There is a growing chance that by October, the nuclear deal with Iran, otherwise known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), will be dead.
Under the deal with the United States, China, Russia, Germany, Britain and France, Iran purported to accept limitations on its nuclear program. These limitations included capping its low-enriched uranium stockpiles at 300 kilograms (661 pounds), restraining its enrichment activities, and accepting the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) right to inspect its declared and undeclared nuclear sites.
In exchange, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany, agreed to cancel the Security Council sanctions resolutions that had been imposed on Iran due to its illicit nuclear activities over the previous decade.
The JCPOA, which was never formally signed, was anchored in UNSC Resolution 2231, which was passed immediately after the JCPOA was concluded. At the time, the JCPOA was vociferously opposed by U.S. lawmakers from both sides of the partisan divide. Their opposition owed to the fact that even if Iran abided by the restrictions on its nuclear activities prescribed by the JCPOA, it would still be able to develop a full-blown nuclear arsenal within 10 to 15 years.
To placate the deal’s opponents, and secure its approval in the Senate, the Obama administration added two safeguards to Resolution 2231. The first imposed a five-year embargo on conventional weapons sales to Iran. The second enabled all sides to the agreement to end the JCPOA by triggering the reimposition of the U.N. sanctions canceled under 2231.
According to Articles 10-12 of the resolution, if a party to the agreement informs the Security Council that Iran is in breach of its commitments under the agreement, such a declaration will automatically trigger the reimposition of the sanctions within 30 days. The Obama administration dubbed this mechanism “snapback sanctions.”
Now both of these safeguards are being tested.
In May 2018, due to incontrovertible evidence of Iranian bad faith both during the negotiations process and following the implementation of the JCPOA, President Donald Trump announced that the United States was washing its hands of the nuclear deal. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo set out the U.S.’s new “maximum pressure campaign” that replaced the JCPOA as the central element of U.S. policy towards Iran.
The strategy of maximum pressure involves applying harsh U.S. economic sanctions against Iran’s oil, financial and shipping sectors in particular. The goal is to weaken the Iranian economy in order to destabilize the regime and minimize its financial capacity to fund its nuclear operations and its terror proxies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and beyond.
The other parties to the JCPOA did not follow America’s lead. On the contrary, they sought to undermine U.S. sanctions. Led by Germany, the European Union clung ever more tightly to the nuclear deal. Germany, France and Britain attempted to create a financial mechanism that would enable Iran to bust U.S. sanctions. They also continued to develop Iran’s heavy-water reactor at Fordo.
The Russians maintained and intensified their alliance with Iran in Syria. China breached the U.S. sanctions and continued importing Iranian oil and gas. Currently, China is working closely with Iran in Afghanistan on behalf of the Taliban.
The Europeans, Russians and Chinese have all been playing for time in the hope that Trump loses the election in November. The presumptive Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden, has pledged that if elected, he will return the United States to the nuclear deal and end U.S. economic sanctions against Iran.
The problem for all of these parties is that time, and the facts, aren’t on their side.
The Iranian regime which they are so keen to keep afloat is not playing along with them. Instead, it is systematically and openly breaching all of its commitments under the JCPOA. In March, the IAEA revealed that between November 2019 and March 2020, Iran increased its store of low-enriched uranium from 373 to 1050 kilograms (822 to 2315 pounds)— more than three times the quantity permitted under the agreement.
The IAEA also reported that Iran had increased the number of advanced centrifuges capable of enriching uranium to prohibited levels in operation by approximately 20 percent since last November.
In January, the Iranian regime rejected IAEA requests for information regarding three newly discovered undeclared nuclear sites and subsequently rejected IAEA requests to dispatch inspectors to two of them.
Earlier this month, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, announced that Iran was building two more nuclear reactors at Bushehr. He added that “a new generation of centrifuges would soon come online at the Natanz fuel enrichment plant.”
Salehi explained that Iran is now in full breach of the JCPOA, saying, “Nuclear activities, as well as research and development on the nuclear fuel cycle, uranium conversion, and enrichment — including production and storage — are being carried out without any restrictions.”
Iran’s apparent race to develop the ability to build a nuclear arsenal on-demand — dubbed “breakout capacity” — is happening in the context of the quickly approaching deadline for the conventional arms embargo imposed under Resolution 2231. The embargo will expire on Oct. 23.
Over the past six months, Pompeo has stated repeatedly that the United States will not permit the embargo to be lifted. According to U.S. intelligence agencies, Russian defense firms have already concluded deals to sell Iran advanced aircraft, tanks and air defense systems the moment the embargo is lifted.
In a press briefing on Wednesday, Pompeo set out how the administration intends to prevent it from being lifted. Pompeo explained that the administration is pressuring the Europeans to put forward a Security Council resolution calling for the arms embargo to be extended even as Russia has vowed to veto any such resolution.
In light of the Russian position, the only way to extend the arms embargo is to cancel the JCPOA entirely by triggering 2231’s snapback sanctions clause, which no side can veto.
To prevent the Americans from triggering the snapback clause, since May 2018, the Europeans, Iranians, Russians and Obama administration officials have claimed Trump’s decision to withdraw from the agreement canceled America’s standing as a party to the JCPOA and so abrogated the U.S.’s right to trigger the snapback sanctions.
Last year, the State Department’s legal department published a brief rejecting this position. The U.S. action did not abrogate Security Council Resolution 2231, and Article 10 of the resolution clearly names the United States as a party to the agreement.
At Wednesday’s briefing, Pompeo repeated this key claim.
“The U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231 is very clear: We don’t have to … declare ourselves a participant. U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231 is unambiguous where the United States is a participant,” he said.
Pompeo added, “We’re going to … [make] sure that come October of this year, the Iranians aren’t able to buy conventional weapons that they would be given what President Obama and Vice President Biden delivered to the world in that terrible deal.”
As the sides set up for a confrontation, the fact is that the administration will come out on top under all circumstances. This is true for three reasons:
First and foremost, the United States will benefit if the administration invokes the snapback sanctions articles because it is the right thing to do. As the IAEA reported and Salehi acknowledged, the Iranians are comprehensively breaching all of their commitments under the JCPOA. There is no substantive justification for maintaining the fiction that the deal is still salvageable. There is clearly no substantive justification for selling Iran conventional weapons.
This brings us to the second reason, and to Iran’s defenders — particularly the European Union and the Democrats:
If the United States triggers the snapback sanctions, the move will critically harm the European Union which, under German leadership, has consistently advanced a harshly anti-American foreign policy. If the European Union responds to a U.S. move to trigger the snapback sanctions by insisting the United States has no authority to act, the position will boomerang.
Even before the appearance of the coronavirus pandemic, many E.U. member nations were rejecting the European Union’s authority to dictate a unified anti-American, pro-Iranian foreign policy.
In February 2019, Poland co-hosted a summit on Iran in Warsaw with the United States. Then EU Foreign Policy Commissioner Federica Mogherini refused to participate in the conference that bought more than a dozen key E.U. states, along with Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, together to discuss the threat Iran poses to global security.
The European Union’s utter failure to manage the coronavirus pandemic has struck it a massive blow. Its incompetence has convinced millions of Europeans who had previously supported the union that they have nothing to gain from it, and that national governments are the only instruments to protect their lives and liberty.
The European Union’s weakening was apparent earlier this month when several E.U. member states angrily rejected an attempt by current E.U. foreign policy commissioner Josep Borrell to pass a resolution condemning the Trump Middle East peace plan and Israel’s intention to apply its law to parts of Judea and Samaria in the framework of the Trump plan.
If the European Union subverts a U.S. effort to restore U.N. sanctions on Iran, its action is liable to destroy whatever is left of Brussel’s power to dictate a unified E.U. foreign policy.
Perhaps to block this prospect, and perhaps due to Iran’s reduced economic prospects after two years of U.S. sanctions, Germany announced on Thursday that it is finally outlawing Hezbollah’s “political” wing and blocking its operation in Germany.
Until now, Germany has blocked the European Union from recognizing Hezbollah’s military wing as a terrorist organization and so enabled the Iranian proxy army to raise funds and draft operatives throughout Europe. Germany’s action Thursday indicates that, aware of the dangers to the European Union, Germany may support a U.S. move to impose the snapback sanctions and end the JCPOA.
Thirdly, there is Biden. If the administration moves to implement the snapback sanctions and so end the ill-begotten JCPOA, which was the centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy in Obama’s second term, Biden and the Democrats will be harmed no matter how the move plays out: If the United Nations blocks the U.S. move, the Trump administration will claim — rightly — that Obama and Biden deliberately lied to the American people when they said the snapback sanctions provision would ensure Iran could not get away with breaching the JCPOA.
If the administration is successful and snapback sanctions are imposed, scuppering the JCPOA, its success will expose the madness at the heart of Biden’s pro-Iranian Middle East policy. It will demonstrate that the key component of the Obama-Biden foreign policy was to provide America’s most dangerous enemy in the Middle East with the ability to develop a nuclear arsenal while building itself into a regional hegemon.
It isn’t clear how events will transpire in the coming weeks and months. But as things now stand, the Trump administration seems to recognize that there is no downside to triggering the snapback sanction articles in Resolution 2231 and ending the JCPOA by October.