At the time of this writing, Iran’s avuncular Foreign Minister Javad Zarif is about to conclude a six-day visit to New York during which he has conducted a furious outreach to every conceivable advocate of the Iran nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Although his visit will produce a few supportive media pieces and the usual meetings with those he deems at least relatively sympathetic to Iran, the visit is unlikely to have much impact on the JCPOA debate. In fact, his visit may well prove counterproductive, given his penchant to use every interview to criticize the U.S. and Sunni states, while casting Iran as a blameless victim. This is unfortunate in that while JCPOA may have weaknesses, it has strengths which could be obscured by Zarif’s rhetoric.
Zarif begins his press routine by pointing to multiple International Atomic Energy Agency statements that Iran is adhering to its nuclear commitments. Here he is on relatively solid ground. The IAEA routinely conducts intrusive inspections in Iran and has yet to be denied the access it judges necessary to achieve its work. Zarif omits, however, the unfortunate fact that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard publicly insist that the IAEA will never have access to any Iranian military facility. Given the outsized role the Guards have in decision-making, it isn’t unfair for critics of the deal to wonder whether Iran will live up to its obligations, with the Guards claiming they can choose which JCPOA restrictions Iran will accept.
Zarif often salts his statements with a variation on three falsehoods.
First, he insists that the lack of interest by international banks and businesses in the Iranian market is the product of U.S. actions or a Western conspiracy. This is ironic in that JCPOA opponents criticized the Obama Administration and Europe for working too aggressively to encourage commercial engagement with Iran. Zarif adds to this canard the absurd claim that any sanctions imposed against Iran for any non-nuclear reason represent a violation of the deal.
It is true that the deal produced far less foreign investment than its supporters hoped. The anti-deal rhetoric of the Trump administration has certainly discouraged investment, but the trend line showing tepid investor enthusiasm was clear by the time President Donald Trump took office. Iran’s economy is bogged down by mismanagement, corruption, failing banks, as well as a dismal human rights record. Tehran routinely boasts of its support to regional terrorist groups and has detained a growing number of Westerners; actions which alone would justify sanctions. Taken together and in the wake of this year’s unrest, it becomes difficult to understand why any judicious international investor would risk assets in such a commercial ecosystem when the stable and more lucrative GCC beckons from across the Gulf.
Zarif’s second falsehood has to do with Iran’s ability to quickly withdraw from the deal should the U.S. do so, should the international community press for additional nuclear concessions or introduce any new significant non-nuclear sanctions. Seeing little international reaction, Zarif and Iran’s National Security Council head Ali Shamkhani suggest that Iran may also withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Certainly, there have been those in Iran who never supported the Iran deal and would welcome Iran’s withdrawal.
Yet for Iran, unilateral withdrawal from the deal or the NPT would be quite the risk. The entire premise behind Iran’s acceptance of the deal was to gain sufficient economic benefits to stabilize a regime shaken by the massive and unprecedented 2009 anti-government demonstrations. The deal achieved this aim.
However, more than two years after the deal’s inception, the economy is visibly sputtering. Unemployment remains high, Iran’s currency has tanked, and Iran must now sustain and manage a spectrum of fractious and expensive regional surrogates. The widespread unrest in January showed that domestic support for any of the regime’s various leaders is at a new low.
The Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei no doubt ponders the revolution’s survival when he passes, and despite his rhetoric, any plan to return to the financial isolation and self-reliance in his so-called “resistance economy” campaign is a recipe for further unrest.
Seen in this light, it is not difficult to see Zarif’s claims in terms of playing to Western fears in order to protect Iranian gains. Withdrawal from the NPT would be seen by many in the West as validation of the claim that Iran never intended to accept restrictions on its nuclear program and these voices will oppose any future concessions to Tehran.
Last, Zarif and President Hassan Rouhani proudly claim that Iran is capable of immediately and significantly expanding Iran’s nuclear program. Expanding or establishing centrifuge cascades in new underground facilities, combined with denial of some IAEA access would provide good propaganda and would certainly raise the specter of conflict. But even though many would blame the U.S. for the development, the fundamental issue of the Iranian nuclear threat would bring international pressure back on Tehran.
Finally, JCPOA ensured the irreversible destruction of the core of Iran’s plutonium reactor at Arak. Replacing this equipment would be time-consuming, expensive, require illicit overseas suppliers, and even then would produce a dangerous, outdated reactor which has no commercial utility.
The Iran nuclear deal remains one of the most important arms deals achieved by the international community. It significantly limited Iran’s ability to acquire a nuclear weapon and even the deal’s most ardent critics accept that this limitation will last for at least some number of years. This success should not be tossed aside lightly, and we should recognize that doing so without a new international sanctions architecture would be the worst of all worlds: the focus would shift from Iran’s behavior to the U.S. abrogation of the deal, and we would lack the cohesive international partnership we need to constrain Iran while avoiding another Middle East conflict. President Trump’s vocal opposition to the deal has jarred Europe from its lethargy regarding Iran’s missile program, regional adventurism and the need to address weaknesses in the deal in light of Iran’s overall behavior.
French President Emmanuel Macron’s comments are all promising and underscore the importance of working with our closest allies on this issue. Given the state of the world’s longstanding torpor regarding Iran, this is a positive development. In addition to its human rights record, Tehran holds a record number of Western detainees. Tehran’s proliferation of military personnel and advanced missile technology to its regional proxies now threatens Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the millions of foreigners who live in these countries and should be seen as equally unacceptable. Ominously, its unmanned aerial vehicle activities against Israel seem to presage a more aggressive posture against the region. Even JCPOA’s most enthusiastic supporters agree that during the last year, Iran’s actions warrant international response, although these same supporters generally are reluctant to specify exactly what should be done.
Again, the Iran deal should not be discarded. Likewise, we should not tolerate Iran’s efforts to exploit the deal to block overdue action against its malign actions. Zarif’s trip should be seen for what it is: another rendition of his “admit nothing, deny everything, make counter accusations” routine while attempting to shift the focus of this debate from Iran’s actions to Washington’s debate on the JCPOA.