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Response to Three Questions on the Iran Nuclear Accord, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)

Contrepoints (October 2017)

Hall Gardner, Interviewed by Guillaume Perigois

Response to Three Questions on the Iran nuclear accord, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)

Hall Gardner


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Q: What do you make of the Iranian nuclear accord (JCPOA) and to what extent will it have an effect on Iran's ability to develop a nuclear weapon?


On Oct 15, the Trump administration will decide whether or not to certify the Iran nuclear accord (JCPOA), which was signed by France, Germany, the United Kingdom, the European Union, Russia, and China. This is not a decision that is being made as a result of the JCPOA itself, but because of the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA), which was signed into law by President Obama and the US Congress in the summer 2015. President Obama had initially wanted to veto the INARA because he thought it would give too much power to Congress, but he did not have enough Congressional support to veto it. According to the INARA, the American President must state every 90 days that Iran is in compliance with the JCPOA and that Tehran is not trying to advance its nuclear weapons capability.  


By October 15, President Trump has basically two options: (1) the “waive and slap” approach, which he has already engaged in two times; or (2) the “decertification and re-negotiation” approach. Many believe he will choose the latter. But other options, such as taking steps to negotiate new multilateral treaties (as to be discussed in Question 3), are possible and are apparently not being considered at the present moment.


The first option is the “waive and slap” approach. In this option, Trump could certify that Iran is working in accord with the JCPOA and thus the US will “waive” the JCPOA and not place sanctions on Iran related to JCPOA, which deals primarily with issues of nuclear enrichment and nuclear weapons. But Washington could nevertheless engage in (or “slap”) other sanctions on Iran that are not related to JCPOA, such as sanctions in response to Iran’s testing of ballistic and cruise missiles, or Iran’s human rights abuses. The second option is the “decertification and re-negotiation” approach. In this approach, Trump would decide not to certify that Iran is complying with the JCPOA. It is then up to the US Congress to decide in 60 days what to do if Iran is actually cheating on the JCPOA. It is possible that Congress could decide to maintain the JCPOA. But this possibility appears unlikely due to strong opposition to JCPOA among both Republicans and Democrats.


If Congress does believe that Iran is “cheating” on JCPOA, then it could demand that the JCPOA be re-negotiated. A re-negotiation of JCPOA could, for example, attempt to eliminate “sunset clauses” under which restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities are to be phased out in less than 14 years. Congress could also demand that a renegotiated JCPOA work to strengthen international inspections of Iran’s nuclear and military facilities and enrichment capabilities. Congress could also demand stronger controls on Iran’s ballistic and cruise missile capabilities, and pressure Iran to curtail its supports for “terrorist” organisations, such as Hezb’allah and Hamas, among other activities—but which the JCPOA was not intended to address. In response, Iran and its parliament would most likely demand concessions from the US that Washington under Obama had previously refused, thus making a new compromise treaty impossible to implement. The Iranian parliament has strongly opposed US efforts to restrain its missile programs and to interfere in Iran’s foreign policy.


 If the U.S. Congress does decide to renegotiate the JCPOA, and if Iran proves reluctant to do so, as appears likely, then Congress could then try to put greater pressure on Iran by re-imposing previous sanctions related to its nuclear energy program. Congress could, for example, target foreign firms and banks that do business with Iran, thus impacting European, Russian, Chinese companies. Yet the deeper political issue is that Iran could soon enter into a political succession crisis once its ageing supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, steps down or dies. If the U.S. Congress does decide to re-negotiate the JCPOA treaty during a political succession crisis, then this could boost the positions of Iranian hardliners against the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, while likewise working to press Iran closer to Russia and China—if not toward secret nuclear ties with nuclear North Korea. Washington should do everything possible to encourage Iran’s reformers, and not undermine their valiant efforts to check the power and influence of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. 


Yet it is highly likely that efforts to re-negotiate the JCPOA will strengthen Iranian hardliners. Critics of Trump’s policy accordingly argue that Trump must not decertify the JCPOA—particularly if he does not possess extremely strong proof of Iran’s violation of JCPOA. The risk is that decertification could not only undermine the JCPOA after it took 10 years to negotiate, but it could also undermine positive US cooperation with the Europeans, Russia and China, hence further isolating the US. One could further argue that undermining JCPOA at this time would confirm hardline North Korean views that the US cannot be trusted—making a possible nuclear deal with Pyongyang and the Trump administration nearly impossible to achieve.


Yet despite very strong opposition against the decertification of JCPOA from both within and outside the Trump administration—which had unwillingly certified the JCPOA two times before in accord with the “waive and slap” approach—it appears likely that Trump will decertify the Iran nuclear accord on August 15. 


On the one hand, President Trump has been urged to decertify the treaty by Senators Tom Cotton, Ted Cruz, David A. Perdue, and Marco Rubio, and by former Ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, for example. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has demanded renegotiation of JCPOA. On the other, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and US Secretary of Defense James Mattis, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, have all argued that the maintenance of the JCPOA is in the US national security interest, and have been reluctant to decertify it. Former US Secretaries of State, John Kerry and Madeleine Albright have both strongly supported the JCPOA. The former national security adviser of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, Uzi Arad, has urged the White House and Congress not to abandon the JCPOA. In addition, a group of over 180 Democrats led by Representative Ted Deutch (Fla.) and David Price (N.C.) sent a letter to President Trump urging him to re-certify the Iran nuclear accord to Congress even before the October 15 deadline.  

If Trump does decide to “decertify” the JCPOA on August 15, as many expect, and if he then turns the decision as to what to do about the Iranian nuclear program over to the unpredictable Republican-dominated Congress, Trump would in effect be washing his hands of the issue. He would be abdicating presidential responsibility—at the risk of not being unable to re-negotiate a new accord—with dangerous consequences. The key problem is that Congress has no clear alternative to JCPOA.



Q: What do you think the effects of a strategy of pressure are on the political situation in Iran and on Iran's support to militant Shiite organizations in the Middle-East?


If Trump and Congress do decide to drop out of the JCPOA, and if Congress cannot then re-negotiate the treaty, as appears probable given the fact that Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif warned that the JCPOA would not be renegotiated, then the US, along with Israel and Saudi Arabia, could seek to augment military, financial and political-economic pressures on Iran. 


For its part, Iran could initially play European, Chinese and Russian interests against those of the US. In this scenario, Iran would not immediately rush to develop nuclear weapons. By biding its time before developing a nuclear delivery capability, Tehran would try to attract European, Chinese and Russian investors and diplomatic support against the US, as a means to try to isolate Washington. On the other hand, if the Europeans are pressed to side with the US, and if they decide not to augment investments in Iran, or if tensions heat up between Iran and Saudi Arabia or between Iran and Israel, Tehran could opt for a more rapid deployment of nuclear weaponry, by abandoning JCPOA. 


Here, for example, in an action that is not related to the JCPOA, but that could nevertheless antagonize Iran, Israel has publicly supported Kurdish demands for independence in northern Iraq in September 2017—even if Iraqi Kurd demands have not been supported by Washington. Israeli support for Iraqi Kurd independence has raised fears in Tehran that the other Kurdish socio-political movements could, in turn, demand independence not only from Turkey—but from Iran itself. Demands for Kurdish independence could then exacerbate tensions between Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran.  


Q: In your opinion, what could be a preferable way to engage with Iran in order to reach compromise solutions to ongoing crises in the Middle-East?

What is needed is a new regionally-based diplomacy, backed by Washington, that brings Iran into differing multilateral discussions with Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iraq, the Kurds, the Palestinians and Israel, if possible, among other states in the region. Placing heavy political and economic sanctions and military pressures on Tehran in the effort to force it to stop developing its ballistic and cruise missile capabilities and to stop it from supporting Hamas, Hezb’allah, and the Houthis in Yemen, will not succeed without regional negotiations, nor will such pressures help deal with the Kurdish independence question. In addition, the possibility that the US, Saudi Arabia, and Israeli will focus primarily upon the Iranian "threat" will tend to sidetrack the international coalition from fully focusing on efforts to destroy the Islamic State and al Qaeda—while undermining the possibility of a nuclear accord with North Korea.


First, Iran, Turkey and Iraq need to find ways to compromise with Iraqi Kurd demands for independence, through mediating the formation of loose confederal arrangements among Turkish, Iraqi and Iranian Kurds, for example, without engaging in a major alteration of borders. With respect to Iranian support for Hamas, Washington needs to encourage Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran, and other states, to settle their differences with respect to the Palestinian “two state” solution and toward Hamas in particular. By the same token, the questions of Hezb’allah and Houthis need to be addressed in the process of settling the ongoing wars in Syria and Yemen. Evidently none of these proposals represent an easy process, but can only be dealt with by diplomacy, not force.


With respect to the nuclear issue, it is highly unlikely that Israel would give up its purported “existential” nuclear deterrent as demanded by most Arab states and Iran. And both Turkey and Saudi Arabia have threatened to develop a nuclear weapons capability—if Iran also acquires a nuclear weapons capability. But given Israel’s intransigence to even discuss its nuclear weapons capabilities, another possible option is to pursue an agreement involving a “no-first use” of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) for all states in the ‘wider’ Middle East region. Such a “no-first use” of WMD accord would permit states in the region to engage in a new strategic dialogue that could eventually result in the control and reduction of conventional weaponry, including ballistic and cruise missiles. Washington could accordingly help initiate multilateral negotiations intended to limit ballistic and cruise missile capabilities throughout the entire region, while seeking compromise on a number of geopolitical disputes.


In sum, the US should not drop out of the JCPOA, which took ten years to negotiate, but it should try to improve the JCPOA verification procedures and its implementation—but gradually, as confidence is restored over time.  A Trump administration and US Congressional effort to suddenly re-negotiate perceived weaknesses in the JCPOA will not succeed—as it will prove very difficult, if not impossible, to restore mutual confidence between the US and Iran. It is thus up to Washington to build upon the JCPOA, not by undermining that treaty, but by negotiating a new series of multilateral treaties. New multilateral treaties would seek to establish an agreement over the “no-first use” of Weapons of Mass Destruction, the control and  limitation of ballistic and cruise missile capabilities, joint development of alternative energies, such as solar and geothermal, in an effort to reduce Iran’s demand for nuclear power, plus diplomatic agreements that seek to ameliorate regional rivalries between Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iraq, the Palestinians, the Kurds, and Iran, among other states and populations, that have resulted in horrific acts of state-supported and anti-state terrorism. 


The JCPOA significantly reduces the threat of further nuclear proliferation throughout the wider Middle East, but the treaty will only work in the long term if the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Iran can sustain full confidence. The option of trying to re-negotiate the JCPOA is doomed to failure and will only exacerbate the conflicts that are now confronting the region and the world.

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