by: Joshua Spurlock, The Mideast Update
All that was at stake was world peace—or at least, nuclear peace. The question hanging before the United States (US) and Europe—and of critical interest to Israel—was whether it was better to keep the flawed nuclear Iran deal or to have no deal at all. In May this year, the US President Donald Trump administration decided that pulling the Americans out of the deal was the only option. While Europe didn’t join Trump, he wasn’t alone in this view.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeatedly called on the world to “fix or nix” the Iran nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). In Netanyahu’s mind, keeping the deal and hoping for the best is globally dangerous. Understanding how poorly the accord was designed—and Europe’s apparent unwillingness to change the deal—indicates Trump had good reason to “nix” the US part in the deal.
The Trump administration listed multiple factors in the Iran nuclear deal that needed to be addressed, including the lack of restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missile program and the so-called “sunset” clauses that allowed some of the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program to expire over time, some in as little as 10 years. Supporters of the nuclear accord argued that not all restrictions expired, so this was not a fatal flaw. Dr. Emily Landau, senior research fellow at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) and head of their Arms Control and Regional Security Program, disagrees. Dr. Landau told The Mideast Update that the “sunset” clauses, which ultimately will allow restrictions on Iran’s nuclear fuel stockpile to expire, were probably the worst problem with the deal. If enhanced beyond civilian use, the fuel can be used for nuclear weapons.
Furthermore, while Iran is required to allow international inspections of their nuclear program, Dr. Ephraim Kam, senior research fellow at the INSS, noted that the JCPOA does not mandate inspections that are robust enough to keep Iran’s nuclear program in check as civilian only. He did acknowledge the Iranian limitations on their program as advantages to the deal, but those advantages only outweigh the disadvantages in the short-term. “If the Iranians decide to violate the agreement or to try to break out toward a nuclear bomb in the future, they can do it, and most of the experts that I know, myself included, are concerned with the possibility that Iran will try to break out for the bomb when these limitations will be removed,” said Dr. Kam.
Shortly before Trump decided to withdraw the US from the deal, the Israelis unveiled that they had obtained 100,000 files from Iran’s own secret storage showing past plans for nuclear weapons. Netanyahu highlighted that the continued existence of the information stockpile indicated Iran was saving the plans for a path to the bomb later.
Dr. Landau countered critics who said the information was nothing new. She noted that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had spoken of Iran’s weapons program as having “possible military dimensions,” which means it wasn’t officially settled before the Iran nuclear deal was signed. Furthermore, Dr. Landau said the major world powers had even left out that IAEA process from the final negotiations with Iran as a separate process, which benefitted Iran in some areas by effectively treating them as though they had not sought a military nuclear program.
In other words, the Iran deal was not only flawed itself, but it was based on flawed information. Dr. Landau said that if the Israeli information had been publicly known 10 years earlier, “there wouldn’t have been a question mark with regard to Iran’s military nuclear activities. There would have been an exclamation point.”
In response to the deal’s problems, the Trump administration asked Europe to develop a supplemental agreement. Ultimately, no compromise was reached. Dr. Landau noted that although we only have conflicting media reports on what was discussed between the US and Europe, it appears that Europe was willing to negotiate on some issues of a new Iran deal, such as the Iranian missile program, but not every issue, for instance the sunset clauses. Said Dr. Landau, “It would be my hunch that they were perhaps partially cooperative on some of the issues, but Trump had made very clear that all of the issues needed to be dealt with.”
Dr. Landau believes that economic considerations were an “overriding interest” for the Europeans, as business with Iran was ramping up after sanctions were lifted. Dr. Kam said that Europe still wants some additional concessions from Iran, but he did not expect the Iranians to agree to meet all the US demands.
So now what? Dr. Landau said she had believed it was too late to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal and that fixing it was the best approach. However, given Europe’s response, she said Trump’s decision to exit and reimplement US sanctions can put pressure on Iran. “Having seen him withdraw and what’s happening now, I can’t say that this was necessarily a bad decision. I think it could lead in unexpected directions that might be more positive,” said Dr. Landau. “I can certainly say that if things had just continued as they were, we were headed for a very, very bad situation.”
Both Dr. Landau and Dr. Kam do not believe Iran would rush to the bomb given Trump’s potential to intervene militarily in that event. However, Dr. Kam sounded more pessimistic about the future, saying the Iranians believe the US wants to bring down their regime and therefore they are afraid to make the concessions the Americans are demanding. “I don’t see any happy ends to this situation, because everybody is demanding very heavy demands from the other side,” Dr. Kam said.
Seven decades have elapsed since the last nuclear weapons were used in war. With 70 years of “nuclear peace” hanging in the balance, the big questions remain. It is, however, a flawed assumption to believe that the status quo based on a flawed agreement would have guaranteed another 70 years of peace. Trump and Israel understood that. Will Europe recognize the need for a revised deal as well? And can they convince Iran to accept an amended accord before it’s too late?
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