On the Precipice of a Very Bad Iran Deal

Like deja vu all over again, it seems the United States is on the verge of reentering the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, known popularly as the Iran nuclear deal. What with Mar-a-Lago, Ukraine, midterms, and the normal distractions of summer, some may have missed the latest. For you, a recap.

When last we left our dogged dealmakers in early spring—the last “on the verge of a deal moment—the Biden administration had abandoned its vision of the “longer and stronger” agreement it promised and was diligently swatting away critics (most notably, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez) in a desperate attempt to do no more than restore the Obama status quo ante. Indeed, it appeared peace was at hand when, suddenly, the Iranian government demanded that its elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) be removed from the U.S. list of terrorist organizations. As such a delisting would be entirely counterfactual and impossible to defend politically in an environment where the IRGC was credibly being accused of plotting assassinations on U.S. soil, discussions ground to a halt. Iran has now apparently dropped that demand. But …

As the Wisconsin Project’s IranWatch details exhaustively, the Islamic Republic has continued energetic work on its supposedly non-existent nuclear weapons program, making such progress that a senior adviser to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei claims Tehran is already able to fashion a weapon. (That raises the question of why talks are continuing, but since when do such inconvenient truths get in the way of a good diplomatic process?) Most troublingly in the IranWatch report is the clear implication that because of ongoing work, secret Iranian nuclear enrichment sites (and likely nuclear weapons experimentation and testing sites) are probably much smaller than older secret sites, thus rendering concealment of the program all the more easy. Which is why …

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) investigations into Iranian concealment of violations of its obligations under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty have become critical to supposedly “final” negotiations between Europe, Russia, China, and the United States. These investigations, in turn, have become the stumbling block to the happily-ever-after so earnestly sought after by the Biden administration’s myrmidons. To explain

As a result of its evaluations, the Agency identified in 2019 a number of questions related to possible undeclared nuclear material and nuclear-related activities in Iran that had not been declared to the Agency and requested responses to these questions from Iran, pursuant to Article 69 of the Safeguards Agreement and Article 4.d. of the Additional Protocol. The Agency also provided Iran with detailed information upon which the Agency had made its requests for clarification.

The provenance of the request was a revelation by then Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that a “secret atomic warehouse for storing massive amounts of equipment and materiel from Iran’s secret nuclear weapons program” was located in the Turquzabad district of Iran’s capital, Tehran. IAEA investigators visited the site and found traces of uranium unexplained by any programs that Iran had declared to the international nuclear watchdog. Questioned about the source of the uranium, Iranian officials turned to their stock of obfuscatory responses: It flew there. The Israelis put it there. It isn’t there, the IAEA is just fronting for the Israelis. It’s old. The IAEA was not satisfied. 

In March of this year, Iran reached an agreement with the IAEA on a framework for getting to the bottom of the Turquzabad mystery, but that too was a dead end. After committing to answer IAEA questions, Iranian officials missed the agreed-upon deadline for responding and then recycled the same unpersuasive explanations that the IAEA had previously rejected. Getting past all this is now, nominally, the sole barrier to the re-entry into force of the JCPOA. But how did we get here? 

Per official Iranian news sources, in order to move the “process” of negotiations further with Iran at the Vienna talks, the Biden administration agreed to specific measures to propitiate the Tehran regime. Among them: lifting sanctions on most (if not all) Iranian banks; release of at least $7 billion in Iranian funds now frozen in South Korean banks; across-the-board sanctions relief for organizations including the supreme leader’s massive slush fund, Setad, as well as the Khordad Foundation, which funds assassination plots like the one on Salman Rushdie; an end to all Trump executive orders on Iran; rapid oil sales for a mass cash infusion (about $4 billion); and an exemption to sanctions on foreign companies should the U.S. once again pull out of the JCPOA.

The curious may wonder what it is that the United States, the Europeans, Russia, and China will get out of this deal. For the United States and those European countries concerned about Iran’s malign intentions, a “return” to “compliance” with the JCPOA will be nearly moot, as the agreement’s vaunted restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities will begin to expire in a mere year and a half, and almost all will lapse by the end of this decade. At that point Iran will be fully within its rights under the agreement to do all the things that the Biden administration tells us today it is too risky to permit Iran to do. 

There will supposedly be an exchange of hostages. There will not be any end to Iranian efforts to “avenge” the killing of Quds Force leader Qassem Suleimani, which means no end of efforts to murder former President Donald Trump, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and other former senior officials. Taxpayers may have some view on that, given the millions per month in security costs, but we digress. For the Russians and the Chinese, there is another story entirely. 

These two adversaries of the United States stand to gain a great deal. In the first instance, it has often been noted that despite Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, the Russian player in the Vienna talks has been not simply present, but the main arbiter between Tehran and Washington. Indeed, Mikhail Ulyanov bragged openly about “delivering” U.S. concessions to Iran. Russia has played the Iran game skillfully: In the spring it attempted to use the “imminent” Iran deal to leverage a carveout for Ukraine-related sanctions on the Kremlin, and then negotiated a deal to buy military drones from Iran—something almost no other country will sell them. Long term, Iran promises to be a medium for not simply arms exports and sanctions evasion for the Russians, but a lifeline to international banking and lending once Tehran is out of the global financial doghouse.

There is also much to be gained for Beijing. Chinese companies have been one of Iran’s most important (illegal) oil customers since the outset of the Biden administration. Indeed, President Biden’s unwillingness to impose sanctions on China for those increasingly brazen violations has been a signal of its desire to once again embrace and finance the Islamic Republic’s regime. As China’s isolation grows, its dependence on energy sources immune from global sanctions becomes more important; expect the CCP to continue to build its friendship with the Islamic Republic, though perhaps not to the levels promised in their bilateral Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.

No surprise then that Iranian officials are regularly hinting that the deal is imminent, though the United States begs to differ. Reportedly, the question of how to resolve the IAEA inspections dilemma has a nominal solution—the current proposal would condition implementation of the deal on the IAEA closing its investigation. Apparently the Europeans argued to Iran that they can take comfort from this arrangement, because it means huge international pressure will be brought to bear on the IAEA to accept Iran’s explanations. Certainly we will all (forgive the sarcasm) be able to breathe easier if that happens. 

Resolving the other problem—angry denunciations of the new deal by Israel and congressional leaders—appears not to trouble Team Biden. The White House will likely ignore the Israelis with conciliatory pats, new arms exports, and empty promises. As for Congress, the administration has the option of declaring that it doesn’t view any new agreement with Iran as “new,” and therefore not subject to the strictures of the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA, which requires new nuclear agreements with Iran to be submitted to Congress before any executive branch action). In this, Congress’ redress is limited; a new bill could be passed to limit White House concessions to the Islamic Republic, but in a Democratic Congress with signature required from the White House, the odds are low. 

And even if the administration chooses to subject itself to the painful debate that will take place if it submits the agreement for review under INARA, it can be confident that the agreement will survive, because ultimately INARA requires two-thirds supermajorities in both houses of Congress to block an agreement, a prospect with precisely zero likelihood given the current partisan environment.

Finally, we find ourselves where we so often are. Iran’s nuclear program is largely on track; its missile and terrorism programs are untouched. The only hope for those who fear a nuclear-empowered Iran is that the Iranians may say no, calculating that if they continue to run down the clock, the Biden administration will become even more desperate and make even more concessions. Indeed, Biden’s “conceding from the front” strategy could make you nostalgic for the good old days of leadership from behind.

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