Pushback Against Iran

By Walter Pincus

Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist Walter Pincus is a contributing senior national security columnist for The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics that ranged from nuclear weapons to politics. He is the author of Blown to Hell: America's Deadly Betrayal of the Marshall Islanders. Pincus won an Emmy in 1981 and was the recipient of the Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy in 2010.  He was also a team member for a Pulitzer Prize in 2002 and the George Polk Award in 1978.  

As if there were not enough world problems already facing the United States, President Donald Trump is now talking about declaring Iran “non-compliant” with the July 2015 nuclear agreement that the Tehran regime signed with the P5+1 – China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, United States, and Germany.

By U.S. law, the Trump administration must certify to Congress that Iran is in compliance with the terms of the accord every 90 days. It has done so reluctantly, first on April 18 and again on July 17. It will face a new deadline in mid-October.

If Trump carries out the threat – which he made last Tuesday during an interview with the Wall Street Journal – it eventually could lead Iran to withdraw from the agreement and possibly reactivate its nuclear weapons development program.

During the Journal interview, Trump said, “We’ve been extremely nice to them [the Iranians] in saying they were compliant. OK. We’ve given them the benefit of every doubt.”

However, in the interview, Trump gave away his personal view saying, “If it was up to me, I would have had them non-compliant 180 days ago.” When asked whether he expected Iran “to be declared non-compliant next time,” Trump answered, “Personally I do, I do.”

The effort to assure that result is already underway.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as it officially is called, requires Tehran to limit its stockpile of low-enriched uranium; reduce by two-thirds its number of operating gas centrifuges; and permit the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to monitor and verify its compliance.

In return, some international sanctions on Iran were lifted and some frozen assets returned to the Tehran regime.

Trump officials are currently seeking support from other JCPOA signatory nations to demand that IAEA inspectors gain spot check entry to Iranian military sites where Washington suspects work on creating warheads may be underway.

That effort was confirmed by Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during an interview with the Washington Post last Wednesday. “I know we’re asking to get into various facilities in Iran. If they don’t let us in, boom,” Corker said.

The Iranians are already reacting to the U.S. attempt to have inspections of Iran’s military headquarters or missile sites. Qasem Jasemi, a member of the Parliament (Majlis) National Security and Foreign Policy Committee told the Iran news service last week those facilities “are redlines and Tehran will never let Washington check these places.”

If the Trump administration denies certification, Congress has 60 days to pass a bill that re-imposes suspended U.S. sanctions. In addition, the U.S. can bring its compliance complaints to a Joint Commission, established by the nuclear agreement to work out disputes. If the commission takes no action, the U.S. and any other P5+1 nation that agrees, can reinstate some or all of the sanctions that were suspended under the deal, even if neither Russia nor China agree.

Of course, Iran can withdraw from the JCPOA if it claims the other signatories are not living up to their commitments.  On Saturday, Iran’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Abbas Araqchi, who heads Iran’s committee overseeing the implementation of JCPOA, filed a complaint with the Joint Commission.

Araqchi said that according to paragraphs 26, 28, and 29 of the JCPOA, the deal should be implemented by the U.S. “in good faith and in a constructive atmosphere.” Citing new sanctions added by the Trump administration in response to Iran missile testing, he said Washington has “practically violated the JCPOA by imposing these sanctions.”

Kamal Kharrazi, the head of Iran’s Strategic Council on Foreign Relations and a foreign policy adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said during a July 21 interview on France 24 radio that Tehran remained committed to the 2015 nuclear accord and would only walk away if the U.S. administration withdrew first.

At the time the agreement was being negotiated, Iran was described in some intelligence reports as being within six months of having enough highly enriched uranium to build a nuclear weapon.

Should Tehran exit the JCPOA and resume pursuit of a nuclear arsenal, how would Trump respond?

A less precise precedent could be President-elect Trump’s early dramatic tweet on January 2: “North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won’t happen.”

The ICBM [intercontinental ballistic missile] part has recently happened, despite a series of Trump military threats, such as moving an “armada” [a U.S. Navy carrier group] off South Korea plus increased economic sanctions on the Pyongyang regime.

In response to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s missile test Friday of what could be an ICBM, Trump released just a written statement that said, “The United States will take all necessary steps to ensure the security of the American homeland and protect our allies in the region.” A day later, the U.S. flew two B-1 bombers over South Korea.

Last Saturday evening, Trump tweeted, “I am very disappointed in China. Our foolish past leaders have allowed them to make hundreds of billions of dollars a year in trade, yet… they do NOTHING for us with North Korea, just talk. We will no longer allow this to continue. China could easily solve this problem.”

The most foolish leader was Trump, whose own misguided effort to have China take the lead in forcing North Korea to drop or freeze its nuclear program, was never going to happen. And now he blames others for the failure.

His tweeted threat, “We will no longer allow this to continue,” no longer has to be taken seriously. As Peggy Noonan put it last Saturday in her Wall Street Journal column, “Half the president’s tweets show utter weakness. They are plaintive, shrill little cries…”

Iran may prove different, because there are other officials within Trump’s national security team who see Tehran as a serious expansionist threat.

CIA Director Mike Pompeo represented that point of view when he said on July 20 at the Aspen Security Forum that Iran compliance with the nuclear agreement “covers only such a narrow piece of the Iranian risk profile and that’s what the administration is focused on. We’re working diligently to figure out how to push back against Iran not only in the nuclear arena, but in all the other spaces as well.”

Pompeo’s words, rather than Trump’s, have to be taken seriously.