August 31, 2020 | Newsweek
Confronting Iran Before the November Election
August 31, 2020 | Newsweek
Confronting Iran Before the November Election
The next two months before the November election are critical to the fight against the Islamic Republic of Iran and its nuclear and regional ambitions. The Trump administration must continue its maximum pressure campaign, while building safeguards to prevent a return to the fatally flawed nuclear agreements of the past.
For starters, the administration should swiftly blacklist the Islamic Republic’s entire financial sector, thereby expelling the remaining 13 Iranian banks from the SWIFT financial messaging system. A single bank should remain on the system to process humanitarian trade. This will cut off Tehran’s financial oxygen, continue to fuel protests and labor strikes against the regime, and build leverage for future negotiations.
The administration should also complete its “sanctions wall of political and market deterrence” by filling the gaps in the U.S. sanctions regime. This should include more sanctions targeting the regime’s support for terrorism, its ballistic missile program and its human rights abuses and corruption. Republicans should also make clear, through the passage of a congressional resolution, that the lifting of sanctions by a Biden administration would be temporary and that such a move does not change the market’s views of Tehran’s illicit conduct. International companies should expect to lose their investments in Iran if Republicans retake power in four years and reinstate all sanctions.
The sanctions wall also needs an international component. On August 20, the administration correctly invoked America’s right to trigger a unilateral snapback of Security Council sanctions. The snapback will prevent the expiration of both the UN’s conventional arms embargo on Iran this October and the missile embargo in 2023, as well as reinstate the prohibition against the production of nuclear fissile material on Iranian soil. Other Council members are working to counter Washington but, assuming the snapback proceeds, a Biden administration should pocket the resulting leverage. Either President Biden or President Trump can negotiate an improved Security Council resolution that extends the arms and missile embargos and eliminates Iran’s uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing capabilities as part of a better nuclear deal.
Biden’s advisers are now studying how to return to the 2015 nuclear, deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—or even to the interim 2013 deal, the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA). They are also studying the possibility of a new and more comprehensive agreement. These proposals wrongly contemplate upfront sanctions relief to entice Iran back to the table. That was a bad idea in 2013 and 2015. It would be equally wrongheaded in 2021.
To avoid repeating such mistakes, it is important to understand how they were made in the first instance.
In 2012, American officials arrived in Israel for a secret visit. The officials said that the U.S. needed to provide the Islamic Republic with an off-ramp from the nuclear standoff then underway. They wanted to offer sanctions relief in exchange for minor nuclear concessions. They called these inducements “confidence-building measures,” a concept which became essential to the Obama administration’s overall approach to Iran negotiations and seems, once again, to be part of the prospective Biden plan. If Tehran rejected them, they said, the U.S. and its partners would double down on sanctions. Israel warned against this slippery slope, predicting the negotiations would take on a life of their own and that negotiators would come to prefer any deal to no deal at all.
Israeli officials argued for full Iranian compliance with all UN Security Council resolutions, including total suspension of nuclear enrichment and reprocessing, as well as full disclosure of all past nuclear and weaponization activities. Only then, the Israelis said, should the Islamic Republic be rewarded with sanctions relief. The American officials insisted that a final deal would achieve full compliance with all UN resolutions, including zero uranium enrichment, zero plutonium reprocessing, zero heavy water stockpiles, the resolution of all the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program and a complete cessation of Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
We know how that turned out. The Iranians out-negotiated their American counterparts, who were set on securing a deal before Barack Obama’s second term expired. The 2013 JPOA granted Iran billions of dollars for simply sitting at the table, along with an upfront and unprecedented recognition of Iranian enrichment rights that multiple UN Security Council resolutions had denied, and sunset provisions on key nuclear restrictions.
The 2015 JCPOA went further. It granted the regime massive sanctions relief. It provided patient pathways, as restrictions sunset over eight to 15 years to industrial-size enrichment capabilities and near-zero nuclear breakout time. The deal gave Iran the immediate right to work on R&D for advanced centrifuges, which are easier to hide. It also gave the Islamic Republic more latitude to develop ballistic missiles, as well as access to heavy weaponry, as the UN conventional arms and missiles embargoes lapsed in five to eight years. Tehran also would receive full diplomatic, economic and nuclear normalization without achieving any of the goals that the American officials had promised to Israel.
How to prevent these mistakes from recurring?
First, the U.S. should reinforce the efforts of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), especially after last week’s trip to Tehran by IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi. The IAEA should continue its demand for full Iranian compliance with existing agreements, including the one agreed to last week that gave the agency visitation rights at two sites where the Iranians allegedly concealed illicit nuclear activities in violation of their Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement obligations. Grossi should insist that Tehran fulfill its commitments without limitation on future inspection rights, including inspections based on the agency’s use of the Iran nuclear archive materials. Spirited out of Iran by the Israeli Mossad, the archive includes new details about Tehran’s past weaponization activities beyond what the IAEA and Western intelligence services knew at the time of the 2015 nuclear deal.
Unfortunately, Tehran seems to have won this round with Washington. The time required to arrange the visit of weapons inspectors, collect soil samples at the sites, analyze them and issue a report will not happen before the U.S. election. The IAEA also should condemn the Islamic Republic for its openly declared JCPOA violations. The JCPOA cannot remain a valid agreement if the regime is violating it.
While the IAEA pursues its mandate, the intelligence services of the U.S., Israel and other Western powers should continue clandestine efforts to stop Iran’s illegal nuclear program and terrorist activities. The sabotage operation in July against Iran’s advanced centrifuge program at Natanz reportedly set back this critical component of the nuclear program by one to two years. The U.S., Israel and others possibly involved should continue to hit Iranian nuclear facilities, missile and military infrastructure, as well as Iranian and proxy forces in the region. The Obama administration made the mistake of tying the hands of U.S. and foreign intelligence services. That’s leverage Washington must use against Tehran.
If completed, the UN snapback should reset the baseline for future negotiations with Iran to avoid the mistakes of the JCPOA. Longer sunset periods and slightly better inspections are insufficient. A new agreement should permanently cut off all Iranian pathways to nuclear weapons by starting with the premise that the regime may not produce fissile material on its soil—and, like over 30 other countries, could buy nuclear fuel on the open market for civilian energy production. Iran must also come clean on all of its nuclear and weaponization activities, materials and equipment, and curtail missile development that threatens America and its regional allies. That was the international baseline before the 2013, and that’s where we need to return.
It is too much to ask for the Trump administration and Biden team to coordinate Iran policy. Such is American politics today. But they can march divided and strike united, while learning from the mistakes of the past, to forge a more effective Iran policy. That’s good for Americans, as well as Middle Eastern allies who find themselves in Iranian missile range and fear a potential Iranian atomic bomb.
Brig.-Gen. (res.) Jacob Nagel is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a visiting professor at the Technion Aerospace Engineering Faculty. He previously served as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s acting national security advisor and head of the National Security Council. Mark Dubowitz is FDD’s chief executive officer. Iran sanctioned him and FDD in 2019. Follow Mark on Twitter @mdubowitz.