October 16, 2017 | The Washington Examiner
Trump throws a Hail Mary pass against Iran
President Trump has finally decertified his predecessor's nuclear agreement with Iran. Twice before, in April and July, Trump certified, per the requirement in the 2015 Iran Nuclear Review Agreement Act, that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action remained in the interest of the United States. According to senior White House officials, he did so most reluctantly and was determined to not do it again.
Somewhat contradictorily, the president isn't, however, walking away from the nuclear agreement and will not reimpose the sanctions lifted by the accord, as he can do at any time. Trump will allow Congress in the next 60 days to decide whether it wishes to reimpose sanctions, which requires a simple majority vote in both chambers. In theory, if the president wants to dodge responsibility, this cycle could be repeated in another 90 days. In practice, however, the president will, his senior advisers insist, seize the initiative against the Islamic Republic and reverse the momentum established by President Barack Obama, where the U.S. adhered to the nuclear agreement, continuously turning a blind eye to its debilitating deficiencies, while allowing the clerical regime to run rampant in the Middle East.
To re-establish Washington's seriousness about confronting Tehran, the president has designated under executive order the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization and will impose sanctions against the mullahs' praetorians, who also oversee the regime's nuclear ambitions. The effect of these sanctions, psychologically if not economically, would be nullified if the president allows a $17 billion Boeing and $12.5 billion Airbus deal to go through. Trump can stop both by withdrawing the necessary export licenses, which also affects Airbus given the American parts in every Airbus plane.
The White House remains open to the idea of renegotiating or supplementing the plan of action with more stringent standards. These would include a prohibition of the development of long-range ballistic missiles and the termination of the sunset clauses, which will allow Iran to have industrial-scale uranium enrichment in 13 years; the development of advanced centrifuges that will provide the clerical regime with an undetectable and unstoppable capacity to produce highly-enriched uranium; and the verification lapses that have effectively denied the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency access to military sites, key scientific personnel, and the mountains of paperwork connected to the clerical regime's nuclear program.
It is important to note that without routine, unfettered agency access to these sites, the organization's director general, Yukiya Amano, can't certify the Section T annex of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which prohibits key nuclear weapons research (for example, the manufacture of nuclear triggers) and controls the dual-use equipment potentially usable in such activities. If Section T cannot be certified, the entire agreement is vitiated.
As nuclear experts David Albright and Olli Heinonen (the former No. 2 at the International Atomic Energy Agency) have noted, Section T requirements come under routine inspection and operating procedures of the agency; they are not part of the “challenge” process of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which could be provoked by a Western intelligence service collecting information about Iranian cheating. Obama and the Europeans chose to ignore Section T and Amano didn't protest. Trump doesn't appear inclined to follow suit.
But does Trump's approach make sense? Is it logically coherent? That is, do the means willed match the objective?
That remains unclear. Let us first look at what the White House wants to do regionally and then return to the nuclear agreement since the administration ardently, and correctly, asserts that Obama's monomania about nuclear diplomacy led to a disinterest in, if not outright hostility to, any American effort to counter the Islamic Republic in the Middle East.
The White House says it wants to focus “on neutralizing the Government of Iran's destabilizing influence and constraining its aggression, particularly its support for terrorism and militants.” “We will revitalize,” the administration promises, “our traditional alliances and regional partnerships as bulwarks against Iranian subversion and restore a more stable balance of power in the region.” But what does that actually mean? The administration has so far shown no interest in deploying more U.S. troops in the Levant and Iraq. The Syrian war has clearly shown that Sunni Arab states have no capacity, and really no will, to deploy ground forces against the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, the foreign Shiite militias and Syrian armed forces under Iranian control, or Russian Spetsnaz and air power. The Iranian-Russian axis in Syria is on the offensive and is taking more ground than American-aided rebels, most of whom are Syrian Kurds, who are not interested in taking on the Iranian-Russian axis.
The momentum is clearly on Tehran's side. At best, Washington can, if it keeps the same policy, check the clerical regime here and there. That might qualify for “constraining” but certainly not for building “a more stable balance of power.” The administration's announcement of its new Iran grand strategy appears to be, at least in Syria, just a continuation of the status quo, which is a slightly more muscular version of Obama's approach to fighting the Islamic State. In Iraq, the White House and the Pentagon may even be planning to draw down troops, which would inevitably lead to a weakening of the Iranian-averse Shia, the sole hope we have of convulsing the Persians in Mesopotamia. In Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Yemen, the Trump administration's outreach to traditional Sunni allies could easily end up encouraging the Sunni side to thump harder the native Shia, which will inevitably further radicalize these communities. The potential for Iranian subversion will go up, not down.
And concerning the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the chances of a new effective agreement are poor. Any good deal would actually “deny the Iranian regime all paths to a nuclear weapon,” as the White House stresses. This means, among other things, that the Section T concerns must be satisfied. We would have to imagine supreme leader Ali Khamenei and senior Guard commanders turning over the key physicist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh-Mahabadi and his colleagues and all of their paperwork to the International Atomic Energy Agency. They would have to allow the agency unfettered access to military sites. Imagining this scenario is to imagine the supreme leader being removed in a coup by guardsmen and clerics more stubborn than he. The “good deal” scenario imagines Khamenei betraying everything he holds holy. This only seems plausible if the regime is confronted with certain death.
It's likely senior administration officials are aware of this conundrum, which is why they may not put too much stress on renegotiating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. They may try to just freeze the Iranian advance, by upping executive-branch sanctions on Iran, which certainly can stop the vast majority of European and Asian investment into the Islamic Republic and counter the surreal situation where the administration would be trying simultaneously to push back against the clerical regime while financially rewarding it by waiving Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action-related sanctions.
It's entirely possible, however, that Khamenei won't walk from the nuclear accord because of Trump's decertification and actions against the Guard. He could send forth his silver-tongued foreign minister, Mohammad-Javad Zarif, to negotiate with the U.S., while ordering that Iran's nuclear program be clandestinely advanced (this may already be happening). Given the extraordinary large holes in the atomic accord's verification procedures, we would not know this unless the CIA got lucky. On the surface, this could appear as a happy stalemate. In reality, we would be as we are with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action: on a glide path to nuclear weapons in the hands of the Revolutionary Guard.
Trump could up the ante by making it clear he will demolish Iran's nuclear infrastructure if the clerical regime doesn't accede to the new standards. Logic suggests the president is already saying that he is prepared to destroy Iran's nuclear sites if Khamenei attempts openly to advance the atomic program after the president's decertification. Adding a date to Trump's unspoken threat would be a bold move, one the president appears to have no intention of taking or otherwise he would have likely already walked from this agreement, as former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton counseled, and dictated terms to Tehran.
Extricating the United States from all of the concessions that Obama made to Iran will be a difficult, long-term task. President Trump's advisers may well have the guts to see this through. But does the president?
Right now, it seems Trump is engaged in a Hail Mary pass. Shiites do have a special place in heaven for the Virgin Mary. On earth, however, where the clerical regime always plays machtpolitik, it would be better if the president demonstrated that he, too, appreciates how the game is played.
Reuel Marc Gerecht is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Follow the Foundation for Defense of Democracies on Twitter @FDD.