The Fate of JCPOA: In the Balance?
A newly published report suggested that the State Department, the Pentagon, and the National Security Adviser have been working on an alternative plan.
After a hugely divisive debate, Congress passed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in September 2015. Two years later, the debate is back in full strength. President Trump whose displeasure with the deal is well known, signaled he might refuse to declare Iran compliant during the next certification call in mid-October. The president instructed members of his administration to search for evidence of Iran’s violation of the agreement and/or loopholes which make violations possible.
With minor changes, the new debate features the old cast of participants. David Albright, the head of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), and Olli Heinonen, a former chief of Safeguards in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) opposed the deal. They have recently raised the possibility that Iran may try and produce parts for advanced centrifuges or conduct weapon experiments in secret sites located on military bases. This assumption derives from the fact that in the past some experiments were housed on the sprawling military base in Parchin.
In a recent article, Albright and Heinonen pointed out that Section T of the agreement forbids Iran from engaging in several activities; “designing or using computer models to simulate nuclear explosive devices,” using “multipoint explosive detonation systems” unless approved for non-nuclear use by the Joint Commission which adjudicates JCPOA- related disputes. The authors urged the IAEA to require Iran to “declare in writing its capabilities associated with each activity or each piece of equipment in each of the four subsections of Section T. Iran may deny having such capabilities, a statement which the IAEA also have to verify.” Hence, the IAEA and the Joint Committee can require access to relevant sites, including military ones.
Experts who supported the deal such as Mark Fitzpatrick from The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) and Paul Kerr, an analyst in Nonproliferation at the US Congressional Research Service, have doubted that Iran was either willing or capable of launching a clandestine program within the stringent inspection regime mandated by the JCPOA. Paul Pillar, a former high-ranking CIA official, called such suggestions innuendoes designed to generate “suspicion that there are Iranian violations that somehow, despite the intrusive inspections we do not know about.”
Having declared his reluctance to recertify Iran in mid-October, President Trump has been looking for ways to tighten the scrutiny of the deal. During an unprecedented visit to Vienna, Nikki Haylee, U.N. Ambassador to the United Nations, expressed her concerns about the possibility of a clandestine program and other infringements. But the IAEA, reflecting the consensus of the other P5+1 countries, declared Iran to comply with the JCPOA. There is no evidence that the Agency or the Joint Commission would follow up on expanding the Safeguards inspections without further proof.
For their part, the Iranians deny that the nuclear agreement allows searching military sites. They insist that opening such sites is a matter of national security on which there can be no compromise. Because of the extreme politicization of the issue, President Hassan Rouhani, his Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran Ali Akbar Salehi found it expedient to follow this line.
But considering President Trump’s desire to alter course, broadening inspection to military sites may be a moot point. In her speech at the American Enterprise Institute, Ambassador Haley laid out a possible path to decertifying Iran. She noted that the JCPOA is based on “three pillars: the text of the JCPOA, United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231 (which was the international community’s formal endorsement of the JCPOA) and the Corker-Cardin legislation that governs the relationship of Congress to the president on Iran policy.”
Resolution 2231 states that “Iran is called upon not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons.” Iran has not tested any nuclear capable model since Trump took office. On January 29, 2017, Michael T. Flynn, then-national security adviser, stated that Iran “was put on notice,” a threat which left little doubt that the United States would react more severely should Iran test another missile in violation of Resolution 2231. Since then, the Revolutionary Guards’ Aerospace Force tested one new missile, but the intelligence community suggested that the missile was not capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.
While Haley was short on specifics, observers speculated that the Trump administration would refuse to certify Iran in October. The Corker-Cardin law has a vague clause stipulating that whether “continued sanctions relief is appropriate, proportionate, and in U.S. national security interests.” The provision is significant because it allows the United States to withdraw from the agreement even if there is no evidence that Iran engaged in illicit activity.
The meaning of decertification is not entirely clear, but the White House may leave the decision on further sanctions to Congress. Congress can, in turn, refer the sanctions issue back to the administration, a development which is possible given the strained relations between the executive and legislative branch.
A newly published report suggested that the State Department, the Pentagon, and the National Security Adviser have been working on an alternative plan. The so-called “get tough on Iran” proposal would curtail the missile program and increase the regime’s cost for fomenting regional unrest. Among the proposed measures is interception of arms shipments to the Houthis in Yemen and Hamas in Gaza, and taking a more aggressive stand against the Iranian-backed Shite destabilization of Bahrain. Also, the U.S. naval forces would be able to react with more force against the speed boats of the Revolutionary Guards which occasionally harass naval vessels in the Persian Gulf. By some accounts, the “get tough on Iran” plan would prevent decertification, an outcome that U.S allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel prefer.
The tension between the Rouhani (normalizers) and the hardline Principalists led by Guards and the ultra-conservative Haqqani School clergy with the blessing of the Ayatollah Khamenei has complicated the Iranian reaction. President Rouhani stated that Iran would resume full-scale enrichment only if Congress imposes nuclear-related sanctions in the wake of a possible decertification.
The hardliners made no such distinctions, indicating that additional sanctions would trigger an exit from the JCPOA. As for the measures contained in the “get tough” approach, it is safe to assume that the Guards would make decisions on a case by case basis. What cannot be predicted at present is the extent to which the Rouhani government would be involved in this decision-making process.