April 24, 2017 | Policy Brief

Obama Administration Dropped Charges against Iranian Procurement Agents

April 24, 2017 | Policy Brief

Obama Administration Dropped Charges against Iranian Procurement Agents

A bombshell article published Monday in Politico describes how the Obama administration dropped charges against key members of Iran’s proliferation procurement network, infuriating Justice Department officials and undermining the U.S.’s ability to detect and deter Iranian cheating – all in service of reaching a nuclear deal with Tehran.

The article reveals that in a series of unpublicized court filings, the Obama Justice Department dropped charges against 14 Iranians, including several who had been charged by U.S. prosecutors with smuggling nuclear, military, and dual-use technology to Iran.

With its sunset provisions, insufficient verification mechanisms, and other weaknesses, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is flawed on its face. The secret side concessions still coming to light – including these dropped charges, the previously revealed hundreds of millions of dollars in cash, and secret understandings related to the interpretation of the JCPOA text – make clear the deal is an even worse bargain for the United States than apparent at the time. This raises the question of whether Congress was sufficiently informed of all of the pact’s relevant parameters when the deal came before it for review.

Dropping charges against key Iranian smugglers undercut the U.S. government’s already insufficient ability to ensure Iranian compliance with the deal going forward. These halted prosecutions were not just about achieving justice for past crimes. Detaining, questioning, and punishing these Iranians would have been invaluable in deterring future smuggling and learning about Iran’s smuggling networks, techniques, and past achievements.

For example, publicly available photographs of then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the Natanz nuclear facility show highly sophisticated pressure transducers manufactured in Massachusetts that the Iranians procured illegally through an intermediary in China. Such procurement is just as illegal after the JCPOA as before. Iranian smuggling through China has been a source of material for Iran’s nuclear program, including U.S.-origin technology, for over a decade. Yet Monday’s article details how the Obama administration dropped charges against Seyed Jamili, an Iranian who played a leading role in procurement through China.

Fortunately, the Trump administration could easily mitigate the damage. Iranian procurement of U.S.-origin nuclear and dual-use items (as well as conventional arms and missile-related items) is still prohibited by U.S. law. In addition, UN Security Council Resolution 2231 – which implemented the JCPOA – requires that all Iranian procurements of key nuclear and dual-use items (as well as conventional arms and missile-related items) be approved by the Security Council, in which the U.S. has a veto.

The administration can and should initiate a new campaign to prevent illicit Iranian procurement of key nuclear, dual-use, missile, and other weapons-related items for which Iran is dependent on foreign sources. This must include ordering the Justice Department to resume aggressive prosecution of Iranian procurement activities that violate U.S. laws. To do so would be both consistent with the letter of the JCPOA and with its goal of preventing an Iranian nuclear arsenal.

Orde Kittrie is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a professor of law at Arizona State University, and a former attorney at the U.S. State Department. He is the author of Lawfare: Law as a Weapon of War (Oxford University Press, 2016).