President Trump stated on Twitter Monday afternoon that he will be announcing his “decision on the Iran deal today from the White House at 2:00 p.m.” Trump is facing a deadline of May 12, which is the expiration date of the current waiver of one of the key Iran sanctions laws that are waived to implement the Iran nuclear agreement.
On January 12, 2018, the President threatened to reimpose U.S. sanctions on Iran by May 12, and thereby in practice withdraw the U.S. from the agreement, unless Congress and the three European parties to the agreement – Britain, France, and Germany (the E-3) – acted to address various of Trump’s concerns about the deal. Congress has not enacted commensurate legislation. The E-3 have reportedly consented to a supplemental agreement that would address some but not all of the President’s concerns.
An agreement in principle has reportedly been reached with Britain, France, and Germany (the E-3) on enhancing inspections and select restrictions on Iran’s missile program. But it is essential to also secure E-3 commitment to ensure that key restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program do not “sunset” starting in eight years. In order to seize the opportunity presented by the archive revelations while keeping the pressure on, the President should on or before May 12 nail down the E-3 concessions already on offer, waive nuclear sanctions, and impose robust new sanctions in response to Iran’s continued malign activity in the regional and missile arenas. He should also make clear that U.S. adherence to the nuclear deal will remain unsettled so long as the “sunset” issues have not been satisfactorily addressed.
There are three reasons that the nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) if fixed will be more valuable than before to the national security interests of the United States. First, Iran’s nuclear program was more advanced than was previously understood. Should the deal collapse and Tehran choose to dash to a bomb, it may be able to do so more quickly than anticipated. Second, the archive will enhance UN inspectors’ ability to uncover, and the West’s ability to use the JCPOA to spot reemergence of, long-hidden aspects of Iran’s nuclear program. Third, the newly enhanced understanding of Iran’s program can help tailor a more effective deal-fixing supplementary agreement between the E-3 and the U.S.
Withdrawal could also complicate, and reduce the focus on, the currently more urgent efforts to push back against Iran’s malign regional activities, including in Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. Managing an Iranian dash to a bomb would be a challenge for any administration, let alone one which is distracted and still understaffed. Thus, now is not the time to let Iran off the JCPOA hook.
The U.S. is still analyzing the contents of the archive, which the Israelis said they would share with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN body responsible for inspections. It is already clear, however, that the archive contains considerable new data on uranium metallurgy work, individuals involved with the nuclear program, and sites for research, development, and testing.
What this means is that an Iranian dash to a nuclear bomb could occur before U.S. sanctions could have an impact sufficient to thwart Iran’s effort. The only alternative for stopping a dash would be military. But even if one believes a bombing campaign could be useful (we have our doubts), why head in that direction now?
Even if the president ultimately determines it is necessary to withdraw from the deal, it will be wiser to have first deployed the archive’s data to learn as much additional as possible about the Iranian program. After all, the more information the U.S. has about Iran’s program, the better-prepared Washington will be to deter, detect, and halt any escalation of it should the JCPOA collapse.
The IAEA must now reopen its 2015 “final assessment” of questions regarding military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program. The international community should also insist that Iran turn over all remaining weaponization-related documents and equipment, as was done with the dismantlement of the Iraqi, Libyan, and South African nuclear weapons programs. The Iranians can no longer deny the existence of such documents and equipment.
To most effectively use the new leads from the archives to determine how far the Iranian program advanced and to what extent it may be continuing, the U.S. and its European partners must secure substantially enhanced access for the IAEA’s inspectors. Iran must allow them private interviews with key persons referenced in the archive. The IAEA must also have surprise, unrestricted access to suspect sites, including military workshops. Some archive images appear to show undisclosed equipment employed for nuclear weapons work. Iran must account for where that equipment is now and how it has been used. Until Iran allows such access, and correctly and completely answers such questions, there can be no international confidence that Tehran is not either continuing its nuclear weaponization program or simply waiting to fire it up once the sunsets occur.
Some might ask whether Iran would grant such access to the IAEA. Notwithstanding former President Obama’s statement that the nuclear deal put in place “the most robust and intrusive inspections and transparency regime ever negotiated for any nuclear program in history,” the IAEA in practice had better access to Iran’s program from 2003 to 2005 than it does now. After the 2002 discovery of Iran’s covert enrichment facility at Natanz and the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 – leading Iran to fear it would be next – Tehran granted the IAEA almost unfettered access to program people and suspect sites, including military ones. Facing the pressure generated by the revelation of its atomic archive, Iran may allow such access again.
Deficient access for inspectors is, of course, not the only flaw of the JCPOA as it stands. The archive underlines the danger of the JCPOA’s sunset provisions, which would allow Iran to resume various prohibited nuclear activities starting in less than eight years. The careful retention of these documents by Iranian authorities indicates malign intent. The lack of restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missile program must also be addressed. Multiple U.S. intelligence chiefs have attested that Iran’s ballistic missiles would be the regime’s preferred nuclear delivery system. Since concluding the JCPOA, Iran has launched almost two dozen ballistic missiles.
The U.S. must deploy its immense new leverage, generated by the archive’s exposure, to get Britain, France, and Germany onboard to genuinely fix the JCPOA. During the presidential campaign, then-candidate Trump said, “I love to buy bad contracts when key people go bust, and I make those contracts good.” The exposure of the atomic archive may have just provided him with such an opportunity.
Mr. Kittrie is a law professor at Arizona State University, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and the author of “Lawfare: Law as a Weapon of War” (Oxford, 2016). Follow him on Twitter @ordefk.
Behnam Ben Taleblu is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD).
Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.