It takes chutzpah for a country that has an unacknowledged nuclear arsenal to point the finger at another country for clandestine nuclear activities and to demand military action to halt them.
In a dramatic, even theatrical, presentation at the Israeli defence ministry in Tel Aviv on Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu played clips of Iranian leaders repeatedly insisting that their country had no ambition to build nuclear weapons. He then pointed to graphic evidence smuggled out of Iran by Israeli agents—photos, videos, blueprints—that Tehran had engaged in a prolonged deceit. “These files conclusively prove that Iran is brazenly lying when it said it never had a nuclear weapons program” Netanyahu charged.
Unfortunately, Netanyahu’s dissembling is too transparent to be effective, but it may bolster the Trump administration’s instinct to unilaterally scuttle the painstakingly negotiated multilateral deal. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), negotiated by the P5+1 (China, France, Russia, UK, US, Germany) and signed on 14 July 2015, was endorsed by the UN Security Council in Resolution 2231. The P5+1 were guided by three sets of considerations: to deter, dissuade and delay nuclear weaponisation by Iran; to detect any efforts at nuclear breakout by Iran; and if Iran is caught cheating, to have sufficient time to coax and/or coerce it back into the non-nuclear box. That was achieved through a robust dismantlement, transparency, inspections and consequences regime.
On the one hand, it would be much more difficult to police Iran’s nuclear weapon ambitions and activities without the JCPOA and, on the other, it would be far more challenging to justify, to Americans and the rest of the world, a war against Iran with the JCPOA. This is the explanation for Netanyahu’s re-run of the Iran threat. He has consistently warned that Iran is just six months away from the bomb and he is not about to change his testimony now. He has just as consistently done his very best to commit American treasure and lives to the cause of regime change in Tehran. President Donald Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton are all inclined to decertify the JCPOA on 12 May. The sympathetic three were Netanyahu’s primary audience.
“In seven years, that deal will have expired, and Iran will be free to make nuclear weapons”, Trump declared. Not so. The JCPOA-imposed restrictions will be relaxed in a phased manner, starting approximately seven years from its coming into effect. For example, Iran may resume making nuclear fuel from 2030. But its obligation never to acquire nuclear weapons is legally binding in perpetuity under the NPT, to which it is a state party. Netanyahu’s gimmicky presentation could not disguise the lack of a shred of evidence that Iran had cheated on its JCPOA obligations since the deal. The “smoking gun” turned out to be long-dead embers.
Thus there was nothing new either in the intent or in the content of Netanyahu’s much-hyped “revelations”. The evidence he presented predates the JCPOA deal in 2015, has been known to the world and documented by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and is, in fact, the explanation for why the international community imposed sanctions on Iran to bring it back into compliance with its NPT-sourced non-proliferation obligations. It offers the best justification for sticking with the deal.
That’s right. Contrary to Netanyahu’s claims and the support of the war lobby in Washington, Iran’s known past nuclear weapon ambitions and the extent of the progress made before the JCPOA is the best validation of the curbs imposed by the JCPOA and backed by a robust monitoring and verification regime. This was the instant takeaway by France, Germany and the UK. As noted by Catherin Philp, columnist for The Times of London: “What Netanyahu failed to demonstrate was that the 2015 deal had not worked, or even that Iran had done anything to violate it”. None of them can be accused of naïveté vis-à-vis Iran’s nuclear program.
The most authoritative source of course is the IAEA. It noted that a report in 2015 by its director-general Yukiya Amano stated “that the agency had no credible indications of activities in Iran relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device after 2009”.
If Trump does walk away from its JCPOA on 12 May, then it is the US that would be noncompliant with the deal. In fact there is a strong case that Washington may already be defaulting on its JCPOA obligations. Not only is the US required to lift its own sanctions in return for Iran having verifiably terminated its nuclear weapons program, dismantled all facilities and destroyed all weapon-relevant nuclear materials. The US is also forbidden to obstruct Iran’s efforts to normalise trade and economic relations with others in order to realise the full benefits of sanctions relief. There is considerable evidence that the US has actively lobbied European and G20 countries against doing business with Iran.
Decertification on 12 May would leave Iran a free hand to reinstall centrifuges, resume stockpiling enriched uranium, expel the intrusive international inspectors and restart its nuclear weapons program. Of course, Trump could start yet another war against yet another Muslim country, adding to the long list of broken, dysfunctional countries in the vast ungoverned space stretching from Afghanistan through Iraq, Syria and Yemen to North Africa.
A collapse of the Iran deal may also kill the promising spring blossoms of peace on the Korean Peninsula. On the one hand, it will reconfirm North Korea’s belief that the only thing that stands between its security and a US attack is the bomb and thereby undermine President Moon Jae-in’s assurances that everyone’s security will be enhanced in a nuclear free Korean Peninsula. On the other hand, it will confirm every hardliner’s conviction that the US cannot be trusted to deliver its end of an internationally negotiated deal. For all of North Korea’s own record of cheating on agreements, the 1994 Clinton Administration’s deal with Pyongyang was scuppered by a hostile Republican-controlled Congress after the November 1994 elections. North Korea first warned and then carried out the threat of walking away from the agreement if the US could not deliver on the promised proliferation-resistant light water reactors and fuel supplies. Harvard University’s Stephen Walt has documented why with a “record of reneging on promises and commitments,” America cannot be trusted. As long as Iran is in compliance with the JCPOA, so should the US be.
Ramesh Thakur is emeritus professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.
First published in Australian Outlook, 2 May 2018.