‘We will produce any weapons of any kind that we need and use them at any time to defend ourselves”– Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, October 2017.
A new bill, the “Iran Freedom Policy and Sanctions Act,” has been introduced in the US House of Representatives that attempts to fix the flaws in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, the “Iran deal”), while also sanctioning Iranian human rights abuses, terrorism and ballistic missile development.
To understand why the JCPOA needs to be fixed, we need only focus on the unfulfilled promise of unfettered inspections of Iranian military sites; the most likely place Iran will weaponize a nuclear device.
According to The Guardian, US secretary of state John Kerry told the Israelis back in 2015, “I absolutely guarantee that in the future we will have the ability to know what they are doing so that we can still stop them if they decided to move to a bomb... We will have inspectors in there every single day ... forever.”
Last month, Kerry opined in The Washington Post that the agreement is “grounded in the transparency rules of the IAEA’s [International Atomic Energy Agency] Additional Protocol” allowing inspections in military sites. President Barack Obama also promised “inspectors will have 24/7 access to Iran’s key nuclear facilities.”
In other words, the promise of “anytime, anywhere inspections.”
Only one problem: Iran has repeatedly said it will never abide by the Additional Protocol. As senior adviser to the Supreme Leader Ali Akbar Velayati said, “Nobody is allowed to visit Iran’s military sites.” Ayatollah Khamenei agrees. He told Reuters that access to military sites is a “red line.”
What is the Additional Protocol and Section T? Section T restricts Iran from weaponizing a nuclear explosive device or acquired dual-use technology, while the Additional Protocol was “sold” to Congress as the transparency allowing unfettered access to military sites. You often hear from supporters of the deal that Iran is in full compliance with the JCPOA. But if your inspectors have never visited a military site, you will never have anything to report.
Indeed, IAEA chief Yukiya Amano told Reuters last fall that his agency doesn’t have the “tools” to verify Iran’s compliance.
The “Iran Freedom Policy and Sanctions Act” attempts to fix this profound flaw in the deal, while also toughening economic sanctions against the Republican Guards and Basij Force, who profit from nuclear and missile development and are at the vanguard of Iranian human rights abuses, terrorism and missile development. The problem is that the Senate will not be able to fix the flaws of the JCPOA because it would require 60 votes, a virtual impossibility in this political climate.
There is a path forward. It’s a two-pronged approach.
Create legislation from both houses of Congress to provide new, enforceable, non-waivable sanctions that focus on Iran’s human rights abuses, missile development, and terrorism. (Recall that non-nuclear sanctions were promised but not acted upon by the Obama administration.) Leave the issue of reinstating sanctions regarding the JCPOA for President Donald Trump.
In other words, Congress should take half a loaf that would accomplish the same goal of economically punishing Iran with new sanctions, while avoiding the 60-vote threshold needed in the Senate for fixing the JCPOA. Dealing with the JCPOA is best addressed by President Trump as he could reimpose sanctions on the nuclear program in 120 days.
Shouldn’t Democratic senators who did not support the JCPOA also want to sign on to non-nuclear sanctions? The answer is President Trump and politics.
Anything that Trump supports – even if clearly in the national interest – is dismissed and rationalized away with the hope that it will translate into a political victory in the midterm elections.
The question for senators Ben Cardin (D-Maryland), Chris Coons (D-Delaware) and Chuck Schumer (D-New York), who all voted against the JCPOA, is why are you now in favor of preserving the Iran agreement? Don’t you want to be on the right side of Iranian human rights, and against the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism? Senator Cardin claims to be interested in fixing the deal but has demanded the Europeans be given a veto on any new American legislation that fixes the JCPOA. Has Iran decreased its cooperation with the North Korean missile and nuclear program, stopped supporting terrorists, decreased its executions of women and children or its calls to exterminate Israel? Senator Cardin, please reconsider.
Won’t the Europeans go ballistic? Sure, but they will choose the American market and financial system and not run afoul of American sanctions.
Supporters of the agreement say that if the US withdraws from the JCPOA, Iran will quickly restart its nuclear program; the JCPOA, they say, has increased Iranian nuclear “break-out” time from three months to a year. Even if it were true in 2015, the one-year delay will completely evaporate over the next eight years because the Obama administration inexplicably allowed Iran to immediately develop advanced centrifuges, reducing to a few months the time needed to produce weapons-grade material.
Which is more dangerous – preserving the JCPOA, fixing it or ripping it up? The most dangerous option is preserving the status quo without changing the deal’s fundamental flaws, that undermine American national security. Congress needs to pass new, biting economic sanctions on the regime for human rights abuses, terrorism and missile development, requiring only 50 votes, while leaving decertification of the JCPOA for the executive branch.
The time to strike new legislation is now, this spring, before the next election season is in full swing.
The writer is director of MEPIN™, the Middle East Political and Information Network™. He regularly briefs members of Congress and think tanks on the Middle East.