Sunday, October 15, 2017


Interior of the Armenian Apostolic Cathedral of the Holy Savior (completed 1664) in Isfahan, Islamic Republic of Iran, via Wikipedia
Shorter Bret Stephens, "Donald Trump Takes a Hostage", October 14 2017:
Some people think Trump should have certified that Iran is in compliance with the JCPOA simply because Iran is in compliance with the JCPOA. What kind of dubious argument is that, for heaven's sake?
When the Republican legislators stuck that provision in the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA) of 2015 requiring the president to certify every three months that the Iranian government was in compliance with the agreement, they meant it for the specific purpose of torturing President Hillary Clinton, presumably; every 90 days she'd have to come out and say the Iranians hadn't started building a bomb yet and the whole Republican noise machine would come out to gin up a scandal about Iranian cheating, including your figures of respect like, ah, Mr. Bret Stephens, who was working the beat for his WSJ readers in July 2016, with the most elegant and arcane information sources, and Marc Thiessen picking it up for the American Enterprise Institute for those of us who don't go behind WSJ's paywall:

What diplomats call the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — known to the rest of us as the Disastrous Iran Deal — was agreed in Vienna a year ago this week. Now comes a status update, courtesy of our friends at the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz, or BfV.
In its fascinating 2015 annual report, published late last month, the German domestic intelligence service reports … “The illegal proliferation-sensitive procurement activities [by Iran] in Germany registered by the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution [that's what domestic intelligence is thought to do in Germany—ed.] persisted in 2015 at what is, even by international standards, a quantitatively high level. This holds true in particular with regard to items which can be used in the field of nuclear technology.”
I'm sure it was utterly fascinating. No it's not, especially in German (for some reason, I didn't discover there were English versions until hours after I started working on this). But the report did, on the same page as where it complained about the 2015 spike in attempts by Iranians in Germany, mostly university students, to buy dual-use equipment items they weren't allowed to buy, before the implementation of the JCPOA in January 2016, also quote the IAEA's final assessment, December 2015:
The Agency’s overall assessment is that a range of activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device were conducted in Iran prior to the end of 2003 as a coordinated effort, and some activities took place after 2003. The Agency also assesses that these activities did not advance beyond feasibility and scientific studies, and the acquisition of certain relevant technical competences and capabilities. The Agency has no credible indications of activities in Iran relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device after 2009.
Except the German version of the last sentence is a lot more categorical: not "the Agency has no credible indications", but "For the period after 2009, the IAEA has been unable to find any credible indications of corresponding activities; likewise, the IEAE has found no credible indications of a diversion of nuclear material for the construction of an atomic bomb" (Für die Zeit nach 2009 hat die IAEO keine glaubhaften Hinweise auf entsprechende Aktivitäten mehr finden können. Ebenfalls hat die IAEO keine glaubhaften Hinweise auf eine Abzweigung von Nuklearmaterial für den Bau einer Atombombe gefunden).

And naturally it didn't occur to Mr. Bret Stephens to follow up with the 2016 report, after the JCPOA was implemented,  when he would have found that the agency had seen "a sharp drop in the amount of evidence suggesting attempts on the part of Iran to procure proliferation-related materials for its nuclear program" (einen deutlichen Rückgang von Anhaltspunkten für proliferationsrelevante Beschaffungsversuche des Iran für sein Nuklearprogramm), and no evidence for any violation of the JCPOA (keinen Beweis für einen Verstoß gegen den „Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action“). So he never found out that things had turned out better than he had expected! He was all worried about nothing!

Meanwhile, as you know, it turned out to be President Donald J. Trump who got stuck with the job of certifying Iran's compliance with the agreement, and he really hates it because, as I could have told you, Iran is fully in compliance with the agreement, and his baby sitters have told him he has to say so, even though he has repeatedly told the world that this agreement is the single worst event in human history, and it makes him look like a wuss.

Which it does, tbh. (So does the decertification, which doesn't in fact say that Iran isn't in compliance, which would be a lie, but rather that lifting sanctions is not in America’s national-security interests, or an “appropriate and proportionate” response to Iran's compliance, which is merely a stupid opinion.)

The good news here is General Mattis, who was originally drawn into Republican politics (along with Mike Flynn, heh-heh, and Petraeus and Kellogg, I think) because Obama had fired him in 2013, and fired him specifically because he was an anti-Iran fanatic who couldn't get on board with Obama's policy. And Trump loved that his nickname was "Mad Dog". But he's not (unlike Flynn) an idiot, and he's capable of understanding what it is the Iran agreement does and why it needs to be preserved.

Iran wasn't ever making a nuclear weapon, at least not after 2003, in my opinion, but it wasn't averse to looking as if it might, because of Israel's nuclear arsenal, and it had not only legitimate but actually good reasons for developing uranium enrichment capacity, to prepare for the eventual end of oil and for the treatment of cancer. They really needed the latter, because they couldn't buy the stuff on the open market, because of sanctions.

But as long as they were enriching uranium, Israel and Saudi Arabia in particular were freaked out, and Iran refused to stop doing it. The terrible sanctions regime grew up around this, and Iran's ability to carry its weight as the chief regional power was compromised, and the whole situation of the Middle East, so terrible to begin with, was totally distorted not just by the sanctions but by Binyamin Netanyahu's continual threats of war.

In reality, the tough part of the P5 + 1 negotiations with Iran wasn't ensuring that Iran would never build a bomb, that was relatively easy, but making sure that Israel and Saudi Arabia and the US Republicans knew they would not build a bomb, so everybody could relax already, which has turned out to be very difficult or impossible, as these three great forces of conservatism cannot accept any challenge to their ancient and accepted beliefs. Democrats including Hillary Clinton didn't make it easier with their frequent insistence that the Iranian bomb was on a train of inevitability that only the JCPOA could stop.

I should add that there is a scenario in which a real Iranian bomb project becomes quite likely: if Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, who is 77 and possibly suffering from prostate cancer, dies and is replaced by a "hardliner" who wants to do it, as Khamenei has not. The most important thing in Iran policy for the US and our partners in the P5 + 1 is to avoid that outcome and provide support to the gentler faction led by President Rouhani—and I don't mean with CIA skullduggery but by creating an environment in which the Iranian people feel that the Rouhani approach is working for them, that sanctions are coming off and their ability to participate in the international world is coming back. This is the true purpose of the JCPOA, though you can't understand it if you can't see two points of view at the same time: to create an environment in which Iran is able to prove that it isn't building a bomb, and the US is able to take sanctions down, and Iran returns to its place in the family of nations as the most important country in western Asia (which is of course what the Israelis, Saudis, and I suppose Turks can't stand).

Anyhow, a number of important people, including Mattis and Tillerson and McMaster and Kelly, and the entire population of Europe, give or take a few racists, have come to see that the thing works, and needs to be preserved, and only Trump himself and his nihilist personal assistants are balking (this is the real reason he's so "angry" with Tillerson, for failing to give him a reason to decertify; he's taking it out on Tillerson because he's afraid of Mattis). Trump's announcement that he is "decertifying" Iran's compliance with the deal doesn't actually do anything to Iran or the deal, but to Congress, which now has 60 days to do something, either reimpose sanctions, which would essentially blow up the deal and further isolate the US from the rest of the world, which is already more than upset with the Trump administration and its seeming determination to withdraw from everything except bombing missions, or revise the INARA in some way; or nothing at all, which is of course Congress's preference. But all Trump really wants is to get that broccoli off his plate without eating it, and I think Congress will have to figure out a way to get rid of the certification requirement, so that Trump never has to think about it again.

Or something much messier than that, no doubt, but with the same ultimate effect, just because JCPOA, like other things Obama built when he was in office, has such a remarkably robust structure. Whatever comes out of the situation, it needs to be clear that Trump is not an actor so much as an impediment.

And so is Mr. Bret Stephens, for all his genteel tone. I'm not going to fisk the column, but here's the text the Shorter is based on:
The architects of the nuclear deal make three dubious claims on its behalf. They say it concerns Iran’s nuclear dossier alone, and does not prevent us from thwarting Tehran’s regional bids in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, Gaza or the Gulf. They claim the deal is working because Iran is abiding by its terms, as certified by the International Atomic Energy Agency. And they add that since the agreement permanently enjoins the Iranians from acquiring nuclear weapons, the United States maintains the military option to stop them from doing so. ....
And then he responds that the US hasn't in fact thwarted Iran's bad behavior, in regional mischief and missile development, and that the US military options are pretty limited, both of which are true and would be equally true if there were no JCPOA. This is a terrible deal because it only solves soluble problems! And
As for the point that the Iranians are generally (if not quite entirely) honoring their end of the bargain — why shouldn’t they? “Iran doesn’t want a bomb today,” one senior Israeli official told me. “It wants a bomb tomorrow.”
The only reason those villainous Iranians are honoring this terrible deal is that they don't want to violate it!

The whole purpose of the column may have been to insert that parenthetical link, by the way, knowing his readers will be confident that he's got the goods on those cheating Persians and won't bother to click.

It goes, in fact, to an assertion by the security expert David Albright, founder of the unfortunately named Institute for Science and International Security (yes, ISIS), who had a bad enough reputation during the Iraq War, when he concealed his knowledge that the Bush administration's case for Iraq's WMD relied on false evidence, and who spent the years from 2008 to 2015 building up his own patently false case that Iran had an active nuclear weapons program, and who is now claiming that Iran is in violation of the JCPOA because—wait for it—because although they don't have more centrifuges than the agreement allows, that's only because they've broken a lot of them. For more on Iran's compliance and the frivolity of claims by people like Albright, see this June piece from PolitiFact.

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