All six senators voted to support the Iran deal last September and seemed concerned about growing criticism of the agreement due to Iran’s recent behavior.

The White House said the president will veto the House bill because it would prevent implementation of the Iran nuclear deal, since it changes the terms of the nuclear agreement by linking the nuclear deal with unrelated issues. But even if Congress passed narrow sanctions that addressed only Iran’s missile tests, President Obama will veto them because Iran has threatened to back out of the nuclear deal if any new sanctions are imposed on it. This adds up to an agreement that restricts America’s policy more than Iran’s.

It’s ironic that the Obama administration is threatening to veto Congressman Russell’s bill for supposedly altering the terms of the nuclear deal when the Iranian parliament already did this when it ratified an amended version of the deal last October containing new language on dismantling Israel’s nuclear-weapons program, requiring that sanctions under the agreement be canceled and not suspended, forbidding IAEA inspections of military installations, and barring IAEA interviews of Iranian military officers and scientists.

Verification of the nuclear deal’s terms under the agreed text would have been difficult enough because of a convoluted process allowing Iran to appeal IAEA requests to inspect suspect nuclear sites. The changes to the nuclear deal made by the Iranian parliament will make reliable verification impossible. Although these changes would seem to violate what the Iranian government agreed to when it acceded to the nuclear deal last July and prevent Iran from reaching Implementation Day, the United States, its European allies, and the IAEA have been silent on the Iranian parliament’s action.

The United States and its allies also turned a blind eye to another blatant violation of Iran’s commitments in the nuclear talks: Tehran’s failure to fully cooperate with an IAEA investigation of its past nuclear-weapons activities. This investigation was crucial to verifying the nuclear deal, since it was supposed to provide information on what types of nuclear-weapons research Iran was engaged in and where this research was being conducted. However, as I explained in a December 2 National Review article, an IAEA report issued in December found that Iran refused to fully cooperate with this investigation and provided some answers to inspectors that the IAEA determined were false.

The IAEA report also concluded that some Iranian nuclear-weapons work continued until 2009 and said there were no “credible indications” of nuclear-weapons-related activities in Iran after 2009. I have spoken with a knowledgeable congressman who found this language so troubling that he asked the IAEA for clarification as to whether it has unconfirmed indications that Iranian nuclear weapons work continued after 2009.

While Iran’s failure to cooperate in the IAEA investigation of its past nuclear-weapons work would appear to be a serious violation of the nuclear deal, this turned out not to be the case. The reason is because, like the ballistic-missile issue, this issue is not addressed in the text of the nuclear deal — it was dealt with in secret side deals between Iran and the IAEA. (Click here, here, and here to read National Review articles I wrote on the secret side deals last summer.)

The U.S. plan to ignore any Iranian noncompliance means the nuclear agreement is essentially meaningless and puts Iran in the driver’s seat.

Despite Iran’s failure to fully cooperate with the IAEA’s investigation of its past nuclear-weapons work and an IAEA report that clearly did not resolve this issue, the United States joined with other IAEA members last month to unanimously vote to close the IAEA file on it.

The developments leading up to the Iran nuclear deal’s Implementation Day bode poorly for this pact’s limited ability to slow or stop Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and Iranian behavior.

The refusal by the United States and its allies to hold Iran accountable for launching ballistic missiles, failing to cooperate with the investigation, and amending the nuclear deal is a clear sign that they plan to ignore any Iranian noncompliance to protect the agreement. This means the nuclear agreement is essentially meaningless and puts Iran in the driver’s seat. Iran also knows that the president and his Democratic supporters in Congress will never allow new sanctions to be imposed.

This fecklessness has already been interpreted by Tehran as American weakness. This is why Iran has expanded its support to Syrian president Assad since July. This is why Iran continues to hold four innocent Americans prisoner and arrested another one plus a U.S. green-card holder last fall. This is why Iran has tested ballistic missiles and appears to be harassing U.S. naval vessels in the Persian Gulf.

The profound damage the nuclear deal is causing to international security by emboldening Iran, increasing its profile in the Middle East as a regional hegemon, and severely undermining American influence and credibility is now becoming clear.

This is a truly disastrous legacy Mr. Obama is leaving for the next president that will likely take many years to fix.

— Fred Fleitz is senior vice president for policy and programs for the Center for Security Policy. He followed the Iranian nuclear issue for the CIA, the State Department, and the House Intelligence Committee during his 25-year government career. Twitter @fredfleitz.

Fred Fleitz, president of the Center for Security Policy, served in 2018 as deputy assistant to the president and to the chief of staff of the National Security Council. He previously held national-security jobs with the CIA, the DIA, the Department of State, and the House Intelligence Committee staff. He is the editor of the 2020 book Defending against Biothreats.


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