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One year to the JCPOA: The slippery logic of Iran deal supporters

One year to the JCPOA, its defenders manage to sidestep Teheran's increasing aggression and hard-line leadership

The weaknesses and failings of the JCPOA are easily identifiable – while some issues are more significant than others, taken together the problems underscore that keeping Iran from nuclear weapons, especially after a decade, is anything but ensured. The most problematic issues are the expiration date of the deal in 10-15 years, without this being linked to any change in Iran’s aggressive behavior and its nuclear-related ambitions; and the fact that Iran’s uranium enrichment program has been legitimized by the deal despite the fact that Iran worked for decades on a military nuclear program in violation of the NPT. Indeed, from year 11 Iran will begin a vastly stepped-up enrichment program based on the installation and operation of thousands of advanced models of centrifuges that will spin many times faster than those currently in use – advanced models that the deal has allowed Iran to work on from day one.

Other prominent issues include the fact that Iran’s nuclear capable ballistic missiles were left outside the purview of the negotiations even though they constitute a central component of a nuclear weapons capability; that the PMD (possible military dimensions) file was closed despite both lack of Iranian cooperation with the IAEA in its investigation last summer, and the nevertheless damning IAEA report on Iran’s weapons-related activities that was released in December 2015; and that the ability to inspect suspicious military facilities in Iran down the road will at the very least be an ongoing issue of dispute between Iran and the P5+1 because the provisions of the JCPOA are open to polar interpretations over whether, how, and when inspectors might be able to gain access.

In the face of these glaring deficiencies, how is the case nevertheless made in support of the deal? First, the thrust of JCPOA supporters’ assessments of the deal one year on is on the three main concessions that Iran did agree to in order to get badly needed sanctions relief: significantly reduced stockpile of low-enriched uranium, removal of two-thirds of centrifuges from the enrichment facilities, and cement poured into the heart of the Arak reactor. Moreover, supporters tend to focus on the short-term benefits of the deal, normally glossing over the more serious implications for the longer term. They do so even though the long-term is not that far away: only 10-15 years. Oddly enough, Obama administration officials have actually focused on the long term, to the point of claiming that Iran has been stopped from ever achieving a nuclear weapons capability. But this claim is obviously not guaranteed by this deal.

But the justifications for the JCPOA voiced by the diehard supporters of the deal get more complicated and confusing. Because beyond the messages relating to Iran’s nuclear compliance, there are additional themes woven into the justification for the deal, and that many supporters are using to create a kind of circular logic that cannot be broken, no matter how badly Iran is currently behaving, both in the nuclear realm and beyond. The logic employed draws on two distinctions that have been prominent in the ongoing debate over curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions: between nuclear and other aspects of Iran’s behavior; and between moderates and hardliners in Iran.

Just the nuclear issue vs. general Iranian aggression

Regarding the ‘nuclear vs. other-aspects-of-Iran’s-behavior’ debate, the dilemma over which of these should be the focus of dialogue with Iran has plagued the negotiations track from the start. Some argued that because of the dire nature of the Iranian nuclear threat, this issue must be dealt with in the first place and without regard to the other facets of Iran’s behavior. As such, the negotiation with Iran should be singularly focused on the nuclear question, and not overburdened with other issues that might torpedo the entire effort. Others – going back to 2003 – argued that the best way to deal with Iran is by negotiating a grand bargain that takes into account a host of regional issues, because nuclear and regional issues are closely linked in Iran’s strategic thinking regarding the Middle East.

The Obama administration chose the former course – to focus exclusively on the nuclear issue – which is a legitimate choice. The problem is that in arguing for the deal, the administration did not strictly adhere to that position. In fact, when trying to convince the public last year to support the deal, the overall profile of the regime – and its expected behavior down the line – became part and parcel of the case that was made. The administration first showcased Rouhani as the more moderate president that made negotiations possible, and later President Obama stated on several occasions that the negotiations and the deal could likely engender further moderation in Iran. In doing so, the prospects for long-term success of the JCPOA became closely tied to the nature of the regime and its overall behavior.

And yet, when critics have pointed out that since last summer Iran has not moderated its domestic or foreign policies, and has in fact become emboldened and more aggressive in the region and toward the US, the response has been to revert back to the “nuclear only” argument. In the face of Iran’s bad behavior, officials remind us that this was only about the nuclear issue, and suggest that the critics think about how much worse things would be if all of this bad behavior was going on, and on top of it Iran was 2-3 months from breakout to a nuclear weapon. But deal supporters cannot have it both ways, holding the stick from both ends as it were. If the issues are indeed related, we must be very worried about Iran’s bad behavior, and if they are not, then the deal was promoted on false premises. Either way, the problematic aspects of the deal itself remain a concern, but it is no doubt the connection to Iran’s overall profile that makes the JCPOA expiration date such a grave concern.

Iranian moderates vs. hardliners

The second and related divide used to bolster the case for supporting the deal goes to the issue of moderates vs. hardliners in Iran. Here the argument is more straightforward, but no less problematic. Rouhani and his camp are the designated moderates, and hard-line and/or aggressive action that emanates from Iran tends to be explained away by deal supporters as an attempt by the hardliner camp to undermine the moderates in the struggle for power inside Iran.

The moderate vs. hardliner argument is employed to somehow resolve the problem of holding the stick at both ends in the ‘nuclear vs. other issues’ divide, and further nail down support for the deal. When the ‘moderates vs. hard-liners’ argument is added to the mix, there is no problem admitting that moderation in Iran is indeed the key. This is because the hard-line policies displayed by Iran are presented as the result of an internal struggle, rather than a reaction of the Iranian regime to the post-deal reality. This takes the onus of the resulting bad behavior off the backs of JCPOA architects – even though better behavior was their explicit expectation. Ironically, this stance also helps underscore a case for doing nothing in response to Iran’s aggression – because the more the US pushes back, the more the hardliners can be expected to display their opposition and attempt to undermine the deal.

While there are no doubt internal power struggles in Iran – like in every state – there is no clear evidence that Rouhani presents an alternative/moderate approach to that of the Supreme Leader and the IRGC in foreign and domestic policy. And even if a case could be made that he does, there is no evidence that Rouhani’s approach will become the dominant approach anytime soon. Even the February 2016 elections – which deal-supporters hailed as a harbinger of change in Iran – tell a different story, leaving a conservative in the position of speaker of the Parliament, and a hardliner as head of the Assembly of Experts. Still, CIA Director John Brennan was quoted in late June:

I’m hopeful that maybe with the growing influence and ascendance of some of the more moderate elements within the Iranian government and President Rouhani, that we may see Iran truly move toward rejoining the community of nations and fulfilling its role and responsibility…

It would be an overall positive if that were to happen, but where is the evidence to support the hope? In fact, the evidence over the past year – at the level of both Iranian rhetoric (including that of Rouhani) and Iran’s activities – is currently going in the opposite direction. For the foreseeable future we are more likely to face a hard-line regime in Iran that will be following an aggressive regional and global approach.

The reality is that the nuclear issue is intimately linked to Iran’s overall profile – internally, regionally and globally. So while the decision to proceed in the negotiations on the nuclear front alone can certainly be justified, the result can nevertheless not be divorced from context. Nor can the JCPOA be properly assessed while ignoring Iran’s broader profile, which is the result of decisions made by the forces in power. At one level, the logic employed by deal supporters actually underscores this conclusion, but rather than facing head-on the problematic implications of Iran’s behavior one year into the JCPOA, supporters couch their unwavering support for the deal in arguments pulled from whichever pocket is most convenient. At the end of the day, what matters most are Iran’s policy decisions and behavior – if these cannot be influenced, then the JCPOA is a small achievement, and will ultimately not stop Iran any more than the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which Iran has been flouting for decades.

Emily B. Landau is Head of the Arms Control program at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), Tel Aviv University. She is author of Decade of Diplomacy: Negotiations with Iran and North Korea and the Future of Nuclear Nonproliferation.

About the Author
Emily B. Landau is Head of the Arms Control program at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), Tel Aviv University. She is author of 'Decade of Diplomacy: Negotiations with Iran and North Korea and the Future of Nuclear Nonproliferation'
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