October 6, 2017

Trump and the Iranian nuclear deal - did Tehran just blink?

President Trump with senior military officers and spouses at the White House 

Analysts and journalists around the world are trying to decipher President Donald Trump's remarks made while hosting a White House dinner for senior U.S. military officers and their spouses. The President said to a group of reporters, "You guys know what this represents? Maybe it's the calm before the storm," setting off a wave of speculation of possible impending military action.

It's hard to know what the President means, but if I had to guess, I would say that he is referring to his intention to decertify Iran's compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly called the Iranian nuclear deal. The President is required by law to certify Iranian compliance every 90 days. When Mr. Trump declines to do so, as it is expected he will do next week, the issue will pass to Congress. Congress has 60 days in which it can reimpose sanctions on Iran.

If Congress reimposes sanctions, that will cause angst among our European allies, as well as the Russians and Chinese. The Europeans support the Iran nuclear deal because it was the lifting of U.S. sanctions that allowed them to reopen economic ties with the Islamic Republic. American sanctions will force European companies to re-think any deals with Iran for fear of being sanctioned themselves.

Make no mistake - the JCPOA is about money, not Iran's nuclear weapons program. As I said earlier,

"The JCPOA, the Iran nuclear deal, was not about stopping an Iranian nuclear weapons program. Russia, China and the Europeans are not worried about a nuclear Iran - Iran is not threatening them, Iran is threatening Israel and the United States.

"The deal was about sanctions relief and greed. Russia, China and the Europeans want to sell stuff to Iran, and Iran wants to buy it.

"Thanks to John Kerry's cave-in on virtually every demand and the spineless IAEA, we have no way of knowing if they are in compliance with the agreement or not.

"It seems incomprehensible to me that the Iranians - and I've been working against them for decades - are not working on a nuclear weapons program."

During the negotiations that resulted in the JCPOA, Iranian representatives were able to negotiate from a position of strength. They assessed - correctly - that the Obama Administration was anxious to conclude a deal, even a bad one, and would acquiesce to a variety of Iranian demands.

The U.S. team, led by Secretary of State John Kerry, caved in on virtually every Iranian demand, and did not push the conditions the public was told were going to be part of the agreement. Does anyone remember "anywhere anytime inspections?"

One of Mr. Kerry's more egregious blunders was acceding to Iran's demand to include in the final agreement the rewording of a United Nations Security Council resolution restricting Iranian ballistic missile development. I wrote about it at the time:

UNSCR 1929, adopted in June 2010, included the decision that "Iran shall not undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using ballistic missile technology, and that States shall take all necessary measures to prevent the transfer of technology or technical assistance to Iran related to such activities." I highlighted the words "shall not" for a reason.

During the nuclear program talks in Vienna, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif - a skilled and experienced American-educated negotiator - demanded that the ban on ballistic missile development be lifted as part of the agreement. The Iranian argument was quite skillful and nuanced - if they were going to forgo a nuclear weapons program, any missile development therefore could not be related to systems "capable of delivering nuclear weapons," the wording in UNSCR 1929.

In response to Minister Zarif's demand, Secretary Kerry agreed that the missile development restriction would expire completely after eight years from the implementation of the agreement, and in the intervening period - and this is a quote - Iran is "called upon not to" develop ballistic missiles.

As a result, UNSCR 2231 of July 2015 was approved and superseded UNSCR 1929 - the JCPOA took effect in January 2016. As agreed between Kerry and Zarif, the agreement states that Iran is "called on not to" develop nuclear-capable missiles or conduct launches.

I am not a lawyer, but even I know the difference between "shall not" and "called upon not to." For those still confused, the former is mandatory; the latter is voluntary.
(See Iran's ballistic missile program - more fallout from the "Kerry Collapse" for the entire article.)

It is Iran's continued aggressive ballistic missile development program that has angered the Trump Administration. In response to President Trump's criticism of the missile program, the Iranian parliament voted to increase spending on ballistic missile research and development.

However, in a rather startling turnabout, it appears that someone in Tehran is beginning to understand the difference between the administrations of Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

According to news reports, Iran has sent out feelers to the six powers who are signatories to the JCPOA that it is now willing to open talks about its ballistic missile program - the phrase cited was "possible talks on some dimensions of the program."

It seems that some of the bravado and bluster normally associated with Iranian pronouncements has abated.

I believe that Tehran just blinked.