Iran Deal Still Works Despite Iran’s Aggression

| Michael J. Morell
Michael J. Morell
Former Acting Director, CIA

Last week, President Donald Trump announced he would not certify Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal and would terminate the agreement entirely if its “many serious flaws” were not addressed. Yesterday, The Cipher Brief brought you the perspective of the most recent U.S. National Intelligence Manager for Iran, Norm Roule, on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Today, we speak with former Acting Director of the CIA Michael Morell about the deal, the strategic implications of Trump’s decision, and the larger context of U.S.-Iranian relations.

The Cipher Brief:  Can you provide us the background on how we got here?

Michael Morell:  Great question because history matters.  Let’s go back to the couple of years before the deal itself in 2015.  At that time, at its declared nuclear facilities – the ones that the Iranians told us about and the ones that International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) were inspecting – the Iranians were 2-3 months away of dashing to one weapon’s worth of fissile material, if they chose to do that.  To accomplish such a “break out,” the Iranians would have had to kick out the inspectors and hope they could get to a weapon before Israel and the West took military action.  And, importantly, each day/week/month that the Iranians worked at the declared sites, the timeline for a dash to a weapon was declining and declining  fast.

At the same time, while the U.S. had some level of confidence that it would detect a secret, covert, undeclared facility before it began operation, it was not as confident about that as it would have liked and, of course, the U.S. and its allies wanted to be in a position where that detection could have occurred as early as possible – should the Iranians try to “sneak out” at a covert site.  And this mattered a great deal because it was always judged that, if the Iranians were to decide to go for a weapon, they would do so at a covert facility – transferring the technical skills learned at the declared facilities.

Finally, because the U.S. put together the toughest, international (global, really) sanctions the world had ever seen, the Iranian economy was hurting. The country’s economic indicators looked like depression numbers – GDP falling sharply, inflation and unemployment high and rising, international reserves falling to crisis levels, etc.  And, politically, inside of Iran, something interesting was happening – the regime had initially been able to blame the poor economy on the U.S. but that blame was starting to shift to the Iranian government itself.

All of this made the timing perfect for a negotiation. The Iranians needed a deal to save their economy, and we needed a deal to prevent Iran from getting even closer to a bomb.  So, President Obama reached out, and the Iranians responded.  The fact that we had a negotiation was a success, as that was the whole point of squeezing them with sanctions – force them to the negotiating table.

TCB:  What did you think of the deal?

Morell:  Before I get to that, let me just note that the negotiation itself stopped the Iranians in their tracks.  As part of the deal to even negotiate, the Iranians agreed to freeze their enrichment activities at Iran’s declared facilities for the duration of the talks.  Just this one step prevented the Iranians from moving from that 2-3 month dash time to probably something on the order of 2-3 weeks by the time the deal was signed.  People miss this point.  At those low numbers, it is my view that, without the freeze, the Israelis and probably the United States would have been at war with Iran by early 2015, with all of its unintended consequences (just look at Iraq and Libya).

Back to the deal:  I was no longer in government when it was negotiated and finalized, so I have zero personal incentive to say nice things about it.  But, when I read the deal, and I read it multiple times,  I was stunned by how much Iran had given away in exchange for two things – the removal of the sanctions and a recognition that they have a right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes.

The gains to us came in two baskets.  Basket one was a set of Iranian actions that would immediately take that break out number from 2-3 months to over a year and a set of restrictions on Iranian activities at those facilities that would keep that number there for over a decade.  The risk of a dash to a weapon had been significantly reduced.  Basket two was a set of inspections – the toughest and broadest ever agreed to by any country – that made it much more difficult for Iran to cheat and build a weapon at a covert facility.  The risk of a sneak-out went way down as well.  My conclusion – and remember, I worked this issue closely during the six years I spent as both CIA’s acting director, deputy director and as its head of analysis – was that this was a good deal.

What I have been publicly critical of, since leaving government, is that the U.S. has not been pushing back against Iran’s ballistic missile program and its malign behavior in the region – its support for terrorism, its support for insurgent groups trying to undermine or even overthrow Arab governments, opposition to the existence of the state of Israel, support for the brutal Syrian President Bashar al Assad, a broad effort to export the Iranian revolution and to be the hegemonic power in the region.  I was not critical of the nuclear deal in this regard.  I was critical of our broader policy toward Iran.

I remember a speech that President Obama gave at the time of the signing of the deal in which he said that the U.S. had made a number of arms control deals with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, arguing that it often makes sense to cut deals with an adversary.  The President was exactly right, but what he did not say is that at the same time the U.S. was cutting deals with Moscow on strategic weapons, we were pushing back hard against their bad behavior wherever it was occurring in the world.

Last point here:  The deal is working.  The Iranians are living up to their commitments under the deal.  And, the deal is keeping the Iranians in the box on nuclear weapons development, and if the Iranians continue to abide by the deal, they will be in that box in all respects (enrichment and inspections) for at least the next 10 years and in other respects (inspections) for much longer than that.

Importantly, this is not just me saying that the Iranians are living up to their side of the deal.  I am just repeating what President Trump’s own national security team has said to Congress, what the IAEA has repeatedly said publically, and what our allies have said.

TCB:  What is your take on some of the criticisms of the deal?

Morell:  One of the main critiques is that we had the Iranians by the throat and we could have gotten more concessions on the nuclear front – even more restrictions and for a longer period of time, perhaps even an agreement that they would never enrich uranium, even for peaceful purposes.

To me, this is a very fair question – could we have gotten more?  What do I think?  Since I was not in the negotiating room, I do not know what was possible and what was not.  I do take Secretary Kerry and Secretary Moniz at their word that they got the best deal they could.  I have seen no reason to doubt them, and I have seen reasons to trust them – namely, the opposition to the deal by the hardliners in Iran.

I think it is important to remember that to get something in a negotiation, you need to give something.  President Kennedy gave up U.S. nuclear missiles in Turkey in exchange for Khrushchev dismantling Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba.  President Nixon de-recognized Taiwan in exchange for a U.S. relationship with China.  And President Obama gave Iran the right to enrich in exchange for significant restrictions on using that enrichment to make the fissile material for a nuclear weapon. All tough decisions.

Another critique you hear is that the deal did not address Iran’s missile program or its behavior in the region – the very things that I feel strongly about.  But there is a good reason for this – these were not what the negotiation was about.  If the U.S. had tried to make these the issue as well, we would never have been able to put together the tough sanctions regime that brought the Iranians to the table in the first place.  And, related to that, we would not have had other nations sitting with us at the negotiating table, which gave our side in the talks legitimacy and clout.  In short, if we had tried to go for a broad deal, there would have been no deal.

The newest argument is that we need to take action to prevent Iran from becoming the next North Korea. But the comparison does not hold water – because North Korea steadily moved its program forward while the worst thing that could happen in the Iran deal is that the Iranians are no better off in 10-15 years than they were when the negotiations started.

TCB:  What impact does decertification have on the deal’s future and effectiveness?

Morell:  Couple of points.  First, certification by the President to Congress on whether Iran is living up to its end of the bargain is not part of the agreement with the Iranians.  It was a requirement that the Congress imposed on the Executive Branch. So, the President not certifying the deal is not the same thing as the U.S. backing out of the deal.  Very important point:  the U.S. has not broken the deal – yet.

Second, the President is saying is that he wants changes to the deal – both to strengthen the nuclear aspects of it and to broaden it to cover the missile program and regional behavior.  And, in the simplest of terms, what the President is doing is threatening Congress, our allies, and the Iranians that if they don’t agree to do this, he will pull the U.S. out of the deal.  He is holding the nuclear deal hostage to the other issues.

There is an internal logic to this thinking. The President knows that the key players do not want the deal to come crashing down. Most important, he knows that the Iranians do not want this – as the deal gives them considerable legitimacy in the world.  So, he is calculating that to avoid ending the deal, the Iranians will agree to more concessions.  He is playing a game of chicken.

The are two problems with this approach, however.  One is that it is not likely to work.  Congress may not be able to pass the legislation that would be required to pressure the allies and Iran.  Our European allies might not join us in this effort (the Russians and Chinese certainly will not), which would mean that the Iranians would be under much less pressure than what brought them to table in the first place. And, most importantly, the Iranians might well balk at renegotiation, even with everyone else on board.

The second problem is that the game-of-chicken approach undermines U.S. influence in the world.  It sends a powerful signal that the word of the U.S. does not matter – always one of our great strengths.  It sends a signal that we are a barter nation, not an exceptional one. It makes us look like China or Russia, not the United States.

At the end of the day, there are three scenarios for how this could evolve: (1) the President is successful in re-opening the negotiations and whether we end with a better deal or not depends on how the new negotiations go, (2) the President is not successful, and he pulls out of the deal, and (3) he is not, and he does not pull out of the deal. There are very different implications for each of these, and it will take some time to see where we end up.

The bottom line for me:  the Iranians are in the box on the nuclear issue.  Keep them there by maintaining the nuclear deal.  Push them hard on their regional ambitions.  But don’t link the two.

TCB:  The President has long criticized the JCPOA and indicated Iran was not in compliance. Why did the President choose this moment to decertify the deal?

Morell:  One of the lessons I took away from being an intelligence analyst for 33 years is to be extremely careful when ascribing motives to an individual.  The record suggests we should be very humble about our ability to do that – that is, trying to get inside someone’s head.

With that caveat in mind, I think politics and personality are at play for the President.  Number one: He needs to play to his base, and appearing tough on Iran does that.  Number two: He hated certifying one of President Obama’s key achievements, one that he criticized loudly and rhetorically for years. He hated it and could not bring himself to do it again. I think his preference was probably to just pull out of the deal, to end it.  But his national security team undoubtedly told him that would be unwise and we ended up with an effort designed to get the Iranians to renegotiate.  It was the best deal the President’s team could get from him.

TCB:  The President indicated that his Administration’s approach would be far more comprehensive and deal with more than just Tehran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon. But, the JCPOA was always meant to be nuclear-focused. Do you think taking a comprehensive approach to Iran’s behavior is more effective than focusing on one issue? Less effective? The same?

Morell:  Three points of context to start.  First, I can think of only one time in the last 40 years where the U.S. has really pushed back against Iran’s behavior in the region – President Reagan in 1987/88 told the Iranians with great clarity and with the muscle to back it up to stop threatening commercial tankers in the Persian Gulf during the Iran-Iraq War.  On almost every other issue – including Iranian terrorism against the U.S. in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq – a series of U.S. presidents have done very little to nothing to respond.

Second, Iranian aggression in region has been growing – in fits and starts – for years.  It is not the result of the nuclear agreement.  To drive that point home, Iran’s bad behavior did not dip when the sanctions were at their peak and it did not jump after the deal.  We need to get that linkage out of our minds.

Third, as I noted earlier, I do think it is important for the U.S. – joined by our allies – to push back on Iran on Iran’s broader ambitions in the region and its aggressive approach to achieving that.

With that as background, let me answer your question: I am worried that what the President is doing is going to make pushing back on the non-nuclear issues harder than if he kept them separate from the nuclear deal. Why?  Because now, none of our allies in Europe are going to join us in that pushback.  We still, of course, have our allies in the region with us, but we have significantly narrowed our potential coalition partners in the fight.

TCB:  Do you expect the United States face a backlash in the Middle East – particularly in Syria?

Morell:  Interestingly, a U.S. soldier was killed in Iraq on October 1st from a roadside bomb that turned out to be what is called an EFP (explosively formed projectile).  EFPs were an Iranian produced device that were used extensively during the Iraq War to kill American soldiers.  There were some important differences between this latest EFP and what the Iranians used during the Iraqi insurgency, so the October 1st attack may not have been the Iranians.  But, I have always thought that once ISIS loses its caliphate, the Iranians would again start attacking U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria – to raise the cost of our being there.

The point I am making is that even before President Trump’s decision, I think the Iranians were going to come after us in Iraq and Syria.  And, I believe the decision will give them – certainly the hardliners, who control such policy actions, added incentive to do so.

To hear more, listen to Morell’s conversation with conversation with DNI’s former Iran Mission Manager Norman Roule, on the latest episode of Intelligence Matters – here on our website, or on iTunes.

The Author is Michael J. Morell

Michael Morell, the former Acting Director and Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, is one of our nation's leading national security professionals, with extensive experience in intelligence and foreign policy.  He has been at the center of our nation's fight against terrorism, its work to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and its efforts to respond to trends that are altering the international landscape—including the Arab Spring, the rise of China,... Read More

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