National Security & Defense

The Iran Deal’s Backers Are Getting Desperate

Iran President Hassan Rouhani attends the Asia Cooperation Dialogue summit in Bangkok, Thailand (Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters)
Don’t be fooled by their misleading arguments for remaining a party to this terrible agreement.

Supporters of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, otherwise known as the JCPOA, are worried. They know President Trump is on the brink of refusing to certify the agreement to Congress next month and withdrawing from it. To stop this from happening, they have come up with a series of desperate and deceptive arguments to convince the president to stick with the deal, despite its deep flaws.

Fortunately, there is a far better and more responsible alternative: a compelling strategy drafted by Ambassador John Bolton to withdraw the United States from the JCPOA and implement a more coherent Iran policy.

Mr. Trump was right when he said during the presidential campaign that the JCPOA is the worst international agreement ever negotiated, since it allows Iran to continue its nuclear-weapons program by permitting it to enrich uranium, operate and develop advanced uranium centrifuges, and run a heavy-water reactor. The limited restrictions that the deal imposes on Iran’s enrichment program will expire in eight years. And in the meantime, its inspection provisions will remain wholly inadequate.

Although the JCPOA did not require Iran to halt its belligerent and destabilizing behavior, President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry repeatedly claimed it would lead to an improvement in that behavior. This has not happened. Instead, Iran has become an even more belligerent and destabilizing force since the deal was announced in 2015. It stepped up its ballistic-missile program. It upped its support of terrorism and sent troops into Syria. And it increased its aggression in the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, as the Houthi rebels — its proxy in Yemen — continued to fire missiles at U.S. and gulf-state ships.

As Trump considers withdrawing from the JCPOA, its backers are promoting several dubious arguments in an effort to keep it in place. These include:

1. Argument: The IAEA says Iran is in compliance with the JCPOA. Although it is true that a September 1, 2017, IAEA report did not cite any Iranian violations of the deal, and IAEA director general Yukiya Amano has said Iran is meeting its JCPOA commitments, according to an analysis by the Institute for Science and International Security, “the [IAEA] report is so sparse in details that one cannot conclude that Iran is fully complying with the JCPOA.” The Institute also notes that, “nowhere in the report does the IAEA state that Iran is fully compliant.”

In addition, Iran refuses to allow IAEA inspectors access to what it deems to be military sites, a major violation. After Amano suggested in a speech on Monday that the IAEA could obtain access to Iranian military sites if necessary, an Iranian official made clear that that was not the case, stating that “Mr. Amano, his agents and no other foreigners have the right to inspect our military sites, because these sites are among off-limit sites for any foreigner and those affiliated with them.”

2. Argument: Iranian violations of the JCPOA are minor and “not material.” Iran-deal backers have tried to downplay Iranian violations, including those spelled out in a July 11 letter from Senators Tom Cotton (R., Ark.), Ted Cruz (R., Texas), David Perdue (R., Ga.), and Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, as minor and “not material breaches.” The truth is that these violations are significant. The four senators also noted that German intelligence reported covert cheating by Iran in 2016 and 2017.

But even if one accepts the arguments of JCPOA supporters who dismiss Iranian violations, the compliance issue is a red herring, since Tehran can advance its nuclear-weapons program by continuing its uranium-enrichment and heavy-water-reactor operations without running afoul of the deal. Moreover, when most of the deal’s restrictions expire in eight years, Iran will be able to massively expand its nuclear program with the international community’s blessing.

3. Argument: President Trump should decertify the JCPOA to Congress but remain in the agreement so we can spend several years trying to fix it. Worried that a U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal will anger European leaders, some JCPOA supporters have proposed that the president state he is not certifying the agreement to Congress on the October 15 deadline, but the U.S. will remain in the deal to start negotiations to amend it. After the president’s “decertification,” JCPOA supporters contend Congress could re-impose U.S. sanctions lifted under the deal.

It makes no sense to remain in an agreement that the president has determined is not in America’s national interests.

This is a dishonest argument for several reasons. First, it makes no sense to remain in an agreement that the president has determined is not in America’s national interests. Second, the idea that the U.S. should remain a party to the JCPOA to fix it later is actually a clever argument to keep us in the deal for good, since Iran’s ruling mullahs have made it clear they will never agree to amend it. And third, JCPOA supporters know that if President Trump decertifies the deal without withdrawing from it, Senate Democrats will use the filibuster to block the restoration of any sanctions lifted by the agreement.

4. Argument: The JCPOA provides the IAEA with important inspection opportunities that will be lost if the agreement is terminated. Although it is true  that the IAEA has conducted more inspections of Iran since the deal came into force, the agency is not permitted to inspect the locations where nuclear-weapons work is thought to actually be occurring: military sites. Without the “any time, any place” inspections that the Obama administration originally promised, the deal allows Iran to easily conceal covert nuclear-weapons activities from IAEA inspectors.

5. Argument: The JCPOA should be put on the backburner while the U.S. implements a broader strategy to confront Iran. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster reportedly proposed an aggressive new strategy this week to confront the whole range of threats posed by Iran in the Middle East while recommending that Trump keep the U.S. a party to the nuclear deal. While a new comprehensive Iran strategy is urgently needed, remaining in a fraudulent nuclear agreement that allows Iran to press ahead with and expand its nuclear program would leave the most destabilizing issue out of this strategy. Any such plan would thus fail to improve Iranian behavior.

The JCPOA’s backers don’t want to talk about the only credible alternative: Ambassador John Bolton’s strategy, “Abrogating the Iran Deal: The Way Forward,” which he revealed in an NRO piece on August 28 after White House and National Security Council staffers blocked him from personally presenting it to the president. Bolton’s plan is a far more effective, comprehensive, and multilateral approach to the threats posed by Iran. It includes strict new sanctions to bar permanently the transfer of nuclear technology to the Islamic Republic and new sanctions in response to Tehran’s sponsorship of destabilizing terrorism in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and other Middle East countries.

I am encouraged by recent statements from former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon and former deputy assistant to the president Sebastian Gorka that President Trump wants to get out of the JCPOA and probably will not certify it to Congress next month. I also believe that Ambassador Bolton has given President Trump the careful strategy to leave the nuclear deal that his senior officials refused to provide. I therefore am optimistic that the president will abrogate this terrible agreement over the next 30 days.

If that happens, the JCPOA’s defenders can be expected to fight until the last minute, employing their misleading arguments in cooperation with allies in the mainstream media and at foreign-policy think tanks. Already, supporters of the nuclear deal within the Trump administration are circulating stories in the press to pressure the president and create the impression that this decision is likely to go their way.

I sincerely doubt President Trump will be fooled by the desperate and misleading arguments being made by JCPOA supporters. He promised during the campaign to make America safe again. The best way to do that is to stand his ground, withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement, and implement the Bolton Plan.


    Former Ambassador John Bolton’s Strategy for Handling Iran

    The Best Options for Getting Rid of Iran Deal

    The Iran Deal Swindle

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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