As President Trump weighs whether to re-certify Iranian compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), one of the major arguments used by opponents of the deal is that Iran has continued to test ballistic missiles.
The US views those missile tests as provocative, and while technically not a breach of JCPOA, they come in defiance of UN Security Council Resolution 2231 which “calls upon Iran not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons…”
Iran and the United States have different interpretations of the resolution. Iran maintains that the language of the text is not binding. It also asserts that since it is not seeking nuclear weapons, its ballistic missiles are not meant to deliver nuclear warheads.
Iran maintains that its missile program is for deterrence purposes and that it will not negotiate over a defensive program. Under current circumstances, it is unlikely that Iran would be willing to negotiate over this issue; however, it is still possible that by being offered some new concessions, it might be willing to come back to the negotiation table. In fact, recently, Iran’s Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif told the New York Times that if the US wants more concessions from Iran, it should be willing to offer something in return.
Opponents of the JCPOA, including UN Ambassador Nikki Haley argue that since the signing of the nuclear accord in 2015, Iran’s regional policies not have changed. This is true: Iran’s support for its major ally in the region, the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, has never wavered, and reports suggest that Iran continues to back Shi’ite Houthi rebels in Yemen.
But the critics miss the point: the JCPOA is solely a nuclear nonproliferation agreement. In the words of European Union Foreign Policy Chief, Federica Mogherini, the Iran nuclear deal is a “strategic asset” that is delivering on its goal to prevent a nuclear arms race in the region. Iran and the US both have long lists of grievances against the other, but the JCPOA was meant only to resolve one of those issues. It seems reasonable that addressing other areas of contention would require further diplomatic engagement, not dismantling an international agreement that is delivering on its purpose.
The Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington-based think tank, has been another harsh critic of the deal. A recent study by that body complains that “as of its last quarterly report in August 1017, the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] had not visited any military site in Iran since Implementation Day.”
This is correct; however, one should keep it mind that the IAEA has the authority to request access to sites where it believe there may be suspicious activities. Those suspicions are usually raised by Western or Israeli intelligence services. Since the JCPOA was implemented in January 2016, the IAEA has not reported any suspicious activity at Iran’s military sites and hence, has not requested access to any.
The think tank further suggests that the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1), which negotiated the JCPOA, should seek a “long term method to permanently curtail or severely limit Iran’s enrichment program.”
While ideally this would suit US interests, it is a non-starter. Iranian officials, including President Hassan Rouhani, have repeatedly called for “fair treatment” under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Zarif has also reiterated Iran’s understanding that it will be treated as a normal member of the NPT once restrictions on its enrichment of uranium expire.
Interestingly, the late Shah of Iran, a US ally, also had frequent tussles with the Ford Administration over Iran’s “right” under the NPT to the nuclear fuel cycle. Recommendations that Iran foreswear uranium enrichment demonstrate a lack of basic familiarity with Iran’s political realities and ignore the painstaking and prolonged negotiations that were required to reach the JCPOA.
Critics of the JCPOA also focus on the nature of the Islamic Republic. During her speech at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, Haley suggested that “judging any international agreement begins and ends with the nature of the government that signs it.”
Nevertheless, the US and the Soviet Union signed and implemented a variety of nuclear arms control treaties over the years, including the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, even though President Ronald Reagan had dubbed the USSR an “evil empire.” These treaties served to promote international security and also provided a crucial channel for high-level US-USSR dialogue.
Critics of the Iran nuclear deal also argue that that the “sunset” clause of the JCPOA will leave Iran’s nuclear program unchecked within a decade and will allow it to develop nuclear weapons. One should keep it mind that Iran is a signatory to the NPT and is “provisionally” implementing the Additional Protocol of the treaty, which provides the IAEA 24/7 access to Iran’s nuclear facilities and the mining and production of uranium. Iran has re-committed itself in the JCPOA not to ever pursue nuclear weapons. Therefore, the notion that Iran’s nuclear program will be left unchecked is inaccurate. Iran has also indicated that it will continue to abide by the Additional Protocol indefinitely.
As the Oct. 15 deadline for re-certification approaches, opponents of the deal have intensified their efforts to find an excuse to derail it. President Trump has announced that he has made his decision but has not revealed it. The IAEA, the sole authority to monitor the proper implementation of deal, has verified Iran’s compliance eight times. America’s European allies have further stressed their commitment to the JCPOA.
In the words of Defense Secretary James Mattis at his confirmation hearing, the JCPOA is an “imperfect arms control agreement…. But when America gives her word, we have to live up to it.”
Keeping in mind that no deal is ever perfect, the best option for the US is to live up to its commitments under the JCPOA in good faith.
Sina Azodi, is a PhD student in Political Science and a graduate researcher at University of South Florida’s Center for Strategic and Diplomatic Studies. He received his B.A. & M.A from the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University. He focuses on Iran’s foreign policy and U.S.-Iranian relations. Follow him on Twitter @azodiac83