International diplomacy has had a year’s respite from the vexed debate and the nail-biting, cliffhanger negotiations of the Iran nuclear deal — but the uncertainties have persisted.
A year after the adoption of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), questions concerning Iranian trustworthiness, the efficacy of inspections and the credibility of reinstating sanctions to punish violations, have refused to go away. No one could say for sure if Iran has even temporarily given up on its pursuit of nuclear weapons, and that the deal will hold much longer.
However, a German intelligence report released a few days ago puts an end to at least one of the uncertainties — that of Iranian intentions to keep their end of the bargain.
The report cited “clandestine” efforts to obtain illicit nuclear technology and equipment from German companies “at what is, even by international standards, a quantitatively high level.”
The Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany’s equivalent of the FBI, says that it prevented most of the 90 recent attempts to acquire technology for nuclear arms development. It did not say what became of the attempts they were not able to stop.
The German revelations were seconded by The Institute for Science and International Security, which stated recently that Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization has been after carbon fiber, a material used in advanced centrifuge rotors. Tehran did not bother asking permission from the U.N.-affiliated panel responsible for regulating such procurements, as it was supposed to do. Furthermore, the quantity of carbon fiber — tons of it — was far in excess of any current needs, suggesting that Iran wants to stockpile it for a quick breakout and expansion of bomb-building when the time is right.
Thus, Iranian cheating can be moved from the column of fears and suspicions and placed into the column of established facts.
The uncertainty about the resolve of the world powers to enforce the agreement was also highlighted after news of the cheating was out.
When asked about the revelations from German intel and the Institute for Science and International Security, the State Department spokesman replied, “We have absolutely no indication that Iran has procured any materials in violation of the JCPOA.”
He did not however deny that Iran has been sneaking around, trying to get hold of things they have agreed not to. The State Department spokesman was well aware of those reports and did not dispute them.
What he did say was that they have no indication of procurement, i.e., that Iranian agents succeeded in their clandestine efforts. By the same token, of course, the State Department has no indication they didn’t. They just don’t know. In any case, there was absolutely no indication that the State Department was concerned enough about the charges to investigate further.
As senior foreign policy expert Elliott Abrams points out, “This kind of response will only encourage Iran to cheat more, secure in the knowledge that Obama administration officials will not call them out on it, nor choose any serious one of the ‘plenty of options’ it says it has. This means that Iran’s breakout time will diminish, and the danger to its neighbors and to the United States will grow and grow.”
It could be argued that Tehran was only testing the ground to see if the western intelligence agencies were astute enough to detect their undercover activity. But that now, having been exposed in their cheating, embarrassed and frustrated, the Iranians will back off.
This is not the view of German security officials. On the contrary. Their report notes “a further increase in the already considerable procurement efforts in connection with Iran’s ambitious missile technology program which could among other things potentially serve to deliver nuclear weapons. Against this backdrop it is safe to expect that Iran will continue its intensive procurement activities in Germany using clandestine methods to achieve its objectives.”
But the uncertainty over whether the Iran deal will hold together has not diminished. Opponents of the deal in both Tehran and Washington have been threatening a rollback. No fewer than three Republican-backed measures to revise the JCPOA are set for a vote in the House this week; and Donald Trump declared that if elected he will renegotiate it.
From Tehran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei came another sample of his now-familiar style of diplomatic chat:
“We do not violate the deal, but if the other party violates it, if they tear the agreement up, we will light it on fire.”
The Ayatollah can put away the lighter fluid. The White House has said that President Obama will veto any of the Republican bills that reach his desk.
Why is the administration so steadfast in its defense of an agreement with such glaring inadequacies? Because without it, “we would have been forced to confront the reality of how to address Iran’s nuclear program in a world where diplomacy had failed,” Stephen Mull, the State Department’s lead coordinator for Iran nuclear implementation, said Tuesday at a Bipartisan Policy Center conference in Washington.
Many wonder however whether that is precisely the reality we must address even now.