The Iran Nuclear Agreement is Unfixable

Emad IRBM at launch

Iranian Emad IRBM at launch
Photo Credit: Wikimedia commons/Tasnimnews/Mohammad Agah

Much has been said recently  about President Trump’s decertification of Iran’s compliance to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the JCPOA. The Europeans are uniformly opposed to what Trump has done, and of course Democrats consider Trump’s action to be a great blunder. Yet, the most accurate evaluation is probably from a former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., John Bolton. His view is the JCPOA is completely flawed and fundamentally unfixable.

The JCPOA: What It Does And What It Does Not Do

Ostensibly,  the JCPOA is supposed to eliminate Iran’s capability to develop and test nuclear weapons until the year 2025. In that year restrictions on Iranian centrifuge capabilities will expire. Centrifuges are used to separate out the fissionable portions of uranium ore from the unfissionable, as well as plutonium from spent nuclear fuel. Five years later limits on how much low-enriched uranium Iran can possess would be lifted.

The JCPOA is an agreement between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and United States) plus Germany, the so-called P5+1. However, for the United States at least it does not have the status of an international treaty since Obama did not dare submit it to the Senate for ratification. If he had, he knew it would have gone down to certain defeat. In fact, the State Department admitted as much in a 2015 letter to Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS), in which they wrote,

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is not a treaty or an executive agreement, and is not a signed document. The JCPOA reflects political commitments between Iran, the P5+1 (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, China) and the European Union. As you know, the United States has a long-standing practice of addressing sensitive problems in negotiations that culminate in political commitments.

The success of the JCPOA will depend not on whether it is legally binding or signed, but rather on the extensive verification measures we have put in place, as well as Iran’s understanding that we have the capacity to re-impose – and ramp up – our sanctions if Iran does not meet its commitments.

In point of fact, those so-called “extensive verification measures” have some huge holes in them. The biggest hole is the agreement requires Iranian compliance to be checked by the International Atomic Energy (IAEA) by inspections of Iranian nuclear sites. However, Iran’s supreme leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has flat-out decreed that  Iran’s military sites were strictly off-limits for any verifying inspections. (There is in fact only one that we know of, the one at Parchin.) The deal does require inspection of suspect facilities with 24 days notice (more like three months when all prescribed procedures are followed according to the Wall Street Journal). This gives Iran plenty of time to disguise or dismantle any evidence.

Another source of unease is Iran’s extensive record of cheating on previous international agreements. Iran has a long history of developing a nuclear capability  for making enriched nuclear fuel that makes sense only if they wanted nuclear weapons. Yet they have also claimed that their only purpose was the benign one of providing nuclear energy for their country. A good history of Iran’s duplicity with the West over the issues of nuclear enrichment and weapons can be found here. An actual admission on this deception from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was captured on film. In it he brags that by drawing out negotiations with the West, he was able to provide the time necessary to complete the nuclear reactor at Bushehr and the Arak heavy water plant, and to increase the number of centrifuges purifying uranium at Natanz from 150 to 1700. Given this history of duplicity, one can be fairly sure Iran has the same contempt for agreements with other nations as do their friends the North Koreans.

Additionally, the agreement says nothing about the development and testing of intermediate range and intercontinental ballistic missiles. Apparently, one of President Obama’s motivations in negotiating the JCPOA was to engage Iran in friendly negotiations to convert them from a foe into a friend. Unfortunately, Iranian behavior over the time since the adoption of the nuclear agreement has been anything but engaging in a friendly sense. Besides harassing U.S. naval forces in the Straits of Hormuz, they conducted tests of several types of ballistic missiles, including Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBMs). IRBMs make sense only with nuclear warheads. They are entirely too expensive to be used otherwise.

These missiles reportedly have a range of 2000 km (1243 miles) to accurately hit targets, and their development violates a United Nations Security Council resolution that prohibits Iranian ballistic missile development. The Obama administration had known about these missiles for a long time, as demonstrated by an unclassified Defense Department report to Congress, Fiscal Year 2014 Annual Report on Military Power of Iran, January 2015. In that report we find the following point.

(U) Although Iran has paused progress in some areas of its nuclear program and fulfilled its obligations under the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), it continues to develop technological capabilities that also could be applicable to nuclear weapons, including ballistic missile development.

All of these Iranian activities should give any American a deep foreboding about the Iranian nuclear agreement, especially given Iran’s long history of duplicity with the West.

The International Threat That Is Iran

Iran,  as one of the greatest state supporters of international terrorism, is an even greater threat to the West in general and to the United States in particular than North Korea. One of the results of the JCPOA was the elimination of many economic sanctions  against Iran, and the release of at least $100 billion of Iranian assets frozen in Western banks. This gives Iran many more resources to fund their terrorist allies, such as Hezbollah, the Bashar al-Asad regime in Syria, and the Shiite militias in Iraq. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), as well as its Qods force that is its extraterritorial branch, implements Iran’s foreign projects for destabilizing other countries. The unfrozen $100 billion gives the IRGC added assets to meet its mission.

At the beginning of this month, President Trump signed a new law into being that authorizes extensive sanctions against Iran, North Korea, and Russia. Called the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, this new law gives the President the requirement to designate the IRGC and its foreign agents and affiliates (among others) as terrorist organizations. Such a designation allows the U.S. under an executive order to freeze their economic assets in the U.S. and isolate them from U.S. financial and commercial markets.

Iran’s ruling mullahs are motivated by religious beliefs to be existential enemies of all of the West and of all Sunni Muslims. Believing they have been mandated by God to unremitting hostility toward the infidels, they will not be at all swayed by diplomacy or desires for a detente. As we know from our own Western history, religious wars are the ones that last the longest. To think we might dissuade them through expressions of desired friendship or by dangling possible trade relations before them is the very worst of wishful thinking.

When the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini wrested control of Iran from Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1979, he brought with him a theory of Islamic theocratic governance, which he believed should be adopted by all Islamic countries. After Khomeini died in 1989, his successor the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei showed increasing signs of wanting to dominate the entire muslim world. One suspects the Iranian mullahs would dearly love to widen their ambitions and impose a world-wide Shiite Imamate as an alternative to ISIS’ world-wide Sunni Caliphate.  This last June, the Baghdad Post, while reporting on Iran exporting Shiism into Africa, wrote

Iran has been adopting an ideology aimed at ‘exporting Khomeini revolution’ across the world, and it used all means, regardless of its legality.

Some of the less-than-legal means Iran has been using are the commitment of their IRGC to fight against the Syrian rebels of their ally Bashar al-Assad; their many attempts to assassinate government officials of many countries including the U.S. (see here and here and here and here); their support of Shiite rebellions in Africa (see also here) and in Yemen; and their support of Iraqi Shiite militias in violation of Iraq’s sovereignty (see also here and here).

All of these Iranian activities are made even more dangerous by a de facto alliance Iran has with Russia and China, as well as cooperative military, economic and technological ties with North Korea. In his State of the Union address on January 29, 2002, President George W. Bush declared Iran, Iraq, and North Korea formed an “axis of evil” because of sponsoring international terrorism and seeking weapons of mass destruction. In the present day world Iran, Russia, China, and China’s minion North Korea would appear to be the new “axis of evil”.

How To Defang Iran

Despite the danger to all of the non-Shiite world  presented by Iran, the regime of the Iranian mullahs appears to be increasingly vulnerable. Iran has a very long history of resistance to autocratic, if not outright tyrannical, rulers. This includes the resistance to the Pahlavi dynasty of Shahs that ended with the Islamic Revolution of 1979, and now appears increasingly to include wide-spread internal resistance to Iran’s present day rulers.

Iranian street protests in the Summer of 1978, just before the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
Wikimedia Commons / Unknown Author, source sajed.ir

Today, the hostility toward the Pahlavi regime seems more and more to be transferred to the rule of the mullahs. The decay of the regime’s authority has progressed to the extent that Reuel Marc Gerecht and Ray Takeyh on the Wall Street Journal claim “the theocracy now resembles the Soviet Union in its dying days.” 

And no wonder! Gerecht and Takeyh point out,

Once in power, Iran’s Islamists faced open rebellion from the revolutionary factions that objected to their republic of virtue. This was a battle waged in the streets as well as in Parliament and the press. The mullahs proved more ruthless than their liberal and Marxist detractors.

Nevertheless, these initial protests against the mullahs were silenced and Iran’s national will focused for a time by the following Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. Once the war was finished however, the protests resumed, and gave rise to the student rebellion of 1999. In the words of Gerecht and Takeyh, the “government enforcers bloodied the universities” in response.

A decade later in June 2009, the protests of the Green Movement erupted in Tehran. As time evolved, those protests — and the government responses

Green Movement protestors in Tehran on June 16, 2009.

Green Movement protestors in Tehran on June 16, 2009.
Wikimedia Commons / Milad Avazbeigi

to them — grew larger and more violent. Eventually, the protests were quite bloodily suppressed, although the Green Movement does appear to be surviving underground. Afterwards, however, whatever legitimacy the regime had in the eyes of many if not most of its people simply vanished. The truth of this can be seen in the declining observance of the Muslim religion within Iran. Gerecht and Takeyh report,

Meantime, government reports, the controlled press and even senior Revolutionary Guard commanders reluctantly confess the truth: Islam is growing weaker within Iran. Mosques, thinning out for 30 years, are now mostly empty even on religious holidays. Seminaries have few recruits, and the government of God has trouble supplying mosques with prayer leaders. Secularism is on the rise, particularly among the youth, among whom religious observance has declined precipitously.

As Iranian religious enthusiasm ebbs as a silent resistance to the ruling mullahs, those religious autocrats have responded by becoming even more tyrannical in their rule. The death sentence is now liberally meted out for a great many nonviolent offenses. You can expect to be put to death for any of the following offenses: Apostasy, “insulting the prophet”, homosexuality, adultery, and drug-related offenses. Even children are subject to the death penalty.

In such a regime it should come as no surprise that free speech and freedom of expression are virtually nonexistent. Human Rights Watch, reporting on the major events in Iran for 2016, said that in April of that year,

. . .  a revolutionary court sentenced journalists Afarin Chitsaz, Ehsan Mazandarani, and Saman Safarzaei to terms of ten, seven, and five years, respectively, and Davoud Assadi, the brother of Houshang Assadi, a journalist who lives in France, to five years. Mazandarani’s and Chitsaz’s sentences were reduced to two and five years, respectively, by the appeals court. The intelligence branch of the Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) arrested the four individuals, along with journalist Issa Saharkhiz, accusing them of being part of an “infiltration network” colluding with foreign media.

In June, the country began implementing a political crime law which, while a step forward in granting fair trials, could still limit free speech. According to the law, insulting or defaming public officials, when “committed to achieve reforms and not intended to target the system, are considered political crimes.” However, political prisoners have to be detained separately from ordinary criminals and have to be tried publicly in the presence of a jury unless doing so is deemed detrimental to family disputes, national security, or religious and ethnic sentiment.

A country with such a hyper-tyrannical regime — one is tempted to compare it with North Korea, which Iran resembles in so many ways — is necessarily extremely fragile in some of the same ways the Soviet Union was fragile. Any economic, military, or political shock that substantially limits the power of security forces to respond to renewed active popular opposition could be the death knell of the regime. If this judgement is true, the P5+1 would have been much better advised to maintain all economic sanctions on Iran, and to have kept Iran’s assets in the West completely frozen. As it is, the best way to defang the Iranian snake would be to reinstitute the sanctions and do whatever possible to support the internal dissent within Iran. A regime actively hated by its people can not expect to be saved by them under pressure.

Why The JCPOA Is Unfixable And Undesirable

There are several reasons  why the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is completely flawed and fundamentally unfixable. The very first is that, despite the protests of its supporters, it is completely unverifiable. The JCPOA leaves the task of verification to the IAEA. Yet, Iran’s supreme leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has refused to allow the IAEA to check compliance at military nuclear sites. These are precisely the sites at which nuclear weapons development would be found. We can only conclude that IAEA verification is nothing but a farce: A farce that Iran’s history of duplicity and bad-faith should make us certain they would exploit.

Secondly, all restraints on Iran to keep them from developing nukes are set to expire starting in 2023. By 2026 almost all restrictions will be gone, with the very few remaining gone by 2031. All the JCPOA does is to kick the can down the road, with the eventual Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons completely assured. How does this enhance U.S. or world security?

Yet, there are other reasons the JCPOA is undesirable, even if it would delay its acquiring of nukes. By adopting it, the West is dropping sanctions, which gives Iran more assets to pursue its imperial ambitions in the Middle East and beyond. We can see how the Iranian theocratic regime is becoming more and more fragile, increasingly hated by its own people. Why throw a hated and evil regime a lifeline?

President Trump’s decertification of Iran’s compliance to the JCPOA is looking better all the time. Perhaps Europe and the Democratic Party should take note.

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