Revisiting the JCPOA

A possible way forward?

Evelyn Farkas, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense in the Obama administration, has a piece in WaPo that reminds us what the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) accomplished and suggests a possible way forward.

First, here is what the agreement did (and did not do):

When Iran, the United States, Britain, France, Germany, China, the European Union and Russia signed the JCPOA in 2015, none of the parties were under any illusions about what the deal would accomplish. Neither Obama nor his counterparts expected it to eliminate the range of threats posed by Iran’s aggressive foreign policy, especially in the Middle East. As Obama stated that year, the deal “does not resolve all problems; it certainly doesn’t resolve all our problems with Iran. It does not ensure a warming between our two countries. But it achieves one of our most critical security objectives.”

The aim was to effectively manage Iran’s nuclear threat, and that was achievement enough. The other dangers Tehran presented — its missile program (the means to deliver conventional and nuclear weapons), support for terrorist groups waging war with Israel and destabilizing the region, full-fledged assistance to the brutal regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and consistent meddling in the internal affairs of the Iraqi government — would be dealt with separately. And the agreement itself was temporary; implicit in the deal’s 15-year term was the suggestion of future renegotiation.

In exchange for relief from sanctions imposed by the United States and our European allies, the Iranian government agreed to cut its stockpile of uranium suitable for weapons production, lower uranium enrichment levels, restrict enrichment to one facility rather than two, and grant the International Atomic Energy Agency regular access to its nuclear facilities to monitor and verify compliance with the agreement. Although the name JCPOA has the word “comprehensive” in it, it was — as most international agreements ultimately are — a compromise. Iran’s nuclear program wasn’t totally frozen, and all aspects of the deal expire by 2031.

I think various aspects of this needs emphasizing.

First, any agreement was going to be nothing more than a delaying tactic. If Iran, or any state, truly wants a nuclear weapon, it will eventually get one. The knowledge of how to build one is available, and so all it takes to acquire one is long-term dedication of resources.

Note: even military strikes, up to and including invasion, are ultimately only delaying tactics. And, it should be stressed, the more the US uses pressure tactics, and especially military action, to prevent states from acquiring nuclear weapons, the more states like Iran are motivated to acquire them.

The best deterrent against invasion is having a nuke.

Second, the JCPOA was never going to curtail all Iranian behavior that the US does not like. No agreement can or will. For Trump, the hawks in the administration, or talking head on TV to suggest otherwise is simply delusional.

So, where are we?

On Monday, a spokesman for Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization threatened that within 10 days, Iran might breach the nuclear-enrichment restrictions imposed by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and major world powers from which the Trump administration has withdrawn. In response, the United States announced the deployment of an additional 1,000 American troops to the Middle East. On Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Trump “does not want war” but warned that U.S. troops would respond with force to Iranian aggression. At a campaign rally that night, Trump bragged about getting out of the “disastrous” nuclear deal and imposing “the toughest-ever sanctions” on Iran before saying he’s “charting a path to stability and peace in the Middle East.”

So, with the US’ exit from the JCPOA, Iran is advancing towards breaching the JCPOA restrictions and military tensions in the region are higher than they have been in years.

Note, too, that sanctions are likely to accelerate Iran’s resolve to have a nuclear capability and will increase the tensions in the region (after all, the sanctions are an attack on Iran by the US).

The JCPOA was designed to slow this down.

It extended Iran’s “breakout” time — how long it would take to build a nuclear weapon — from a few months to a year or more. And it left room for the possibility that domestic and international events, including continued diplomacy, could slowly effect change in the Iranian government’s nuclear, domestic and foreign policies so that they would no longer run counter to U.S. interests

Having thrown away that delay, and having undercut the chance for increased engagement, we find ourselves now watching the administration play a very dangerous game of brinksmanship.

And note that if Iran nuclearizes, Saudi Arabia will want to follow.

As I noted yesterday, I think Trump learned very flawed lessons from his interactions with North Korea. While North Korea is a nuclear power, and Iran isn’t, Iran is a far more significant power in its region that NK is in its, and Iran is simply a more developed and capable state. Iran isn’t interested in playing silly PR games with the US the way Kim is. The Gran Ayatollah isn’t going to hold a joint press conference with Trump in Singapore nor is he going to write beautiful letters.

So, is there a way forward? Perhaps the NAFTA/USMCA process is a template: a renamed version of the old deal with a few minor tweaks.

The best option, then? An Iran nuclear deal. We either rejoin the old one — unlikely, given Trump’s penchant for rejecting all things Obama — or sign a new one that looks a lot like the old one. If Trump could be persuaded to adopt this policy, a deal wouldn’t be hard to imagine: a time frame that extends well beyond 15 years; stricter missile development and production bans; an insistence that Iran release American, allied and partner-nation prisoners (including freelance journalist Austin Tice, held in Iran-influenced Syria); and a measurable commitment to an international peace process to end Syria’s civil war.

Really, given the fact that neither Trump nor his base really understand the original JCPOA one suspects that a renamed version of the exact same deal would placate them. (The problem is, such an outcome would not placate Bolton and Pompeo).

The easiest way to clean it up is to rush our diplomats to the scene with copies of the JCPOA and then have Trump, in a familiar hail of tweets, tout the promise of a “beautiful” (if not comprehensive) “new” (all of his own making, of course) Iran deal.

Indeed.

(Although, I won’t hold my breath).

Really, when one considers this entire scenario, from the unilateral withdrawal from the agreement to the downing of a US drone this week, it is hard not to see a tragic series of self-inflicted wounds by the United States driving us closer and closer to a confrontation with Iran of our own making. And to add insult to this stupidity, the likelihood is that these choices have moved Iran closer, not farther, from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

FILED UNDER: Donald Trump, Iran, National Security, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor of Political Science and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. michael reynolds says:

    If I were in Iran’s position I’d move heaven and earth to assemble and test a nuke. It’s the smart move.

    We violated a deal the Iranians are apparently still keeping according to none other than the Trump administration. Clearly we are not interested in peace or negotiation, clearly ‘our’ goal is regime change, for which there is no legal support or rational excuse. As long as the US refuses to negotiate and insists on destroying the regime, the logical move is to settle the matter by lighting one up. Then, as you point out @Steven, it’s everyone in the pool and we’ll have Saudi nukes as well.

    Advancing the likelihood of nuclear war in the ME: well-done to the Great Dealmaker!

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  2. @michael reynolds: Indeed.

    A real deal-maker would understand the goals of the other actor, including understanding what the non-negotiables are.

    Iran’s regime wants to survive and it will act accordingly.

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  3. Gustopher says:

    So, with the US’ exit from the JCPOA, Iran is advancing towards breaching the JCPOA restrictions and military tensions in the region are higher than they have been in years.

    My morbid, dark sense of humor expects that it will be a huge controversy on the right when Iran violates the agreement that we tore up, and this will lead to war.

    One thing you emphasize might need to be emphasized more, but differently…

    First, any agreement was going to be nothing more than a delaying tactic. If Iran, or any state, truly wants a nuclear weapon, it will eventually get one. The knowledge of how to build one is available, and so all it takes to acquire one is long-term dedication of resources.

    The deal did not mean that in 2031, when JCPOA would expire, that Iran would have a massive nuclear arsenal, or any nuclear weapons for that matter.

    It just meant that by 2031 we would need to have a new deal, to kick the can down the road another decade or so. And that was ok. Better than ok, as it’s basically the best that we could hope for.

  4. Moosebreath says:

    “If Trump could be persuaded to adopt this policy, a deal wouldn’t be hard to imagine: a time frame that extends well beyond 15 years; stricter missile development and production bans; an insistence that Iran release American, allied and partner-nation prisoners (including freelance journalist Austin Tice, held in Iran-influenced Syria); and a measurable commitment to an international peace process to end Syria’s civil war.”

    Such a deal would be very hard to imagine. Basically, it’s a series of concessions by Iran above what it agreed to previously in exchange for nothing from the US.

  5. @Gustopher:

    It just meant that by 2031 we would need to have a new deal, to kick the can down the road another decade or so. And that was ok. Better than ok, as it’s basically the best that we could hope for.

    Indeed.

    @Moosebreath: I am not optimistic.

  6. grumpy realist says:

    Seems to me that the easiest way out of this is to gift Iran with a few nukes. That would put the skids under all the mischief-makers (Israel, Saudi Arabia) and since Iran doesn’t seem to be nuts (regardless of the stories getting pushed around) I’m not too worried.

    Hell, I suspect Iran having The Bomb is far less risky than Pakistan having it….

  7. An Interested Party says:

    While I’m sure this administration is clueless when it comes to history, Iran’s desire to avoid regime change no matter what is quite understandable, considering what the US has done to Iran in the past

  8. Teve says:

    @grumpy realist: I figure in the 35ish years I have left on the planet I will probably see nuclear bombs used again, and if I had to bet right now I’d have to bet on Pakistan.

  9. Andy says:

    The best deterrent against invasion is having a nuke.

    and

    @michael reynolds:

    If I were in Iran’s position I’d move heaven and earth to assemble and test a nuke. It’s the smart move.

    There’s a paradox though – Actually having a credible nuclear capability is a great deterrent to invasion, but attempting to get that capability is a great way to get invaded – starting a nuclear weapons program to deter invasion is likely to precipitate an invasion, not deter it.

    So the only way it is a smart move (for Iran at least) is if it can be done in secret and presented later as a fait accompli. That is, needless to say, a very risky strategy since nuke programs are difficult to keep secret.

  10. Matt says:

    @Teve: Pakistan and India…

    Two nuclear equipped countries that have been in a dispute over a piece of land for +70 years…. Can’t see how that might ever go wrong.

  11. dazedandconfused says:

    Best I can tell the offical position of the US in this is a new nuke deal AND Iran abandoning Hezb’allah. I suspect the Hez aspect is what they are really going for, holding the JCPOA hostage to get that. Israel wants the Hezzis gone because they are the only organization left in the neighborhood they fear and so they can again invade Lebanon..should they have the urge. The Hezzis are the main obstacle to the Saudi dream of Wahhabizing the Levant.

    Both can bribe Trump Inc with promises of developments and what-not, and Bolton, Pompeo, and Pence have fully adopted the notion that the US exists primarily to serve Israel’s interests.

    Pence was clear today, Iran MUST abandon Hezb’allah. It makes no sense to abandon JCPOA just to get a few more years tacked on, not worth the trouble and the time address the time limit would be near the time it is scheduled to expire.

  12. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    “Best I can tell the offical position of the US in this is a new nuke deal AND Iran abandoning Hezb’allah. I suspect the Hez aspect is what they are really going for, holding the JCPOA hostage to get that.”

    That level of planning and strategy is outside of the thinking of Trump, and probably Pompeo, too. I think that Bolton might be clever enough to think in that much detail, but the problem is that I don’t remember him to be that much of an Israel supporter. I think the most logical take is still the traditional GOP mindset. They don’t like the deal because it gives credit to a nCLANG for being more adept than they are.

  13. michael reynolds says:

    @Andy:
    The risk has to be weighed against the evident intention of the US to bump off the regime by hook or by crook. If you’re facing a death sentence, why not roll the dice?

  14. michael reynolds says:

    @dazedandconfused:
    Getting Iran to ditch Hezbollah strikes me as being about as likely as Iran asking us to ditch the US Marine Corps. Lose Hezbollah, lose Lebanon and Iraq, lose any shot at direct confrontation with Israel, the whole Iranian wet dream goes poof.

  15. Ken_L says:

    Pompeo has issued a list of demands which Iran has to meet before America will abandon its undeclared war. He’s the Secretary of State; Iran presumably believes he speaks for the government of the USA. The demands effectively require Iran to lose its independence and confess to being a naughty boy. No nation with any self-respect would agree to them.

    When Trump babbles about only wanting ‘no nuclear weapon’, he’s lying (again). Sadly, nobody in the media seems willing to tell him so to his face.

  16. Teve says:

    @Matt: it almost happened about 20 years ago if memory serves me.

  17. Barry says:

    @Teve: My bets are the USA or Israel. Those two governments have the best chance for a leader to use nukes and still die in bed of old age.

  18. Mike says:

    Please provide comments bc I’d like to know. How would Iran get nuclear capability if we destroy the facilities making the materials? The intel has to be extensive with SA and Israel feeding the coordinates.

  19. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Mike: IIRC, (and I could easily be wrong because I’m just nutha ignint cracker) the facilities you would like to destroy are positioned and situated so that they will need to be taken by direct personnel assault–that is underground, embedded in mountains, and such. They can’t be damaged sufficiently in bombing raids or missile attacks.

    (I was going to be snarky and say “the same way they did when Israel bombed them the first time,” but I realized that was Iraq. Still, the same basic rule might hold true in either case. We might be able to slow their progress, but stopping them completely is a probably a military action of genocidal proportions. My soul in the abyss would be up for that if I thought it would be necessary, but most people are more evolved than I am.)

  20. Gustopher says:

    @Barry: I think the next nuclear weapons used will be by the US, and some form of “tactical” nuclear weapons. 10x Hiroshima rather than 500x or 5,000x.

    So tiny, for incredibly large definitions of tiny.

    It will be a bunker buster or will be dumping a mountain on some refugees or something like that. And it will open the door to others using them.

  21. Ebenezer_Arvigenius says:

    As insane as that sounds, I half-jokingly started advocating for a German nuclear deterrent against the US during Bush II. As bad as this stuff is, it’s merely the logical continuation of Bush’s “we have the big stick, do as we tell you” approach to partnerships.

    The only thing that has kept the US from using their military capabilities against their “allies” opium-war style has been good manners and an ideologized professional elite. And nowadays we can see clearly, how much of an bulwark that really is when good part of the US population are rabid bullies.

  22. Barry says:

    @Ebenezer_Arvigenius: “As insane as that sounds, I half-jokingly started advocating for a German nuclear deterrent against the US during Bush II. As bad as this stuff is, it’s merely the logical continuation of Bush’s “we have the big stick, do as we tell you” approach to partnerships.”

    I strongly support this. Germany needs a few hundred nuclear missiles to deal with the USA, the UK and the USSR (the sequel).

  23. Barry says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: “IIRC, (and I could easily be wrong because I’m just nutha ignint cracker) the facilities you would like to destroy are positioned and situated so that they will need to be taken by direct personnel assault–that is underground, embedded in mountains, and such. They can’t be damaged sufficiently in bombing raids or missile attacks.”

    One thing is that Iran has had good reason to expect attacks on these facilities since before they were planned. That means that they’ll have optimized for survivability and resilience.

    Another thing is that, as has been pointed out, this is 1940’s technology. Given the body of historical knowledge and the application of 21st century methods, this is quite doable.

  24. @Mike:

    Please provide comments bc I’d like to know. How would Iran get nuclear capability if we destroy the facilities making the materials? The intel has to be extensive with SA and Israel feeding the coordinates.

    A few points.

    Let’s say we could destroy their capabilities. Those capabilities can be rebuilt. I am not sure how long it would take, but the genie is out of the bottle. The JCPOA was set to delay it for 15 years. And new deal at that point might delay it further. Surely a diplomatic delay is preferable to a military one.

    Second: the Iranians have placed their nuclear assets in difficult to attack locations, including in areas near population center. How many people are you willing to kill to stop the development of these weapons?

    And, of course, this would be an act of war. Iran would retaliate. It might be cyber attacks, it might be terrorism.

    What would it do to regional stability?

    A military attempt to destroy their capabilities is not some risk-free enterprise.

  25. Moosebreath says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    “@Moosebreath: I am not optimistic”

    Then it does not seem like much of a way forward.

  26. Andy says:

    @Mike:

    Please provide comments bc I’d like to know. How would Iran get nuclear capability if we destroy the facilities making the materials? The intel has to be extensive with SA and Israel feeding the coordinates.

    A couple of points:
    – Yes, the intel is quite extensive, but is it complete? Hard to say.
    – You can’t bomb knowledge (at least not easily or ethically) and so what was destroyed can be rebuilt

    Bombing is, at best, a short-term fix. Iran is likely to do what Iraq did after Israel bombed the Osirak reactor in 1981 – which is put the weapons program underground (which western and Israeli intelligence and the IAEA didn’t adequately detect for the next 30 years).

    One value of the JPCOA is that it gives us information on what Iran knows and their technical expertise. If their declarations were complete (admittedly an open question given their history of false declarations), then it would be very difficult for them to pursue weapon’s work without being detected.

    So, on balance, the JPCOA is of more benefit than a strike would be. And it’s not even clear Iran really wants a nuclear arsenal at this point. Their nuclear weapons program was a response to Iraq’s program and had nothing to do with Israel or the US.

  27. dazedandconfused says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Hezb’allah is in Lebanon and Syria only. They did have some units help out Iraq when ISIL was running around but rest assured, Iraq has a bushel of mad-dog militias, they have no need of the Hezzis for wet work and word was the Hezzis refused to work with them too. Considered them nuts.

    I wouldn’t call Lebanon a client state of Iran either. The giving of aid does not a client state make. We sure as hell spread a lot of money around to people who don’t obey us.

    I know the mantra that they are the “world’s biggest terrorists” has been repeated enough now to have become truth, it even held firm when the Hezzi’s were dying by the bushel fighting ISIL in Syria. However I still have a different view of them, that of patriotic Lebanese farm boys, utterly devoted to defending Lebanon. They are very far removed from ISIL takfiri jihadists, and probably the most militarily competent fighters in the region…until the Syrian Army of today surpassed them by means of pure experience. That competence is what the Israeli right wing and MBS so, SO hope we will destroy for them.

    Andy Exum and “crew”.
    https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/ex5vyz/paintballing-with-hezbollah-0000151-v19n3

    The worlds biggest terrorists? Somebody cite me some cases in the last 20 years or so.