The Scramble to Salvage the Iran Nuclear Deal – Robin Wright | The New Yorker

The Scramble to Salvage the Iran Nuclear Deal

Robin Wright | The New Yorker

The Iran nuclear deal — the most significant non-proliferation agreement in more than a quarter century, whether you like the terms or not — is perched on the edge of a diplomatic cliff. By May 12th, President Trump will decide whether to kick it into the abyss. He hates it.

“The worst deal I’ve ever seen,” he told Fox News, in an interview for the 2017 Super Bowl. “It was a deal that should never have been negotiated.” The world’s five other major powers — Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia — were equal parties to the accord. The United Nations Security Council unanimously endorsed it, as did the twenty-eight nations of the European Union. But the United States was the decisive voice during the two years of diplomacy that went into the deal’s signing, in 2015, and it will be decisive in its fate now.     

Trump could kill the deal by deciding not to comply with U.S. obligations — namely, the waiving of sanctions, which was promised in exchange for Iran limiting its controversial nuclear program. The President could also walk away from the deal altogether, even though the five other powers are still wedded to it.

His Administration apparently calculates that Iran will stick to the terms, whatever Washington does. Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, told me otherwise. “If they want to kill the deal, they have that option, but they have to face the consequences,” Zarif said. “It’s dangerous to be arrogant, very dangerous.” For fifteen months, he added, Trump has already tried to sabotage the accord by disrupting normal business with Iran.

Zarif, who completed his doctorate at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, is spending six days in New York; he’s technically on U.N. business, but is also speaking with members of Congress, the U.S. foreign-policy community, and the media. I met with him three times, and he seemed intent on trying to salvage the accord. “It’s important for Iran to receive the benefits of the agreement,” he said.

Tehran has three broad choices if Trump opts out, according to Zarif.

In the first, Iran could withdraw from the deal, terminate compliance, and resume — even increase — its uranium enrichment, which produces fuel that can be used in either a nuclear-energy program or the world’s deadliest weapon. Despite its vast oil reserves, the country is keen to harness nuclear power, which could diversify energy sources for a burgeoning population, conserve resources for export, and accelerate modern development. “America never should have feared Iran producing a nuclear bomb,” Zarif said. “But we will pursue vigorously our nuclear enrichment.”

Iran once had the capacity to enrich uranium at twenty per cent, a level that far exceeds the basic needs for an energy program. As is, the deal limits Iran to roughly 3.7-per-cent enrichment. The U.S.A., along with the other five major powers, argued that Iran did not need a higher capacity if, as it claimed, it only wanted enriched uranium for nuclear energy.

The U.N.’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, in the toughest inspections ever imposed on any country, has repeatedly certified Iran’s compliance.

Iran’s second option exploits a dispute mechanism in the deal, which allows any party to file a formal complaint with a commission established to adjudicate violations. Iran has filed eleven complaints — to Federica Mogherini, the E.U.’s foreign-policy chief, who heads the commission — citing U.S.A. violations on three different counts, Zarif said. The process allows forty-five days for resolution. “The objective of the process is to bring the United States into compliance,” Zarif said.

Britain, France, and Germany, the three European powers party to the deal, have already been trying to achieve that objective. Since January, they have brokered quiet negotiations through the State Department to address Trump’s objections and save the accord. Those objections, backed by many in Congress, involve concerns about the scope of inspections, future tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles, and so-called sunset clauses, which would eventually allow Iran to resume sensitive activities.

The European effort has reached its final stages, with agreement on most issues except sunset clauses. As part of the effort, the Europeans are also trying to win a guarantee from the White House that it will not impede Iran’s international business — a hard sell, according to European officials.

But Zarif said any compromise that adds new conditions or interpretations was a non-starter. “We don’t condone it, and we don’t believe it’s useful or fruitful or conducive to a better implementation of the deal, and they know that to be our position,” Zarif said. “The only scenario that we can deal with is for the Europeans to talk to the Trump Administration to start, once and for all, complying with the deal.”

Iran’s third option is the most drastic: the country could decide to walk away from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, or N.P.T., the landmark agreement now signed by a hundred and ninety-one nations. The treaty, enacted in 1970, seeks to halt the spread of nuclear weapons and foster the peaceful use of nuclear energy. The crisis surrounding Iran’s program began in 2003, when the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that Tehran failed to meet its obligations under the N.P.T., specifically in declaring its uranium-enrichment program.

In Tehran, debate is still intense about which option Iran should choose. “Iran is not a monolith,” Zarif said. But he noted that the public’s mood had shifted over the past year. Distrust is deeper. “The United States has not only failed to implement its side but is even asking for more,” he said. “That’s a very dangerous message to send to the people of Iran, but also to the people of the world — that you should never come to an agreement with the United States, because, at the end of the day, the operating principle for the United States is ‘what’s mine is mine, what’s yours is negotiable.’ ”

I asked Zarif if there was a prospect, if the deal dies, that Iran would negotiate again with the United States. “Diplomacy never dies,” he told me. “But it doesn’t mean that there is only one avenue for diplomacy, and that is the United States.” Whatever Iran’s final decision, he said, it “won’t be very pleasant to the United States. That I can say. That’s a consensus.”

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  • Clyde Duncan  On May 1, 2018 at 12:35 am

    Trump May Already Be Violating the Iran Deal

    The deal’s opponents keep saying Tehran has failed to live up to its commitments to the U.S.A. But what if it’s the other way around?

    Peter Beinart | The Atlantic

    As anyone who reads the news knows, Donald Trump will decide by May 12 whether to “withdraw from” or “pull out of” or “abandon” or “scrap” or “jettison” – the synonyms keep coming – the nuclear deal with Iran.

    Why May 12? Because last October, Trump declared that Iran isn’t complying with the agreement.

    Under a law passed by Congress, that “decertification” means Trump can reimpose the sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear activities that were waived as part of the deal. Trump hasn’t re-imposed those sanctions yet. But he’s demanded that Iran make vast new concessions. And he’s threatened that if Iran does not do so by May 12, “American nuclear sanctions would automatically resume.”

    There’s an irony here. For all of the drama surrounding Trump’s decision to decertify Iranian compliance with the deal, there’s little doubt that Iran is complying.

    The International Atomic Energy Agency has said so NINE TIMES. America’s European allies have said so. So has Trump’s own Defense Secretary, James Mattis. This very month, Trump’s State Department issued a report declaring that, “Iran continued to fulfill its nuclear-related commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA),” the technical name for the nuclear deal.

    The deal’s opponents often cite the two times Iran narrowly exceeded the agreement’s 130 metric ton cap on heavy water, which is used in nuclear reactors:

    In both cases Iran shipped the excess out of the country, and it remains in compliance with the deal.

    It requires the United States NOT to inhibit Iran’s reintegration into the global economy. Section 26 commits the U.S.A. and its allies “to prevent interference with the realisation of the full benefit by Iran of the sanctions lifting specified” in the deal.

    Section 29 commits the U.S.A. and Europe to “refrain from any policy specifically intended to directly and adversely affect the normalisation of trade and economic relations with Iran.”

    Section 33 commits them to “agree on steps to ensure Iran’s access in areas of trade, technology, finance and energy.”

    The Trump administration has likely been violating these clauses. The Washington Post reported that at a NATO summit last May, “Trump tried to persuade European partners to stop making trade and business deals with Iran.”

    Then, in July, Trump’s director of legislative affairs boasted that at a G20 summit in Germany, Trump had “underscored the need for nations … to stop doing business with nations that sponsor terrorism, especially Iran.”

    Both of these lobbying efforts appear to violate America’s pledge to “refrain from any policy specifically intended to directly and adversely affect the normalisation of trade and economic relations with Iran.”

    The Trump administration may have committed other violations as well.

    Section 22 of the deal specifically obliges the United States, subject to some restrictions, to “allow for the sale of commercial passenger aircraft and related parts and services to Iran.”

    To do business with Iran, any U.S. company — or even any foreign company that gets more than 10 percent of its components from U.S. companies — must get a permit from the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). OFAC must certify, for instance, that the transaction isn’t with an Iranian company designated under other U.S.A. sanctions programs such as those targeting terrorism.

    And under the Obama administration, OFAC began issuing these permits, albeit slowly. In November 2016, for instance, OFAC allowed the sale of 106 planes by Airbus to Iran Air.

    But since Trump took over, notes Al-Monitor, “requests concerning permits to export planes to Iran have been piling up … OFAC has not responded to aircraft sales licensing requests since the first of such licenses were issued during the Barack Obama administration.” Erich Ferrari, a lawyer in Washington who works on sanctions issues, told me there’s “definitely been a shift. Certain transactions that we’ve seen licensed in the past under the Obama administration, are now being denied.”

    The Trump administration still issues licenses for routine personal divestment transactions: For instance, people who want to sell off their property or close their bank accounts in Iran. But as far as Ferrari can tell, the Trump administration has issued few, if any, licenses for commercial transactions.

    That’s hard to verify: There is no public database of OFAC licenses, and the Treasury Department didn’t respond to my request for comment. But in recent months, two close observers of the Iran deal have echoed Ferrari’s observation.
    As the pro-nuclear deal National Iranian American Council’s Reza Marashi reported earlier this year, “To hear senior Western diplomats tell it, the Trump administration has not approved a single Iran-related OFAC (Office of Foreign Assets Control) license since taking office.” If true, this too likely violates the Iran deal.

    We’ve seen a version of this movie before. In 1994, the Clinton administration signed a nuclear deal with North Korea. Pyongyang promised to freeze its nuclear program. In return, the U.S. promised to provide “heavy fuel oil” to compensate for the electricity North Korea would lose by shutting down its plutonium reactor; to help build an entirely new, “light water” reactor; and to move toward normalizing relations.

    But that November, Republicans — many of whom were skeptical of the deal — took control of the House and Senate. And in the following years Congress hindered both America’s promised delivery of fuel oil and its promised help in building a light-water reactor. The North Koreans warned that if the U.S.A. didn’t abide by the deal, they wouldn’t either.

    And they didn’t. While North Korea mostly met its promises not to build a bomb using plutonium, it secretly operated an alternative nuclear program based on enriched uranium.

    Whether North Korea cheated in response to U.S.A. cheating, or intended to cheat all along, is a subject of debate.

    Either way, the Bush administration in 2002 confronted Pyongyang about its uranium-enrichment program. North Korean officials conceded its existence, while falsely claiming the deal covered only the plutonium route to a bomb. And they proposed a new, more comprehensive agreement, which would also cover uranium enrichment and required the U.S.A. to recognize North Korea, stop threatening it militarily, and lift sanctions.

    But the hawks in the Bush administration, who had opposed the 1994 deal from the beginning, refused to negotiate seriously. As John Bolton explained, the uranium-enrichment program “was the hammer I had been looking for to shatter the Agreed Framework.”

    Now Bolton is back, and looking for another hammer. If Trump stops him from wielding it, and the U.S.A. doesn’t reimpose nuclear sanctions on Iran, many in the media will celebrate America’s decision to continue complying with the nuclear deal.

    But that will be wrong. The Trump administration has never fully complied with the nuclear deal, and likely never will. The real question isn’t whether Trump violates it, but how he violates the nuclear deal.

    The truth is that, at least in the post-Cold War era, the United States hasn’t always been very good about keeping the promises it makes in nuclear deals.

    It’s important Americans know that. It might be nice to think that the U.S.A., as a democracy, is more trustworthy than its authoritarian adversaries.

    But America’s government won’t hold itself to a higher standard unless its people do.

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