The administration is putting money toward a border wall, but giving short shrift to America’s other borders.
BY BETHANY ALLEN-EBRAHIMIAN
President Donald Trump’s proposed budget would pour money into a wall on the southern border — while stripping funding from protecting ports against the threat of nuclear attack.The administration’s proposed 2018 budget would halve funding for key counterterrorism programs at another kind of border: The 361 ports dotted across America’s 95,000 miles of coastline. The proposed cuts, leaving just $48 million in grant funding, have alarmed port operators, senators from both sides of the aisle, and counterterrorism experts alike.“I’m seriously concerned that these budget cuts will weaken our ability to detect, prevent, and respond to future attacks,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri), the ranking member on the Senate Homeland Security Committee, last month.After the September 11, 2001 attacks, one of security experts’ greatest fears was that terrorists would acquire nuclear or radiological weapons and use them against the United States. Analysts determined that if a weapon of mass destruction were to be deployed, it would likely be delivered in one of the 12 million shipping containers arriving in ports every year — a flood of cargo seemingly too big to search without disrupting global trade.Determining that ports were “susceptible to large scale acts of terrorism,” Congress established the Port Security Grant Program in October 2002 to fund radiation detection scanners, security systems and maintenance, and training at maritime ports. But even today, worries about port security persist. Former Secretary of Defense William Perry said last month at an event at the Hoover Institute that North Korea may not need the long-range missiles it is currently developing in order to deliver a nuclear payload to American shores. Pyongyang, he said, “might even be able to do terrible damage to the United States by delivering [nuclear weapons] in freighters.”The Trump budget doesn’t just take aim at port security funding — it also would slash the U.S. Coast Guard budget, which provides layers of protection by tracking incoming vessels, scanning for illicit weapons, and making sure foreign ports have adequate security, Additionally, a pair of crack Coast Guard units — the Maritime Safety and Security Teams and the Maritime Security Response Teams — could lose their funding entirely, according to documents obtained by the Associated Press in February. The Response Teams are the Coast Guard’s ace in the hole against terrorists, said Cmdr. Paul Frantz, of the Coast Guard’s Office of Deployable Specialized Forces, “designed to respond to the threat or event of a terrorist attack.” This spring, nearly two dozen senators sent Trump’s budget director a letter warning against dismantling the Coast Guard units, warning that it would be “negligent and detrimental to our national security.”When the September 11 attacks occurred, U.S. ports were wide open to possible risks. Years of funding have built up the capabilities of ports around the country to detect potentially nefarious activity, including any smuggled nuclear bombs. According to testimony submitted to a June 2014 Senate homeland security committee hearing, in 2001 Customs and Border Patrol had none of the big scanners — known as radiation portal monitors — that spot radiological hazards. By 2014, it had 1,387 at ports across the country, able to screen 99 percent of incoming cargo, essentially meeting the post-9/11 Congressional mandate that 100 percent of incoming shipping containers be scanned.But these scanners require expensive maintenance and have a lifespan of 10 to 13 years, meaning those deployed after 9/11 will soon need to be replaced. Many ports don’t have the cash. “There’s a lot about the border wall, but we’re borders as well,” said April Danos, director of information technology at the Greater Lafourche Port Commission in Louisiana. The grants enable ports like Lafourche to install pricey security systems they wouldn’t have been able to afford, and to perform costly maintenance to keep systems operational. “Those budget cuts would impact us greatly,” said Danos. “We would not be able to maintain these systems.”The possible gutting of the grant program has port operators around the country up in arms. On June 12, the American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA) sent a letter calling on eight leading lawmakers to fully fund the grant program, highlighting that it is crucial in “helping seaports harden security and protect these vital transportation hubs and maritime borders.”Congress needs to be reminded that “ports are international borders,” said John Young, director of freight and surface transportation policy at the AAPA, in a phone interview with Foreign Policy. Used in collaboration with local law enforcement, said Young, port security grants “can do anything from fencing to cyber security assessments, to installing cyber equipment to purchasing equipment to help secure ports.”Without the grant money, it’s not clear how ports and operators will be able to fully address ongoing vulnerabilities or identify new ones.“It’s a big deal for us,” said Danos. “The gaps are going to be left wide open.”Chris Hondros/Getty Images
“Terrorist Baghdadi is definitely dead,” IRNA quoted cleric Ali Shirazi, representative to the Quds Force, as saying, without elaborating. IRNA later updated the news item, omitting the quote on Baghdadi’s death.
The Quds Force is in charge of operations outside Iran’s borders by the country’s elite Revolutionary Guard Corps. Iranian Foreign Ministry officials were not available to comment on the report of Baghdadi’s death.
The secretive Islamic State leader has frequently been reported killed or wounded since he declared a caliphate to rule over all Muslims from a mosque in Mosul in 2014, after his fighters seized large areas of northern Iraq.
Russia said on June 17 its forces might have killed Baghdadi in an air strike in Syria. Washington said on Thursday it had no information to corroborate such reports. Iraqi officials have also been skeptical in recent weeks.
(Writing by Parisa Hafezi; editing by Andrew Roche)
A bomb that fails to explode after it is dropped is called a dud. Occasionally that dud goes off long after the battle is over, causing casualties among people who thought they were no longer in harm’s way.
Politico published a story in April about how the Obama administration undermined its own anti-proliferation and sanctions-enforcement efforts to reach a nuclear deal with Iran. It should have been a bombshell when it was published. But if it made any noise at all, the sound was lost amid the cacophony over supposed collusion between Russia and the Trump presidential campaign.
That’s just what happened in 2016, after the deal was signed. Politico also reported that the Obama administration began slow-walking efforts to apprehend Iranian arms-smugglers and sanctions-busters as early as 2014, when talks on the potential nuclear deal were still a secret held closely within the White House and a small circle of senior executive branch officials.
American allies as diverse as Israel and Saudi Arabia instantly saw the Obama agreement as a concession to an implacable enemy and a threat to their own security. No doubt they knew the extent of the concessions regarding the sanctions-evading individuals well before Politico brought this to wider attention. With America’s reliability as a bulwark against Iranian aggression undermined, the Saudis in particular embarked on a much more muscular response of their own, including the current near-blockade of neighboring Qatar for being insufficiently loyal to the anti-Tehran cause.
While Obama may have been kowtowing to the Iranians, he certainly wasn’t “colluding” with them in any reasonable sense of that word. He was acting as an elected official within what he (at least) believed to be the scope of his constitutional powers. This was true, as well, back in 2012 when Obama famously told Dmitry Medvedev, “This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility.” At the time Medvedev was keeping Russia’s presidential seat warm for Vladimir Putin, who had temporarily stepped down in 2008 to become prime minister due to term limits, only to reclaim the seat a few weeks after Obama’s remarks to Medvedev were inadvertently captured on an open mic. “I understand,” Medvedev replied. “I will transmit this information to Vladimir.”
Was Obama “colluding” with the Russians amid his 2012 presidential campaign? Not unless collusion has been redefined to include the conduct of international diplomacy by a sitting president.
Trump, of course, was not a sitting president during the 2016 campaign. Nothing has surfaced to indicate that he or the people around him had anything to do with the hacking of Democratic campaign files and subsequent releases of embarrassing emails that U.S. intelligence agencies (then run by Obama appointees) concluded were the work of the Russians. And while some in Trump’s circle surely had business dealings with Russian executives and officials during that time, those likewise were not illegal, and had even been encouraged by the Obama administration.
Well after the election and just a few weeks before Trump’s inauguration, Obama retaliated against the alleged Russian electoral interference with new sanctions, including the ban of 35 Russian individuals from U.S. soil. According to news reports initially sourced to anonymously leaked intelligence, Trump’s incoming national security adviser, Michael Flynn, discussed those sanctions with a Russian diplomat and may have indicated that Trump would revisit the actions once he took office. (Thus far Trump has let Obama’s steps stand.) Flynn served in the administration for less than a month before being forced to resign, largely for telling Vice President Mike Pence that he had not discussed sanctions with the Russians – denials which were later contradicted, to Pence’s embarrassment.
So for the past four months we have been exposed to an endless deluge of columns purporting to explore and explode the alleged “cover-up” for which there is, as far as anyone yet knows, no underlying crime, based on leaks from the administration of a president who, after boasting of his own forthcoming “flexibility,” sought to tie his successor’s hands in dealing with the still-emerging disclosures of Russian interference in an American election.
It has been a lot of noise and smoke, but with very little actual explosive force. Meanwhile, an actual bombshell landed almost unnoticed and sits waiting for someone to stumble across it. It may never go off. Then again, especially if one of Obama’s catch-and-release proliferators is ever linked to a successful hostile event, it could someday yield a pretty big bang.
Qatar has been ejected from the Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthis in Yemen, and transport links between it and three other Gulf countries have been severed, with Qataris living in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE ordered to leave. Turkey and Iran have stepped into the gap, raising the specter of a reshuffling of alliances in the Gulf region.
Qatar’s Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said Monday that the country’s government still has “no clue what are the main reasons behind all these measures.”
Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain accuse Qatar of supporting terrorism networks in the region. UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash, and key architect of the blockade on Qatar told CNN’s John Defterios that Qatar offers “very, very huge logistical, financial support for extremist groups.“
“There is no more trust,” he said, adding, “it is time for cooler heads to restructure Qatar’s approach on foreign policy.”
Gulf leaders have also been critical of Qatar’s relatively neutral stance on Iran, which they view as a prime destabilizing force in the region.
The diplomatic rift came two weeks after Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt blocked several Qatari media outlets, including Al Jazeera, over comments allegedly made by Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.
Al Thani reportedly hailed Iran as an “Islamic power” and criticized US President Donald Trump’s policy towards Tehran. Qatar said the official news agency which reported the comments was hacked — and on June 6, US officials told CNN that US investigators believe Russian hackers were behind it.
Two large regional powers on either side of the Sunni-Shiite Islamic sectarian divide, Saudi Arabia and Iran have been engaged in a longstanding cold war, tussling for influence in countries in their sphere of influence, especially Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, where Saudi-led bombing has left thousands of civilians dead.
Qatar and Iran share the largest underwater natural gas field in the world. But recent Gulf reports have charged the relationship goes beyond resource management, accusing Qatari officials of meeting with the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps.
But al Thani disputed that Monday, saying that “if the problem is Iran, why have those measures been taken against Qatar, why not taken against Iran?”
Seeking a solution
Both Qatar and Saudi Arabia are major US allies, and have close ties to European powers. But while Trump has signaled support for Riyadh despite efforts by the Pentagon and State Department to remain neutral, his European counterparts have been active in trying to tamp down tensions.
Al Thani praised French President Emmanuel Macron Monday for being “very active” in attempting to find a “solution to the problem.”
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who is currently in the Gulf for a series of meetings, on Monday “urged all sides (to) refrain from any further escalation and to engage in mediation efforts.”
Johnson encouraged Qatar to “take seriously their neighbors’ concerns” but also expressed alarm at the blockading of the country and called for it to be eased.
“Qatar is a partner of the UK in the fight against terrorism but they urgently need to do more to address support for extremist groups, building on the steps they have already taken,” Johnson said.
CNN’s Katie Polglase and Katie Hunt contributed reporting.
Editor’s Note: May 24, 2017: On May 17, the Trump administration renewed a waiver of sanctions preventing U.S. companies from selling to or dealing with Iran, thus extending the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that allows Iran to continue enriching uranium with restrictions. Days later, President Trump attacked Iran in unprecedented terms in a high-profile speech in Saudi Arabia. Though seemingly contradictory, the moves follow the advice offered weeks earlier in the below article by Emily B. Landau from the Spring 2017 issue of Middle East Quarterly.
But, Obama’s assessment is wrong. The JCPOA has many flaws and weaknesses, and it is important to assess the president’s role in the process that produced this dubious deal: What happened on the ground, how Obama’s perceptions of nuclear disarmament colored his attitudes toward Iran, and the tactics he used to marginalize criticism and mobilize support for a flawed deal at the domestic level.
It is equally important to examine to what lengths the president went in order to protect his problematic deal after it was presented, and at what cost. What legacy on Iran has Obama left for the next administration?
The Road to the JCPOA
In early April 2009, shortly after entering the White House, Obama made his first major foreign policy speech in Prague where he unveiled his agenda for advancing the goal of global nuclear disarmament. While his initial steps in this direction were taken primarily at the global level, in autumn 2009—after Tehran had been caught red-handed constructing a hidden enrichment facility at Fordow—Obama made his first attempt to conclude a partial nuclear agreement with Iran in the context of a “fuel deal” offered by the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany (P5+1). The offer was that 75-80 percent of Iran’s then stockpile of low enriched uranium would be shipped abroad and turned into the fuel plates that the Iranians said they needed to run the civilian Tehran Research Reactor.
The offer was purposely designed to test whether Tehran was exclusively focused on civilian nuclear activities as it emphatically insisted—a claim the West did not believe and for which it demanded “proof” via Iranian action.
The tendency to try to prove Tehran’s intransigence, only to continue the talks after such proof was provided—including agreeing to more concessions—is a dynamic that was also to reappear in later stages of the negotiations. Maintaining diplomacy, which began as a means to an end (i.e., stopping Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons), gradually became an end in itself. This provided an important lesson for Tehran when negotiations began in earnest in 2013.
After securing an interim deal, or Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), in late November 2013, negotiations on a final and comprehensive nuclear deal began in January 2014. Up until 2013, the P5+1 had sought to dismantle Iran’s nuclear infrastructure—except perhaps for an extremely limited and mainly symbolic enrichment program of no more than 1,500 centrifuges—and to deny it the ability to develop nuclear weapons.
This included the number of centrifuges left spinning (originally 1,500, then 4,000, finally 6,000). Furthermore, the centrifuges were not dismantled but rather mothballed; the Fordow facility was left running; research and development was enabled into a full range of advanced centrifuges; and the demand for inspections of suspicious activities “any place, any time” turned into a much longer and ambiguous process.
Indeed, the hard-gained leverage of the biting sanctions that brought the Iranians to the table was gradually squandered in a process where Washington projected greater eagerness for a deal than Tehran.
What’s Really in the JCPOA Deal?
With the July 2015 JCPOA, Obama proudly claimed to have severed every pathway to Iranian nuclear weapons, thus preventing Tehran from obtaining such capability. He further emphasized that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) would have access to any suspicious facility “where necessary, when necessary.”
But a closer examination of the nuclear deal reveals that it does not uphold these sweeping assertions. Rather, the agreement contains major concessions that undermine the deal’s effectiveness as well as including ambiguities that will no doubt be abused by Tehran to advance its nuclear program.
Major Flaws of the Deal
The major weaknesses and flaws of the deal, both technical and political, include the following issues.
Iran’s uranium enrichment program. Not only did the JCPOA depart from the goal of eliminating Tehran’s enrichment program—leaving it with 6,000 centrifuges—but it actually legitimized the program by allowing continued enrichment under the terms of the deal. The agreement stipulates that Iran’s stockpile of low enriched uranium must not exceed 300 kg, but Tehran can continue its enrichment operations while perfecting its techniques and doing away with excess amounts. Moreover, the deal enables Iran to continue research and development on an entire range of advanced generations of centrifuges, which will be far more efficient than its current IR-1 centrifuges and which Tehran plans to begin operating by the thousands from year 11 of the deal.
Inspections and verification. According to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), the IAEA is allowed access only to declared nuclear sites but has no inspection rights at military facilities. In Iran’s case, this meant that inspectors could not demand entry to Parchin where Tehran was carrying out its illegal military nuclear activities. By way of closing this loophole, the JCPOA was meant to ensure “any time, any place” inspection rights for the IAEA.In reality, however, the deal fails to secure timely access despite Obama’s claim to the contrary. According to one reading, the JCPOA ensures that Tehran will have to agree to a requested inspection at a suspicious military facility within 24 days (which in some cases could be too long a wait for the inspectors). But looking more carefully at the wording in relevant sections reveals that Tehran can use different excuses to prolong that timeline before the 24-day clock even begins ticking.In light of Tehran’s continued insistence that it will never allow entry to its military facilities, any demand for inspection is bound to spark a major confrontation. The regime can be expected to do everything within its power to delay and bar entry, building on the ambiguity in the JCPOA text.An additional problem relates to possible military work conducted at a facility outside Iran with North Korea being the most obvious suspect. Cooperation between Tehran and Pyongyang in the non-conventional realms, including the nuclear sphere, has been tracked for years. It would make perfect strategic sense for Iran to try to outsource some of its nuclear activities to North Korea, and it is not clear how closely this issue is being monitored. Pyongyang’s work on intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) is also of great concern. Any information would have to rely on state intelligence as North Korea abandoned the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT ) in 2003.
Iran’s past military work. The entire case for confronting Tehran’s nuclear ambitions hinges on its persistent violation of the NPT—both the safeguard agreements with the IAEA when it failed to notify the agency about nuclear facilities under construction at Natanz, Arak and later Fordow, and, more significantly, its work on a military nuclear program. But the negotiations curiously did not include clarification of lingering questions about the “possible military dimensions” (PMD) of Iran’s program; in fact, the P5+1 instructed the IAEA investigation in this regard to be carried out in the months after the JCPOA was announced.In early December 2015, despite Tehran’s continued lack of cooperation, the IAEA published the results of its investigation confirming that the Iranians had worked on a military program until 2003 and, in a less coordinated manner, until at least 2009. But in response, the P5+1 shelved the report and moved to implementation day.These states never pushed back against Tehran’s claim of “nuclear innocence” (i.e., that it has never worked on a military nuclear program), which it maintains to date. Continued international acquiescence in this blatant falsehood gave rise to suspicions that this could have been pre-agreed to with Tehran, possibly even in the context of the secret U.S.-Iranian negotiations in Oman in 2013 though there is no hard evidence of such an understanding.What is clear, however, is that Tehran’s narrative of innocence is anything but innocent; rather it has been a commonly used Iranian ploy to reinforce its claim to have been unjustly singled out for “illegal” sanctions and to demand that it be treated as a “normal” member of the NPT, including the right to confidentiality in its dealings with the IAEA.
Dealing with a future violation. The JCPOA lacks decision-making guidance for dealing with Iranian violations beyond mention of the so-called “snapback sanctions.” What kind of violations would be significant enough to elicit such a response, and what are the criteria for their determination? Who must agree and in what time frame? What should be done, and who will do it? These are all questions that will take time to answer and agree upon; failing to address them in advance risks granting Iran valuable time to race to breakout.On the snapback sanctions, to state the obvious, they do not snap back on their own but rather are reinstated by states, which must decide which sanctions will be reinstated and under which conditions. All these issues require further deliberation and decisions, and there is no indication that they have been tackled.
Sunset provisions. Perhaps the most problematic aspect of the JCPOA are the sunset provisions, whereby restrictions on Iran will be lifted in 10 to 15 years regardless of Tehran’s behavior or demonstrated regional and nuclear ambitions and interests. Without indication of a strategic U-turn in its nuclear outlook, there is no reason to assume that in 10 to 15 years Tehran will not go back to doing precisely what it was doing before the deal was reached.Moreover, it will be doing so from a far more advantageous starting point after having built up an industrial-sized enrichment program. It is important to note that the counterargument whereby many arms control agreements, such as those between the United States and Russia, have termination dates is irrelevant to the JCPOA for the simple reason that it is not a political arrangement between two nuclear powers but rather an agreement between an NPT violator, Iran, and the international community aimed at bringing it back to the fold of the treaty.Until the violator indicates that it has altered its nuclear ambitions, there is no justification for sunset. The sunset provision is another instance which highlights why Tehran insists on its narrative of nuclear innocence: It helped justify the Iranian demand for an unconditional expiration date. If Tehran’s proven past record of violating the NPT had been at the forefront of the debate, it would have been obvious why the JCPOA could not reasonably be terminated without the Iranians meeting certain benchmarks.
Obama’s View on Nuclear Disarmament and Iran
From the start, and flowing from Obama’s nuclear disarmament agenda, the rationale and strategy for dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions were ill-conceived. To begin, Obama believed that the great powers must come with “clean hands” when confronting Tehran, thus linking the goal of stopping determined proliferators to global disarmament.
But this link is misguided, not least because Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons was a blatant violation of the NPT whereas the treaty sets no deadline for nuclear states’ disarmament. Moreover, Tehran was pursuing its own nuclear goals, and these were not at all connected to whether the nuclear powers were disarming or not.
But Obama’s belief that Washington was on shaky moral ground vis-à-vis Tehran at least partially explains his overly lenient attitude on some key issues, such as conceding to Iran’s demand not to include ballistic missiles in the nuclear negotiations and insisting on not publicly “shaming” Tehran by emphasizing its deceitful past behavior in the nuclear realm.
Nor was the close connection between Tehran’s nuclear aspirations and its regional ambitions well-integrated into Obama’s thinking and policy. And while there were good reasons for not attempting a “grand bargain” with Iran encompassing a wide range of issues, which would have undoubtedly complicated and prolonged the negotiations, it was a mistake to think that the nuclear issue could be neatly separated from other aspects of Iranian behavior.
Ironically, Obama implicitly validated this linkage by implying that the nuclear deal could lead to a more moderate Iran and improved bilateral relations. What he refused to accept, however, is the flip side. Namely, that absent such a change, the intimate connection between Tehran’s military nuclear ambitions and its overall hegemonic aspirations could not be ignored and should have led Washington to resist firmly any sunset provisions before a strategic U-turn could be discerned.
Otherwise, the most that could be achieved—in the best-case scenario—is a delay in Iran’s plans after which it could pick up where it left off.
He appeared unwilling to give up this goal, which brought together the twin aims of rolling back nuclear capabilities and befriending a major enemy of the United States. Some have suggested an even more far-reaching strategic aim that guided Obama’s dealings with Tehran from the start: the desire to fundamentally restructure U.S. relations with the Middle East in a manner that would place Iran, rather than traditional U.S. allies, at the core of the new regional architecture.
In the early stages of the negotiations, Obama had frequently reiterated the maxim that “no deal is better than a bad deal” in an attempt to reassure skeptics that he would not accept an unsatisfactory arrangement. Although he resisted defining what would constitute a bad deal, it was believed that he was adamant about not being out-maneuvered by Tehran.
But as he began to demonstrate an increasingly firm commitment to achieving a negotiated agreement, it seemed that this slogan was being replaced by another, whereby “almost any deal would be better than no deal.” This was about the same time that the administration began stressing to the American public that the only alternative to the emerging deal—which clearly failed to fulfill the original nonproliferation goals set by the ad-ministration itself—was war.
In fact, what many, if not most of the critics were advocating—in the months leading up to the deal—was not to end negotiations and resort to other means but rather to use the economic leverage more wisely in order to get a better deal at the negotiating table. Washington would have done well to call Tehran’s bluff when it threatened to leave the talks because the Iranians would not have left for long.
Indeed, the only way to get sanctions lifted—which is what brought Tehran to the negotiating table in the first place—was to continue negotiating. Moreover, Washington’s demonstrated eagerness for a deal was clearly undermining its leverage. Had more sophisticated bargaining techniques been employed, a better deal could most likely have been achieved. But by turning critics into despicable hawks itching for a war, the message was that their advice should be ignored altogether.
When the JCPOA was announced, it was clear that the reports had been accurate. But the minute the JCPOA was announced, critics were told that their criticism had been rendered irrelevant because it was a done deal. This manipulative messaging policy obviously left no room for voicing legitimate and potentially useful critique of the negotiations and the nascent deal—it was either too early or too late.
In selling the deal to the American public, the administration pushed additional political positions as statements of fact. A good example is the claim that there was no risk in giving the deal a chance since even if Tehran were to violate it, or to wait it out, Washington would always have the same options (i.e., military force) that it had had when negotiations began.
But this is not necessarily true, and the statement reflects a poor understanding of international politics where options and opportunities can easily change over time. Even today, one can see how Russia’s increased and active role in the Middle East, cooperating closely with Iran in the military campaign in Syria, can greatly complicate the calculus of a military strike against Tehran down the line, as compared to previous years. In future years, such a strike could risk escalation not only with Iran, but with Russia as well.
Lawmakers such as Sen. Robert Menendez (Dem., N.J.)—a long-time, outspoken critic of the negotiations and deal—were directly derided by the administration for their critique. The echo chamber tactics were particularly intense during the summer 2015 congressional debate on the JCPOA, which together with the special voting procedure set by the administration, resulted in the deal not being toppled by Congress.
Israel’s objection to the deal—voiced loudly and clearly by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu—presented a particular challenge for Obama, resulting in great effort to frame the prime minister as the odd man out on the issue. He was depicted as an unwavering rejectionist to any deal with Iran and as out of step with the international community.
When Netanyahu persisted in his criticism, culminating in his controversial speech to Congress in March 2015, his relations with Obama almost reached a boiling point, and all bets were off as far as the administration was concerned. One new tactic was to delve into the internal Israeli scene and to frame Netanyahu not only as the odd man out vis-à-vis the world but also with Israel’s defense establishment, which the Obama administration claimed actually supported the deal.
In contrast to Netanyahu’s speech—which was politically problematic and which many considered unwise but accurate in its content—the administration’s claim was spurious and unfounded. The actual range of opinion voiced in Israel was much more varied and nuanced, necessitating more sophisticated analysis, but it never amounted to “Netanyahu vs. the defense/security establishment” regarding assessments of the negotiations, and certainly not with regard to the merits of the deal itself.
The First Year of Implementation
As misconceived and problematic as the JCPOA is, developments in the first year of its implementation have rendered the situation even worse. This is reflected in a string of revelations about additional concessions made to Tehran as well as the particular manner in which U.S.-Iranian interactions have unfolded over this period.
Deception and distortion revealed. Part of Obama’s legacy regarding the Iran nuclear deal is no doubt the deception and distortion, revealed in 2016, which the administration employed about certain aspects of the JCPOA and related events. Two issues in particular deserve mention: Tehran’s enrichment plans from the eleventh year of the deal, and the $1.7 billion paid to it, ostensibly to settle a pre-Islamic Revolution debt from the days of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
Information with regard to Iran’s enrichment plans for year 11 was first published by Associated Press (AP) in July 2016, which revealed that Tehran plans to install and begin operating 2,500-3,500 advanced generation centrifuges that will be many times more efficient than the IR-1 centrifuges currently in use.
Worse, this lack of transparency was thereafter explained by the common practice among NPT member states to conclude confidential arrangements with the IAEA, ignoring the fact that as an NPT violator, there was no justification for granting Iran privileges enjoyed by NPT members in good standing.
Moreover, the AP revelation was a reminder of an interview granted by Obama to NPR in April 2015, in which, when referring to the emerging deal, he noted that “a more relevant fear [than hoarding uranium] would be that in year 13, 14, 15, [Iran has] advanced centrifuges that enrich uranium fairly rapidly, and at that point the breakout times would have shrunk almost down to zero.”
This statement sparked immediate attention because it confirmed the fears that critics had been voicing about Tehran’s ability in the not too distant future to rush quickly to develop a nuclear bomb.
But in a press conference, then-acting spokesperson for the State Department, Marie Harf, flatly denied the implication, claiming instead that Obama was referring to the scenario of no deal. However, the president’s interview had been filmed, and it was obvious that he alluded to the scenario of a deal.
The information on Iran’s enrichment plans that was finally revealed in July 2016 is clearly the basis for Obama’s earlier statement and assessment, underlining the secrecy, deception and distortion that characterized this episode.
The money transfer episode of January 2016 offered a similarly disturbing illustration of the administration’s deceptive conduct. The original story was that the JCPOA’s implementation day was followed by two parallel and unrelated events: the release of four (but not all) American prisoners held in Iran on bogus charges and the return of money paid by the shah for an arms deal that was aborted after the Islamic Revolution.
No pushback against Iran’s provocations.Since the JCPOA was adopted, Tehran has been testing the international community’s readiness to respond to provocations. Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has been clear about rejecting any form of cooperation with the United States, and during 2016, Washington was repeatedly (and falsely) accused of not upholding its end of the deal.
Other Iranian provocations included testing precision-guided ballistic missiles capable of carrying a nuclear payload in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions and stepping up military intervention in Syria—in cooperation with Russia—with the aim of keeping Bashar al-Assad in power.
All indications are that rather than the nuclear deal promoting Iranian moderation and opening the door to new opportunities for cooperation, Washington and Tehran are still engaged in a fierce struggle, at least as far as the Iranians are concerned.
Specifically on the nuclear file, Iran’s compliance has not been stellar, and while the violations have thus far been relatively minor, the Obama administration has not rebuked Tehran and has rather adamantly defended its supposed compliance with the JCPOA, citing IAEA reports on Iran at every turn. But, following the November 2016 IAEA report, David Albright, a leading nuclear proliferation expert and head of the Institute for Science and International Security, noted that for the second time, Tehran had exceeded the limit of heavy water production and was conducting activities related to IR-6 advanced centrifuges, which may not be allowed by the JCPOA.
Since then, it has been reported that Iran is also set to begin injecting gas into IR-8 centrifuges, meaning they are beginning to test them, on the way to making them operational.
These Iranian actions have been matched by Washington’s lack of response. Indeed, in every instance, the administration rushed to provide reassurances that whatever transpired was of no real consequence and that there was no reason for concern.
This whitewashing even extended to German intelligence released in 2016 indicating that, throughout 2015, Tehran had continued attempts to illicitly procure technologies and components that could be used in a nuclear weapons program. The administration’s thinking in all of these cases seemed to have been that it could not risk upsetting Tehran in any way because this might cause the Iranians to abort the deal.
But Iran most likely would not have left the JCPOA since the deal is not unfavorable from its point of view. The result of Obama’s bending over backward has been a dangerous shift in the balance of deterrence between the two states in Tehran’s favor, leaving the Trump administration with the daunting task of regaining the upper hand in dealing with Iran and reassuming lost leadership, authority and power.
In fact, while negotiating the deal, the U.S. president was already helping to transform the Islamic Republic, with its extremist, hegemonic agenda, into the region’s preeminent power at the expense of traditional U.S. allies.
For example, despite Obama’s pretense to be focused exclusively on the nuclear issue by way of securing the JCPOA, Jay Solomon of The Wall Street Journal argues that the president resisted upholding the redline he had set with regard to Assad’s use of chemical weapons due to a warning issued by Tehran: If the U.S. resorted to military force in Syria, it could scuttle the nuclear negotiations.
Sadly, the American public remained largely oblivious to these blunders as the administration’s echo chamber strategy proved extremely effective with most pundits—except a few very notable exceptions—expressing unmitigated support for the JCPOA in line with administration talking points and positions.
The arms control and nonproliferation community, which should have been at the forefront of the debate, pointing out all the deal’s weaknesses and potential pitfalls, was in the main uncritically lured by the administration’s propaganda.
On a broader level, Obama’s heavy-handed delegitimization of any and all criticism and his aggressive pushing of the deal in Congress have left domestic political scars, including among Democrats, that add to the president’s dismal Iranian legacy.
The challenge for the Trump administration is to try to reverse some of these negative trends. In making the best of a bad situation, the preferred route at this point—after Tehran has already pocketed billions of dollars—would be neither to renounce the deal nor try to renegotiate it but, rather, to enforce it strictly as well as strengthen its provisions.
Much can be achieved by reversing the Obama administration’s approach to Iran—recognizing Tehran’s overt hostility to U.S. interests and responding with firm determination to its provocations beyond the direct context of the JCPOA.
These, however, are but general guidelines for future U.S. policy on this issue. After the damage wrought by the Obama administration, the road ahead will be strewn with difficulties, and there are no shortcuts or magic solutions for redressing the situation.
Emily B. Landau is a senior research fellow at The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv and head of its arms control and regional security program.
The deal, struck between Iran and a group of world powers, was supposed to curtail the country’s nuclear program. This has not happened.
Trask said that instead of investing in its conventional forces, Iran is building up its special operators that lead, manage and control proxy forces.
He said: “If anything, increased defense dollars in Iran are likely to go toward increasing that network, looking for ways to expand it. We’ve already seen evidence of them taking units and officers out of the conventional side that are working with the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) in Syria. We’re going to stay focused on these proxies and the reach that Iran has well past Syria and Yemen but into Africa, into South America, into Europe as well.”
James Mattis, the US Defense Secretary, said during a visit to Saudi Arabia that Iran is involved, in one way or another, in all the conflicts in the Middle East. He said: “We’ll have to overcome Iran’s efforts to destabilize yet another country and create another militia in their image of Lebanese Hezbollah.”
In his first press conference on May 22, days after after being declared the winner of Iran’s election, President Hassan Rouhani refused to commit to ending the more than six-year extrajudicialhouse arrests of three opposition leaders—a pledge he made during his first presidential campaign.
Asked what he would do to free opposition leaders Mehdi Karroubi, Mir Hosseini Mousavi and Zahra Rahnavard, who have been detained for more than six years for leading the peaceful, mass protests against the disputed result of the 2009 presidential election, Rouhani suggested that a solution depended on cooperation from other branches of state.
“The country is ruled by laws and we should all submit to them,” he said on May 22. “The executive, legislative and judicial branches have their own responsibilities. We are moving forward on the basis of the Constitution.”
“I am responsible for the rights of every citizen, even Iranians living abroad,” added Rouhani. “Wherever I see the rights of Iranians being violated, I will take action within my powers. In cases related to the judiciary, I will respond by direct communication or in joint meetings. The next government plans to implement the Charter on Citizens’ Rights. In this respect, the rights of all people are important to me.”
Rouhani made no reference to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, whose adamant opposition to freeing the three has kept them detained in legal limbo.
At a presidential campaign rally at Sharif University in Tehran on May 13, 2013, Rouhani said he hoped he could free the three within the first year of his presidency: “We can provide conditions such that over the next year, individuals who were imprisoned or put under house arrest for the 2009 events are released.”
Chants for freedom for Mousavi and Karroubi were a fixture amongst Rouhani supporters throughout the election campaign, and celebrations of his victory.
Amid Rouhani’s virtual silence on the issue during his first term, other politicians raised it a number of times, including conservative Deputy Parliament Speaker Ali Motahari, who has repeatedly spoken of the need for a solution.
In an interview on May 8, 2017, Motahari repeated his suggestion that the issue could be resolved through negotiation.
“Some steps have been taken towards resolving the house arrests and we have to listen to the reasoning by the opposing side,” he said. “We have to move towards improving the conditions in the country and prevent issues before they turn into a crisis.”
Motahari has previously explained that Khamenei is the driving factor behind the continuing house arrests.
“One of the obstacles against their freedom has been the insistence by some officials that if they do not apologize and repent, it will damage the state and the supreme leader,” said Motahari. “It isn’t wrong to have an opinion about the 2009 incidents different than those of people in power…keeping [Mousavi, Rahnavard and Karroubi] under house arrest for six years is neither compatible with the law nor with religious teachings.”
At the May 22 press conference, the newly reelected president was also asked about his policies on protecting the rights of the artistic community, particularly those in the music and film industries.
“One of the outcomes of this year’s elections was that everyone was at peace with music,” responded Rouhani. “However, we are not too fond of cheap music. Some say that’s fine as well, but in any case, I am certain our new government will give more support to the cultural community.”
“The situation did improve for music and cinema in our previous four years, but we will make greater efforts in the next four,” he added.
Since 2013, when Rouhani was voted into office promising a more open society, numerous state-sanctioned musicians, including popular artists Alireza Ghorbani and Sirvan Khosravi, saw their concerts canceled at the last moment.
Religious conservatives have justified their attacks on musicians by quoting vague statements and decrees by senior religious leaders. Khamenei has himself often warned about the alleged dangers of music, saying it will “lead people away from the path of God.”
Rouhani also said his government would adopt proposals based on educational guidelines provided by the UN 2030 Agenda—vehemently opposed by conservatives—that do not violate Islamic principles.
“The ministers of foreign affairs, science and education wrote to the supreme leader explaining to His Excellency at length that the Islamic Republic of Iran has reserved the right to ignore parts of agenda 2030 that do not conform with our culture and national values,” Rouhani said.
On the issue of women in the workforce, Rouhani said his government would do more to increase women’s employment prospects.
“It’s wrong to think that men have a higher status or that they are more capable than women,” he said.
At the same time, Rouhani echoed Khamenei’s sexist views by claiming certain jobs are more suitable for men than women: “Of course men are better at some professions and women are better at others. (God) has given both their own special qualities.”
“But women are not lower than men and keeping them inside the house does not make sense from social or legal standpoints,” he added.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said that it is not important who will become president after Iran’s presidential election on Friday. He believed it was only important that Wilayat al-Faqih system should win by raising the level of voter participation in the ballot.
“The Iranian leader criticized the attack of candidates on each other during the debates and how they exposed corruption files, considering that, “some of the things that were said are not appropriate to the Iranian people,” stressing that, “everyone has to observe the law and be disciplined in the electoral process.”
Khamenei warned of unrest during the election, saying, “It is likely that someone will try to violate the law, but we trust in the capacity of our security system. We have to be careful, for the Iranian people have so many enemies.”
The Iranian leader often saw the elections as a renewal of allegiance by the people to Wilayat al-Faqih, even though there is no candidate who comes from the popular groups, that is, outside the system of the regime and its political groups.
In spite of this atmosphere, many officials of the Iranian regime fear the recurrence of the events of 2009, when millions of people protested, initially against what was said to be a falsification of the results of the Iranian elections, but soon turned into a popular uprising against the entire regime. The uprising was brutally suppressed by the Revolutionary Guard, the Basij, and the security and intelligence services.
My first active experience with Twitter was in 2009. I logged on to the site to find out how to engage with it, and my first search was “Iran’s election.” I had heard about young men and women demonstrating vigorously against the ruling regime. I was impressed by the name of the Green Revolution that erupted against the results of the presidential elections in favor of then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Twitter was a place of expression, mobilization and debate, and conveyed what was happening in Iran to the outside world. We saw slogans of “Death to the dictator,” and followed how young men and women were beaten. How can we forget the photo of the young protester Nada, who lay dying in the street after being shot by police, and who became a symbol of the Green Movement? Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali
Khamenei did not forget the 2009 experience, in which Twitter was a sensitive mediator. Under Ahmadinejad’s second problematic presidency, the Internet was controlled to isolate Iranians from themselves and from the world. We are days away from Iranian presidential elections, the second since 2009. The mullahs have done everything in their power in recent years to avoid a new Green Revolution, namely via extensive control over the Internet and a lot of public activity.
The mullahs have done everything in their power in recent years to avoid a new Green Revolution, namely via extensive control over the Internet and a lot of public activity.
Iran’s social networking sites have evolved into an election tool. They were an important factor in Hassan Rouhani’s presidential victory in 2013, as his opponents failed to properly utilize them. Iranians are now active in the elections via the unbanned sites Instagram and Telegram. Whereas the state-run radio and television broadcaster IRIB is biased toward certain candidates, Rouhani’s supporters have turned to these sites to strike a balance. Since the 1979 revolution, all Iranian presidents have managed to get a second term. But the situation seems complicated this year, with strong conservative candidates against Rouhani, namely cleric Ibrahim Rabi who is close to Khamenei, and Mohammed Baqer Qalibaf.
Four years ago, Rouhani said he would work to lift the Internet ban, and Iranians had the right to easily obtain information from around the world. But he cannot make this decision alone; it is up to Khamenei. It may be said, and rightfully, that Khamenei’s ability to control the internal situation and prevent protests is strong, but there are those who are minimizing the extent of popular resentment amid the resurgence of many figures who were active in the 2009 Green Movement.
• Diana Moukalled is a veteran journalist with extensive experience in both traditional and new media. She is also a columnist and freelance documentary producer. She can be reached on Twitter @dianamoukalled.
During the early 1990s, the Israeli secret service reportedly obtained Iranian government documents, stating that Iran had acquired several nuclear warheads from the former Soviet Union. The documents were authenticated by experts in the US, all of which were said to be correspondence between officials in the Iranian government and leading commanders of the IRGC, verifying that the missiles had been successfully acquired. Although these weapons were no longer operational due to age, they were still useful to nuclear scientists as a blueprint for a future weapon.
It is now believed that during the 1980s, when Iranian boffins were struggling to master nuclear technology, Iran obtained the know-how to overcome its problems in the more difficult aspects of nuclear technology, and from then on, the two countries shared future technological advances.
So adding that to the fact that a number of its near neighbors are armed with nuclear weapons, including its arch enemy Israel, it made perfect sense to the regime’s hawks to arm Iran in a similar manner.
It was in 1985, Iran began its gas-enrichment program, and when this was discovered many years later, the regime went on the defensive, claiming that its nuclear program was solely for it wanting to become self-sufficient in its energy needs, and for the purpose of medical isotopes.
When questioned as to why it had kept its nuclear program a secret, the leadership claimed it was under no obligation to declare it under the terms of the IAEA safeguards agreement. The agreement stated that it only had to inform the IAEA of the existence of its facilities, six months before any nuclear material was actually being produced and so as far as the Iranian administration was concerned any infringements were minor.
During the time of its secret nuclear sites being discovered, when questioned about its refusal to answer many crucial questions on its program, the regime claimed it hadn’t spoken out due to it being an intrusion of its rights. This was in addition to the fact that it didn’t want commercial secrets being leaked to its opponents, and also the fact that it wanted to safeguard the security of the sites in question.
Then when it came to the need for such a program, the regime’s claims for it to be solely for self-sufficiency in its energy needs, and medical purposes just didn’t hold up under scrutiny. Even with the Bushehr reactor up and running, which it wasn’t at the time, it would only result in the production of 3 percent of Iran’s electricity needs, and that the rest of the facilities that were in action or in the pipeline, was not feasible for civilian use.
So much about Iran’s nuclear program just didn’t add up even with the fact that there was no evidence at the time that it was operating a reprocessing program meant little. The regime had been known to be seeking to acquire hot-cell heavy manipulators and lead glass shielding windows from a foreign state, which would be required should it be wanting to embark on such a program.
Suspicions arose as to why the regime would want to acquire such components, which it claimed was for the use of producing medical isotopes. However, after studying specifications for the project, which the IAEA had acquired from a foreign state, it showed that the hot cells being fitted out had walls of 1.4 metres in thickness, which were more suited to the handling of spent fuel, rather than for the purpose of radioisotope production, and pointed towards a military use rather than a medical one.
An unidentified IAEA inspector cuts the connections between the twin cascades for 20 percent uranium enrichment at the Natanz facility, some 322 kilometers south of Tehran on Jan. 20, 2014. (AP)
With suspicions beginning to be raised even further that Iran was at work developing nuclear weapons, this further heightened when it was discovered that the regime was mining uranium at Saghand as well as operating a yellow cake production plant in the vicinity of Ardakan, and with a pilot uranium enrichment plant up and running in Natanz, it was also operating a commercial scale enrichment facility close by.
To produce nuclear weapons, enriched uranium is essential, and it takes a full-blown nuclear program to produce it. Uranium ore is a natural element much like iron, often taken from the ground in open cast mining; but it needs to be processed to extract pure uranium from the base material.
Centrifuges are essential in processing of uranium. They are cylindrical tubes that whirl at great speed, separating out or purifying the desired uranium isotopes. Iran’s Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant was designed to hold around 3,000 centrifuges, producing in the region of 19.75 percent enriched uranium, which Iran claimed is part of the process to produce medical isotopes.
Where nuclear weapons are concerned, their design requires the use of weapons grade uranium to make them functional, and it takes 90 percent enrichment of uranium to take it to weapons grade, which would take only a matter of weeks to produce in Iran’s new and advanced centrifuges.
Doubling down on centrifuges
Back in August 2012, Iran was known to have doubled the number of centrifuges at its Fordow plant in just three months, increasing the number to 2,000. Until the time of the Iran Deal, the number had increased to 2,800, with Fordow running at full capacity.
During that period of time, Iran had increased its supply of a more purified form of enriched uranium, which was much easier to convert into weapon’s grade fissile material. But at this present time, with the regime now mass producing much more efficient centrifuges, with more than 10,000 installed at the Natanz facility alone, they had enough low-enriched uranium to produce at least six nuclear weapons.
Before the Iran Deal, with Iran having built at least five secret facilities, where work was believed to have been carried out on the development of nuclear weapons, it can only be said that the Iran deal has put this work on hold, as most of Iran’s nuclear program is still continuing in a limited capacity. Should the deal eventually collapse, it would only take Iran a matter of months to reinstate its nuclear activity, and the road to a bomb would be fast coming.
So with these nuclear sites carved into the side of mountains, with the regime protecting them with state of the art air defences throughout the country, it leaves them virtually immune to airstrikes. This made it difficult to completely halt Iran’s nuclear program through a bombing campaign would be near impossible, due to the regime’s instalment of the Russian S-300 long-range air defence system.
So adding this to the fact that Iran has already developed its own long-range air defense system, named the Bavar-373 (Bavar meaning “Belief) – and has claimed it is far superior to the Russian S-300, it also gives it the ability to operate both on and off roads. And with the system using Sayyed-3 missiles, which have been successfully tested, it utilizes target acquisition radar, target engagement radar, and phased array radar to direct the primary functions of the system. The system can strike mid-altitude targets with great accuracy, is able to down bombers as well as various other combat aircraft including drones and cruise missiles.
But as far as the Iran deal is concerned, the Iranian regime is in a win-win situation, because as far as an armed confrontation is concerned, it is fast heading toward becoming untouchable. So the only way to bring an end to its nuclear program, other than through a one-sided deal that only benefits its clerical leadership, would be through sanctions or hostilities.
But whatever option is chosen, a regime change would be needed at the end of it, in order to deter Iran from the nuclear path in the future, and at the moment, this seems to be a long way off.
Last Update: Thursday, 4 May 2017 KSA 08:28 – GMT 05:28