At my university, I typically assign 150 pages of reading a week in upper level courses in History. So my first request is that everyone—including Senator Cardin and Senator Mikulski—do the required reading. Read the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action between the United States, Britain, China France, Germany, Russia, the European Union and the Islamic Republic of Iran. As a historian, I have learned to read documents very carefully. I conclude that if you read the JCPOA carefully, you too will conclude that this agreement is full of holes–so full of holes and gaps that it will be difficult if not impossible to enforce. And that means that it is patently untrue, as the President claims, that the agreement blocks Iran’s path to the bomb. No one knows if rejection of this agreement and return to the negotiating table will lead to a better deal, but certainly a better deal will not happen if we don’t even try to reach it.
Many people have pointed out the shortcomings of this deal. Yesterday, Senator Robert Menendez offered the most detailed and in my view most compelling criticism of the shortcomings of the deal with Iran. It is very worth reading. Having read the Iran deal, I offer the following aspects that should be part of a better deal, if such a deal is at possible.
First, a better deal would be one that insists that the Islamic Republic of Iran change its policy toward the United States and Israel. The agreement treats Iran as a normal country but there is nothing normal about a country that embeds anti-Semitic and anti-American ideology into its defining world view and which is seeking nuclear weapons to carry out its explicitly anti-Zionist goals. There should be no more government-sponsored demonstrations bellowing “death to America” and “death to Israel.” The Iranian government should cease supporting Holocaust denial and must absolutely cease its threats to destroy the state of Israel. It should cease funding of terrorist organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah. The Iranians will, of course, say that these amount to interference in Iran’s internal affairs, to which the proper response is that if you want to be a member of the civilized community of nations, you don’t publicly call for the “death” of other countries and you don’t talk about destroying the only fully functioning liberal democracy in the region, namely the state of Israel. As the President says, you can’t trust the Iranians—you can only verify. But the agreement makes verification all but impossible.
Second, in exchange for Iran’s agreement to inspections of now-famous nuclear facilities by the IAEA, the agreement calls for the E3/EU +3 countries to engage in stunning efforts to assist Iran’s nuclear industry. For example, the agreement calls for Russia, China, France, Britain, Germany and perhaps the United States to send scientists and engineers to a proposed physics and technology center at the Fordow nuclear facility to collaborate “in the form of scientific joint partnerships…in agreed areas of research.” Each of these countries has scientists and engineers who know how to build nuclear weapons and who have knowledge about the process that can be transferred to the Iranians. I am a scholar. What scholars do at research centers is talk to one another. It seems to me that this is a likely path on which knowledge about how to build nuclear weapons can move from the P5 + 1 countries to the Iranian government. And if the foreign experts don’t volunteer this kind of knowledge willingly, or if there was a snap back of sanctions or threat of a military strike, the Iranians might very well seize them as hostages thus creating a multi-national hostage event that would also possibly deter American enforcement measures.
Another element of knowledge transfer involves the agreement’s proposal to assist the Iranians in the modernization of the nuclear plant in Arak. It foresees scientists and engineers from all of the signing countries involved in that effort. Yet more knowledge about nuclear matters would flow from these powers to Iran. Another term for this activity is proliferation of knowledge about nuclear physics and possibly nuclear weapons to Iran. In addition, nuclear power plants are expensive. The money to be made in building them is enormous. Just as the research center in Fordow, so the modernization of the plant in Arak would create growing vested interests in a variety of the signing countries in favor of continuing the JCPOA arrangements and opposing doing anything—like a snap-back of economic sanctions or possibly a military strike– that would undermine the agreement.
A better deal will eliminate the research center in Fordow and scrap plans to modernize the nuclear facility in Fordow.
Third, and following on one and two, the inspection mechanism of the Iran agreement is inadequate. First, the problem is not only the now-famous 24-day delay between report of a possible violation and a decision to do something about it. 24 days is a long time in which to hide evidence and create shades of gray and room for dispute. The supporters of the deal point rightly note that only five of the eight signers are needed to come to a decision about disputes, so that Russia, China and Iran will not be able to exercise an automatic veto. Yet for the reasons I just mentioned, the problem may not be these adversaries but our own European allies, who will have billions of euros and pounds invested in Fordow, Arak and elsewhere in the Iranian economy. So the United States could very well find itself outvoted by our own European allies not only by our familiar adversaries.
The result of this web of multilateral vested interests would be that this President or the next one, even if faced with clear evidence of Iranian violations, could very well be stymied by calls from our allies for doing nothing to upset the agreement. Enforcing the agreement with a snap-back of sanctions on hundreds of firms in many countries would place the US in possible opposition to allies. The more the Russians, Chinese, British, French, Germans and perhaps also our own companies are invested in Iran, the less likely it will be that the United States could restore sanctions or would use force to prevent Iran from getting the bomb. The idea that the United States could snap back sanctions against companies from these five major countries—and probably many more—seems to me to be wishful thinking in the extreme.
Fourth, there are the not-yet-famous but remarkable paragraphs 36 and 37 of the section on the “Dispute Resolution Mechanism.” As this is a rally and not a lecture (where is the power point?), I must spare you the details. Yet paragraph 36, in sometimes confusing language, nevertheless clearly adds at least 30 and possibly up to 50 days on top of the famous 24 to arrive a resolution of a dispute. My fine colleague, Russell Berman, a literary scholar at Stanford, summarizes paragraph 36 as follows: “15 days Joint Commission, then 15 days Foreign Ministers, then 15 days Advisory Board then back to Joint Commission for 5 days, then to the United Nations Security Council.” You don’t have to be a professor of mathematics to know that adds up to 50!
Now it’s possible that the President and the Secretary of State may read this differently but it is surely the case that the Iranians will point to this paragraph to justify further delay—up to 74 days. What you can’t hide and destroy in 24 days, you certainly can do in 74. As I wrote at my blog at The Times of Israel: “The crucial point is this one. If a historian and a literary scholar can read the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to allow for 50 or 74 or more days between report of a dispute and a decision to do something about the alleged violations, so can the leadership of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The text is, in fact, not ambiguous. It clearly states that a far longer period of delay and evasion is built into the agreement than the much-discussed 24 day limit. When and if the Iranian regime decides to read the deal in the way we have been able to do, it will stand on firm textual ground in doing so.”
Senator Mikulski, Senator Cardin, members of the Maryland Congressional delegation: do not support an agreement with these gaping holes, one that is most likely not enforceable and that this does not block, but rather paves Iran’s path to the bomb. We urge you to make the same decision as your Democratic colleagues, Senators Schumer and Menendez to reject this agreement and oppose the President’s veto.
I also appeal to my fellow scholars, especially in the Humanities and Social Sciences. We read texts closely. That is our profession. Put your skills and training to work. Read the deal. Dispense with clichés about “supporting the President.” Read it and then think for yourself.
The alternative we face is not, as the President has stated, this deal or war. It is between, on the one hand, a deal that insures that Iran will come to possess nuclear weapons, sooner rather than later, and, on the other, an effort to use the levers of economic and diplomatic power at the disposal of the United States to reach a better deal. No one—I repeat no one—knows if a better deal is possible unless and until we make the effort to reach it. If our European allies are wavering and eager to sign the current deal, then it is all the more reason for the United States Congress to exercise leadership and insist that it is here, in this country, not in the capitals of Europe, that decisions about the national security of the United States are going to be made. Senator Mikulski and Senator Cardin, this is not only about the survival of Israel. It is also about an agreement that truly will prevent the country that has been bellowing “death to America” from ever getting the bomb. This agreement fails to accomplish what the President insists is his own policy—preventing a nuclear Iran. We urge you and our Congressional delegation to reject this deal and insist on returning to the table for arrive at a better one.
Jeffrey Herf is Distinguished University Professor in the Department of History at the University of Maryland, College Park.