LONDON, United Kingdom, November 6th – former US Secretary of State John Kerry reflected on the first two years of the Iran nuclear deal in a panel discussion at the international affairs institute, Chatham House. Secretary Kerry was joined by Baroness Catherine Ashton a former EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. The discussion was chaired by Chatham House Research Director in International Security Dr. Patricia Lewis, and came within days of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech at the same institute.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the agreement’s formal title, was signed in Vienna in July 2015. The signatories along with Iran were the P5+1, that is, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (UK, Russia, China, France and the US) along with Germany. The agreement places extensive restrictions on the Iranian nuclear programme, with limits including capping uranium enrichment at 3.67% and aggressively reducing existing material stockpiles. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has a central role in monitoring Iran’s compliance.
In assessing Iranian strategic thinking, Secretary Kerry said that “Iran decided not to pursue a nuclear weapon”, “the Ayatollah, the supreme leader, made a decision that they were not going to pursue it.” He continued “Iran had completely mastered the nuclear cycle” and “it was the judgement of our intelligence community and all the intelligence communities working on this that Iran was maybe two months away from breaking out, a ‘break-out capacity.”
This raises key questions as to the Iranian rationale to ‘negotiate away’ an undoubted and impending capability to become a nuclear armed state. On the face of it, this seems strategically counter-intuitive. What might have led Iran to consider the JCPOA a better option to the ‘hard power’ of the ‘atomic bomb’? Relaxation and removal of sanctions, including banking, finance and trade were no doubt attractive. The threat of military action against key sites including the Arak reactor, or further cyber-attack (such as Stuxnet) may also have significantly influenced strategic policy. Perhaps Iran sees development of its interests in the region best pursued through sponsorship of Shia militias in Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.
On the question of President Trump’s views on decertification of the agreement, Secretary Kerry said there was “no science, no fact, no evidence whatsoever that would merit a decertification.” Kerry claimed that with the agreement “we put in place, the most significant, intrusive, extensive, transparent nuclear agreement that exists on this planet.” He highlighted that [according to the IAEA monitors] “that Iran [has been] fully complaint with the agreement, 8 separate times.”
In assessing the impact of JCPOA in the Middle East, Secretary Kerry said “it has made not only the region safer, Israel is safer“ and “the security folks in Israel believe this agreement is working, and they don’t want to see it go away.” This view stands in contrast with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s assessment, shared with the institute a few days earlier.
In examining the differences, Kerry went so far as to ‘claim’ “Prime Minister Netanyahu was [at that time] urging President Obama to bomb Iran.” Expanding on the utility and sensibility of a military strike Kerry said “we don’t know where everything is.” Paradoxically, this appears to support Prime Minister Netanyahu’s perspective, that weapons development could be progressed either in military facilities (exempt from IAEA inspection) or in other clandestine locations. If we really “don’t know where everything is”, the risk of a blind spot (no matter how small) must be mitigated.
Kerry noted that “every single military option we have available to us today we will have in 15 years”, arguing that a “rush to war” was insensible bellicosity. The avoidance of war is undoubtedly both prudent and desirable, but consider two scenarios. Firstly, the Cuban Missile Crisis and an existential threat from a ‘bad neighbour’ drew the US into a ‘war-footing’ in 1962. Proximity of (as well as nature of) threat is therefore an important factor in response. Regional powers (not least Israel) are therefore entitled to varying strategic assessment and action. Secondly, assessing the situation in North Korea, would earlier military intervention have arrested nuclear proliferation? Does North Korea provide insight into potential weaknesses of the ‘wait and see’ option?
Secretary Kerry drew further parallels between Iran and North Korea, extolling the virtues of JCPOA as a model for diplomacy. The veracity of this claim must be critically questioned, given the unambiguous nuclear ambitions of North Korea and scale of proliferation already achieved by the regime.