In the weeks before President Donald Trump announced that he would decertify the Iran nuclear deal, supporters of the accord argued that the deal was working and that any attempt to question its effectiveness or to withdraw from it would be dangerous, would put the United States at odds with its allies, and would undermine international law.
For example, in late September, former Secretary of State John Kerry, who negotiated the deal, wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post that “In eight consecutive reports, the IAEA has confirmed that it’s working.”
This is incorrect. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) twice found that Iran had surpassed the heavy water limit allowed. The second time, the Islamic Republic violated the cap even though it was warned by inspectors that it was in danger of surpassing its allowed limit. Despite the warnings, Iran continued to produce heavy water, exceeded the limits imposed, and suffered no consequences. Other terms of the accord were also violated including the limits on advanced centrifuges and refusing access to inspectors.
In his op-ed, Kerry also wrote that contrary to critics, “it was Iran that had to pay up front.” He noted that Tehran had to remove much of its enriched uranium, disable many of its centrifuges, and shutter its heavy water reactor. But this is misleading.
The impasse over Iran’s nuclear program came to a head in 2005 when Tehran unilaterally abrogated a nuclear agreement it made with Britain, France and Germany, leading to a series of United Nations Security Council (UNSC) imposed resolutions and sanctions. Iran claimed it was its “right” to enrich uranium according to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which allows states to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. Meanwhile, the international community insisted that the Islamic Republic should prove that its enrichment program was not for producing nuclear weapons.
What Kerry meant when he said Iran was “paying up front” was actually Tehran pocketing the reward for defying international law for nine years. The deal allowed Iran to enrich uranium, even without proof that it was not seeking to develop a nuclear weapon. While members of the Obama administration scoffed at the idea that Iran would have agreed to a deal that prohibited it from enriching uranium, it still wasn’t clear why a law-breaking rogue state was allowed to dictate the terms of such agreement.
An an op-ed written for The Wall Street Journal published in September 2005 by the foreign ministers of Britain, France, Germany and the European Union explained how they sought to “find a way forward that would give Iran an opportunity to dispel concerns and prove that the aims of its nuclear program were entirely peaceful.” Instead, they noted that Iran “decided to defy the international community by restarting uranium conversion at its plant in Isfahan, a unilateral step halting our talks.” They warned that “the proliferation risks if Iran continues on its current path are very great.”
Ten years later, the nuclear deal allowed Iran to keep the enrichment gains that the foreign ministers characterized as “proliferation risks.”
The 2015 nuclear accord showed Iran that it can get away with cheating. Maybe it would have been worth it to allow Iran to enrich if the deal truly closed any pathway to a nuclear weapon. But we know from the recent admission of IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano that his agency was unable to verify compliance with Section T of the deal that governs aspects of creating a nuclear weapon, including computer simulations of nuclear explosions. Russia attempted to shield Iran from inspections, and Tehran refused to allow IAEA inspectors to its military sites to ensure its compliance with Section T.
In its final report on Iran’s past nuclear research before the January 2016 implementation of the deal, the IAEA discovered that Tehran had been running computer simulations of nuclear explosions until 2009, six years later than previously thought. This means that during the time Iran claimed to be pursuing a peaceful nuclear program, it was, in fact, working on possible bomb designs.
But the nuclear deal erased all that, forgiving Iran’s nuclear violations, and giving the Islamic Republic the ability to evade detection of computer simulations in the future.
For perspective, consider a hypothetical case where the IRS determined that a major corporation failed to pay $1 billion in taxes over a number of years. After protracted negotiations, the IRS announced that it reached an equitable solution with the company. The company would be required to pay back half of the taxes it owed and the rest would be forgiven. As part of the deal, the IRS would impose stricter supervision of the company’s assets in the U.S., but would not set up an effective mechanism for investigating its offshore assets. The company would not be required to admit any wrongdoing and the IRS would give up the right to pursue the company for any past violations that may be discovered later.
There are few who would describe this deal as anything other than a capitulation by the IRS in the face of a powerful corporation.
The parallels to the nuclear deal are clear. Iran was allowed to keep its uranium enrichment program, though in a scaled-back form. The reductions of its nuclear program is reversible, as Iran has boasted in recent weeks. Tehran has insisted that it does not need to allow IAEA inspectors on its military sites, although there is evidence that Iran performed nuclear weapons research at its Parchin military base. In addition, the deal calls for the Chapter 7 UNSC resolutions passed penalizing Iran for its violations of UNSC resolutions and its NPT obligations to be lifted. In other words, Iran’s past record of cheating has been expunged and its still allowed to enrich uranium as if nothing happened.
The nuclear deal legalized Iran’s blatant and repeated violations of international law with its nuclear program. To say that maintaining the deal is an obligation under international law is to ignore what the deal really is: a deal to forgive Iran’s nuclear sins.
[Photo: Bundesministerium für Europa, Integration und Äuße / Flickr]