Amid reports that President Trump may announce decertification of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) this week, speakers discuss the successes and failures of the JCPOA to date, the Trump Administration’s renegotiation strategy, and what the future of U.S.-Iran relations may look like in the absence of such an agreement.
ROBBINS: Welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations conference call on “Decertifying the Iran Nuclear Deal” with Phil Gordon and Ray Takeyh.
Just a reminder: This conference call is on the record.
You all know our speakers, but just a very brief reminder of their many accomplishments. Phil Gordon is the Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy at the Council. In his most recent government service in the Obama administration, he was special assistant to the president and White House coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf region, and assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs. Phil has a Ph.D. in international relations and international economics from Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, which we know as SAIS.
Ray Takeyh is the Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council. His specializations are Iran, political reform in the Middle East, and Islamist movements and parties. Prior to joining CFR, he was the senior adviser on Iran at the Department of State. He has also been a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Ray has a doctorate in modern history from Oxford.
Both publish extensively, and you can read their full bios on the CFR website.
So, Ray, let’s start with you. President Trump has called the Iran deal disastrous and the worst deal ever. And he said during the campaign that his number one priority was to dismantle it. And what we are hearing is that he is ready to decertify it, likely tomorrow.
Can you give us your assessment of the deal two years and about three months on? Is it doing what it was supposed to do—constrain Iran’s nuclear effort? Is it a success, a failure? Is it the worst deal ever?
TAKEYH: Is this question toward me or Phil?
ROBBINS: For Ray.
TAKEYH: Oh, OK. That’s me.
Well, I think the president has been quite critical of the agreement throughout his campaign and thereafter. And his previous certifications was said to be with some measure of reluctance.
If you’re kind of looking at JCPOA as an agreement, I don’t think the issue of compliance is that big of an issue as far as I’m concerned, because I never thought that Iranians would be violating the agreement in a systematic way. Now, at the time when this agreement was submitted to the Iranian parliament, on the record Foreign Minister Zarif talked about incremental violations are unlikely to be prosecuted, while material breach is something they should avoid.
There has been some technical irregularities in terms of various heavy-water portions and so on. But I don’t think it’s the question of compliance that’s at stake here. The JCPOA does have very significant flaws. They have been debated—sunset clause, granting indigenous enrichment capability that’s likely to enlarge over time. And, in my opinion, one of the most serious flaws is a very permissive R&D schedule as the Iranians continue to complete work on advanced centrifuges. That’s not happening 10 years from now. That’s happening today.
So what the president is going to try to do is adjust some of these deficiencies. Whether he can or not is, of course, another matter. But I think that’s essentially what he’s trying to do. So two years on, it just means two years are off the very problematic sunset provisions of the agreement. And that’s the challenge that the administration and Congress and the allies face.
ROBBINS: Phil, worst deal ever? Success in what it was supposed to do? Or should we not be talking about the deal itself but trying to renegotiate it?
GORDON: No, I think we should be talking about the deal, Carla. And obviously I have a very different view from President Trump. I actually think the deal is doing exactly what it was supposed to do and what proponents said it would do, and that it remains in the U.S. interest.
What it does is set back Iran’s capacity to potentially develop a nuclear weapon and freeze it in place. And it’s doing that. And I think the really important point is to sort of put that in the context of where Iran was when the deal was struck. After developing its nuclear program, you know, essentially for decades, by 2012-2013, when the United States really started talking to Iran about this deal, it was basically in a place where it was on the verge of that nuclear-weapons capability.
It had more than 20,000 centrifuges installed and spinning and enriching uranium. It had enriched some uranium to 20 percent, which is an important step on the way to weapons-grade. It had a heavy-water reactor that was set to be complete in 2014 that would produce enough plutonium for one or two bombs per year. It had a stockpile of low-enriched uranium from the enrichment of around 10 tons and increasing in size. It was doing more and more research and development on more advanced centrifuges, all without much inspection by the international community.
So that’s the situation that the JCPOA was designed to deal with. And what it did was stop all of those paths in place or reverse them. It had Iran ship out the 20 percent uranium. It had it completely dismantle the heavy water reactor that would have produced the plutonium. It got the centrifuges down from over 20,000 to 6,000. It got rid of that stockpile of 10 tons of low-enriched uranium. And it provided for much more significant inspection. So I think when you weigh where we are now to where we are two years ago when the deal was signed, it’s hard for me to see how you can make a case that we were in a better place then, than we are now.
ROBBINS: But as Ray made the point and as the president makes the point that even if Iran may not be cheating, time is ticking away, and Iran’s doing a lot of other bad things in the region, it’s supporting Bashar al-Assad, it’s gotten a lot of money unfrozen because of this deal, it’s developing ballistic missiles, what’s wrong with the idea of trying to go in, open it up and trying to renegotiate to perhaps bring in questions like missile development, improving its behavior in the region, cutting off its support for terrorist groups, perhaps pressuring it not to support Bashar al-Assad given what he’s doing in Syria? That’s my question.
GORDON: So Iran is doing a lot of bad things. Sorry, is that for me, Carla?
ROBBINS: That is indeed for you.
GORDON: Yeah, so Iran is doing a lot of bad things in the region that the United States needs to try to deal with. But the answer to your question what’s wrong with trying to put that all in a deal is simply that it wouldn’t work. Iran was doing a lot of bad things, by the way—in fact, all of them—before the deal as well, so you can’t really attribute any of them to the existence of the deal. And obviously it would be wonderful for the United States if we could have then or could now simply say, you know, not only do you have to reverse all of these things you were doing on the nuclear issue—which was the issue on which we got the support of the international community that led to the sanctions that brought it under the table—not only do you have to stop doing that, but you have to do—stop doing everything that we are concerned about as well. That would be a terrific outcome. I just don’t know of any reason to believe that we would be successful in doing that. And the result of that, therefore—and I think this is what’s relevant to policy today, because, you know, what’s past is past—what we might have or could have or should have done then—to right now say let’s tear this agreement up, let’s renegotiate it, we’ll get Iran to come back to the table, and this time we’ll get them to accept the indefinite constraints on their nuclear program, stopping their ballistic missile program, not have them meddle in the region—it just seems to me to have almost zero chance of success. Every other country in the world, including the Security Council and all of our key partners who put the sanctions on Iran—think the deal is working and wouldn’t come on board for that strategy. And so I fear if we—if we choose that strategy, which does seem to be one of the president’s options, to insist on a renegotiation, we will fail, and then we will find ourselves dealing with all of those challenges from Iran, plus the redevelopment of its nuclear program without a good answer to that.
ROBBINS: Ray, do you—what do you think Iran will do if the president indeed decertifies tomorrow?
TAKEYH: Well, I think several things. Most disturbingly, from administration’s perspective, is that they’re likely to get what they want: end up in negotiations with the Iranians. First of all, I think they’ll sit to see what decertification means. I mean, Javad Zarif has been going around and saying to anyone who cares to listen—which is everybody—that decertification is—
ROBBINS: The foreign minister.
TAKEYH: —yeah, that’s right—that it’s a simple American procedure that has no bearing or import. If he’s right, then I guess that things go on as is. If they are likely to generate some sort of a coercive momentum behind decertification through whatever measures are announced or whatever measures are enacted by Congress in conjunction with the president, then I think Rouhani’s—(inaudible)—playbook of 2003 is likely to be reenacted; namely, when you face an unpredictable, hawkish American administration, you trap them into prolonged and inconclusive negotiations. That was done between 2003 to 2005. Those negotiations were more directly with EU-3. So I suspect if they see some sort of a coercive momentum being built, they’re likely to propose negotiations. You have your grievances, we have our grievances, let’s come to the table—and not to get an agreement, but the Iranians have always been confident that should they trap the Westerners into protracted negotiations soon enough, they’ll be distracted by another shiny objects and the whole thing goes away.
Between 2003 and 2005, there were a number of agreements, actually: the Saadabad Agreement of 2003 and the Paris Agreement of 2004. These negotiations, if they happen, they will happen sporadically and episodically, are not necessarily bad for all the parties involved. The Europeans have some grievances about JCPOA, particularly the French, and they’re likely to come to the table. Iranians have a long litany of grievances. They’ll come to the table. The negotiations are not necessarily bad for the Iranians. There is skepticism in that room toward the United States. The Iranians will have their own lawyer with them, Mogherini, the EU high representative. So, you know, you’ll have every couple of months people will meet in Geneva, Istanbul, or what have you. And the idea is, you know, that’s something that the administration should anticipate. There’s a lot of hysteria about war coming. They actually have to worry about how do they react to being entrapped into negotiations that can go on without producing a decisive result.
ROBBINS: So I’m a bit confused here. So you don’t like the agreement and—but you don’t want the resumption of negotiations. What would you counsel the White House to do?
TAKEYH: Well, I think if the—if you’re going to get into negotiations, because that’s the only way you can revise the agreement, but you have to figure out what your strategy is in these negotiations. What I would say is you enter these negotiations—which you have to because you want to revise the agreement; you can’t revise the agreement without renegotiating it—you say, OK, we have a strict timeline about how long we’re going to be in these negotiations, and the timeline is a year, or whatever, it cannot be just very truncated.
Second of all, you negotiate ideally with the Europeans ahead of time, say, look, if these negotiations prove inconclusive after a year despite good effort by all parties, you are committed to some sort of a sanctions policy and helping the United States open that front. So essentially you establish some sort of the conditions not as precursor to the negotiation, but should they prove indecisive.
And then you can actually see—and then your demands in these negotiations—given the fact that there’s so much concern about it—have to be modest and sensible. I don’t think you can bring issues of Iranian regional behavior into arms control negotiations. This has to be an arms-control negotiation. You have to have very sensible issues that everybody agrees with are problematic, such as the sunset clause, potentially missiles, and that’s pretty much it. You have to have very specific, sensible, prudent ideas regarding the agreement that you want to revise, that there is actually some sort of a consensus around it. Nobody thinks that it’s a good idea for Iran to begin to install IR-8 centrifuges in six years. Nobody thinks it’s a good idea for Iran to begin installing IR-6 centrifuges. So those are the things you focus on. But I don’t think you can include in these negotiations policy toward Bahrain, Syria, and others. They have to be adjudicated on a different level.
ROBBINS: So what’s your read of what President Trump wants out of this? Is this really just a limited renegotiation with his great negotiating “Art of the Deal” skills to get a better nuclear deal, or does he really want to bring in not just missiles but also regional misbehavior? I mean, you hear him talk about lots of other bad actions by Iran. One could argue that these things could be dealt with separately. But one—you know, they tend to talk about a truly comprehensive—at least when I hear the complaints, much more comprehensive action against Iran. What are you hearing?
GORDON: Well, first, I hope we can come back to negotiations, because I really think those—it’s unimaginable to see Iran come back to the table and give us everything we want in the way that some seem to be proposing. But on that specific thing, I think what the president seems to wants in the most immediate sense is to stop having to confirm every 90 days to Congress that he thinks this deal is in the interest of the United States. That’s clearly been bothering him. I mean, he said it was the worst deal ever. He said it was an embarrassment to the U.N. And so one can understand why it frustrates him to have to report to Congress that it’s in the national interest, and that I think explains decertification, because if what we understand is right, the plan is to decertify not on the basis, as Ray said—as Ray rightly said—that Iran is violating the deal, but there’s another provision in the statute that he has to confirm, certify that the deal remains in the vital national security interests of the United States. And that seems to be the basis on which he’s going to decertify. So that gets him off the hook.
But in terms, kind of, of your question about what he really wants, I think there’s something really interesting about that, the degree to which he really wants this deal to go away. And I think he may not, because if he really wanted the deal to go away, in other words if he really thought it wasn’t in the U.S. national security interests, he could get out of it tomorrow.
In addition to certifying to Congress that the deal is in the U.S. national security interests and Iran is complying, the president periodically has to waive the sanctions, the waiver of which is necessary to keep the deal alive. You know, the U.S. sanctions remain in place, including the secondary sanctions, but the president has a waiver authority which he exercises every 120 days. He’s done that twice already, as recently as last month. If he really wanted the deal to go away, he would simply not waive those sanctions and the deal would go away. Nobody is forcing him to abide by it.
So if you put that together, what he seems to want is to be able to continue to say it’s a terrible deal and get out of this obligation to certify, but not necessarily to see the deal collapse because he or at least those around him seem to realize the point that many of us have been making, which is that even if the deal, you know, is not perfect and we don’t get everything we want, without that deal we don’t have an answer to the question of how we stop Iran from doing all the things it was doing before. And that’s my point about this negotiation that you mentioned a minute ago.
I don’t think there will be a negotiation because Iran’s not going to come back to the table and give away what it refused to give away before when the rest of the world is satisfied with the deal. But even if there were—if we tore up the deal and somehow got talks started again, while those talks were going on, just like when the last talks were going on, Iran would resume its nuclear activities. And someone would need an answer to how to prevent that from leading to this nuclear capability in the meantime.
ROBBINS: What about the theory that it does go to Phil’s suggestion that he’s just frustrated with this, that he is betting, hoping, dreaming, wishing that the Congress and/or the Europeans are going to save him, that he gets the delight of being able to do this, he fulfills a campaign promise, the Congress drags its feet and doesn’t reimpose the secondary sanctions, which is really the only thing that really matters. I would be betting that the Iranians will endure the minimal reimposition of U.S. sanctions, and that the Europeans just go la, la, la, la, la, you know, we’re going to stick with the deal, you can isolate yourself, Donald Trump?
I mean, I’m going to throw that to both of you. Do you think that that’s—what’s the possibility that that scenario plays out?
TAKEYH: Sure. I think that’s one of the traps that the administration faces in the aftermath of decertification. And I think that’s a very dangerous thing. If the agreement is decertified, if the president of the United States says it’s no longer an agreement that’s in America’s national interests and nothing happens, then I think the deterrent capability of the United States is eroded, both congressional credibility and the executive branch credibility.
If this is sort of a “Seinfeld” decertification where nothing happens, then I think that’s a real problem for the administration. (Laughter.)
ROBBINS: With soup.
TAKEYH: They have to actually do something. And I understand the president’s speech tomorrow actually unveils a series of things that he’s going to do. Now, the president and the administration do face a series of deadlines. The previous Iran-Russia sanctions bill that passed the Senate 98-2 and by similar measure in the House actually designates the Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization. And by October 30th, the Treasury Department has to report I think to Congress how it’s planning to implement that law, both in terms of international trading partners or domestic ones. So that’s a deadline the president has, that’s the law of the land. It’s not a Trump executive order, it’s the law passed by Congress, signed by the president. Now, as I understand from fourth grade, that’s how the bill becomes a law.
So they have to implement the law. And that requires imposition of secondary sanctions and others for any firm that is interacting with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. And 40 percent of Iran’s economy is controlled by those guards. There has to be, you know, if you’re a bank in Europe and you’re dealing with an entity that is implicated in the Revolutionary Guards, there’s punitive measures to follow. So that’s the first deadline he faces that they have to deal with.
The second is the Boeing deal that’s coming at the beginning of the year. I don’t see how the president can say that the agreement is not in America’s national interests, but nevertheless there’s a provision of it that authorizes aviation sales should go on. So that’s the second thing he has to deal with.
You know, decertification has a lot of traps. And, you know, so, you know, presumably the president tomorrow in his speech will outline how he’s going to deal with all these measures and all these deadlines that are coming.
Moreover, decertification doesn’t mean that this agreement will not come back to the president’s desk. Every 90 days he has to decertify it, so it’s not going away in that sense. So if this was designed to make this agreement go away, in 90 days from now the president has to sign another decertification.
Now, I understand the White House is trying to negotiate with the Hill regarding amendments made to the Iran Nuclear Accountability Act that may actually stretch out the time of decertifications from 90 to 180 days. I don’t think Congress will yield that prerogative, so I don’t think that’s going to go anywhere.
They have some other amendments that they want to impose, the Review Act, maybe they’ll succeed in managing that.
ROBBINS: Phil, same question.
GORDON: Sure. I think, yeah, no, it’s a good question. I think your scenario, Carla, is actually the plan, the “Seinfeld” plan, which is to waive, but not necessarily blow up the deal. And again, I think that also in part because if the president really wanted to blow up the deal he could have done so on January 20th, he could have done so essentially any month in his presidency and certainly last month when he again waived the sanctions to keep the deal alive. So it looks like he doesn’t necessarily want to blow it up because he realizes that would isolate the United States and we wouldn’t have an answer to Iran’s resumption of nuclear activities.
And he can probably count on Congress, with a caveat I’ll get to, to go along. And we’ve heard some leading members of Congress, including Iran hawks like Senator Cotton, say he wouldn’t necessarily be reintroducing sanctions that would be noncompliant with the JCPA. That, you know, as you all know, we reserved the right during the Obama administration and since in the Trump administration to continue with and even impose new sanctions for activities that were not covered in the nuclear deal, terrorism, ballistic missiles, human rights, and have done so, did so under Obama, have done so under Trump. And there’s plenty of tough stuff that Congress could do that doesn’t blow up the deal.
And that’s why it is accurate to say this is sort of between the president and Congress. What the Europeans and the Iranians and the Russians are saying is decertification is not their issue. It only becomes their issue if we reimpose those nuclear sanctions that were repealed as part of the deal.
So there is a chance that this takes place in that sort of sweet spot. The president gets to decertify. And I take Ray’s point about re-decertifying, but I do think they want to get rid of that legislation and also that once you’ve decertified once at least he doesn’t have to do the opposite, which is certify that it’s in the national security interests, which goes directly against everything he has said since the deal was agreed. So that’s the sort of sweet spot and we all go about our business and he doesn’t certify, but the deal stays in place.
And by the way, I also, I think it’s worth mentioning, I don’t think the Iranians are eager to blow this up either. So they would not necessarily overreact to other congressional measures as long as they don’t reimpose the sanctions that were listed.
The problem, I think, is that, and I think Ray gave good reasons for this, you can’t assume that Congress isn’t going to reimpose those nuclear sanctions. Because what the legislation does is gives Congress the ability to pass such sanctions on an expedited, on a very expedited basis, which requires only 51 votes as opposed to 60. In other words, Republicans alone could do it.
No Republican voted for the JCPOA, so it’s going to be hard for Republican members of the Senate to avoid doing things inconsistent with an agreement that they didn’t support in the first place. And if somebody does propose to reinstall nuclear sanctions, it’s going to be hard to vote against it not least because, again, as Ray said, the president will have just said this is not in our interests, it’s a terrible deal.
And so to make the case—and that’ll be an odd thing to watch the White House. The White House doesn’t want to blow up the deal. How is it going to lobby Congress to avoid blowing up the deal when it just told Congress that it’s a terrible deal and not in the U.S. interest? So even if the plan is to decertify, but act in ways consistent with the deal, that could go wrong. And then if Congress does pass new nuclear sanctions, then I think we have a problem because isolates the United States, our credibility is hurt by backing out of a deal that everyone else supports, we don’t get new sanctions, and Iran is free to resume its nuclear program. And then we’re back to where we were at the beginning. OK, what do you do about that? And then, finally, if you think that what you do is force everyone back to the table and get them to agree to a deal that you like, I think that is highly unlikely to succeed.
So I’d like to invite members to join our conversation now with their questions. Just a reminder that this conference call is on the record, and please limit yourself to one question and keep it concise to allow as many members as possible to speak.
OPERATOR: Thank you very much.
Ladies and gentlemen, at this time we would like to open the floor for questions.
(Gives queueing instructions.)
Our first question will come from Howard Berkowitz, HPB Associates.
Q: Yes. Thank you very much.
First of all, I think you said it two or three times, but I just want to make sure. This is not a treaty. It’s an agreement that can be changed by Congress. And that being said, there are two problems that I see with the deal, and I think they’re very serious problems.
One, we cannot—we cannot visit their military sites. And it is my knowledge that they have started to move a number of their nuclear facilities to those military sites, which we are not allowed to visit; two, that we must give them 28-day notice before we visit any site. And I’ve been told by some experts that the way they are operating, they could wipe clean any facility within that 28-day period.
So if both of those are correct—and I’d like to hear what your thoughts are on it—but if they are correct, then we have a very bad deal here.
GORDON: Shall I start with that, Carla?
ROBBINS: Sure, Phil.
GORDON: Yeah. No, so I think, Mr. Berkowitz, a number of those points are not accurate. I mean, first of all, it is—you’re right; it’s not a treaty. But it’s an executive agreement between governments that can’t simply be changed by Congress. And Congress can do things to interfere and not implement it, but Congress can’t change an agreement between the United States and a number of other governments that is not even bilateral but multilateral and endorsed by the Security Council. So Congress can do things to block it, but it can’t just change it.
Secondly, on the military sites, it’s not accurate to say that inspectors can’t visit military sites. They can if they have a basis for believing that something inconsistent with the deal is taking place at a military site. They can and must ask for an inspection of that site and get resolution. And if the Iranians don’t provide the necessary answers to that question, then Iran would be in breach of the agreement and the sanctions could be snapped back, even if only the United States believes that Iran is not complying with the deal.
So it’s true that there’s not ongoing presence at military sites. That’s a tough one to imagine a country, other than one that might have been defeated by war, allowing its adversaries to comb over its military sites whenever they might want to. And that’s why this was—that’s why the deal ended up being structured the way it was. But it’s just not accurate to say there isn’t access to military sites. If necessary, there needs to be.
And then, finally, on the 28-day notice, that’s not exactly right either. At all of Iran’s declared sites, which is all those that we know about, there’s 24/7 monitoring and video cameras and ongoing inspections. I think eight times already since the deal, the IAEA has confirmed is complying with the deal and has visited those sites.
If there is a difference and Iran wants to block something, you’re right. It’s true they can stand in the way of it. That would buy them time, up to a month or possibly even more. But I think experts would tell you it is highly unlikely that they would—first of all, that would raise all sorts of red flags that would put them at risk of being in breach of the agreement. But the idea that they would be able to, as you put it, completely wipe clean any evidence of illicit activity, I think, is unlikely.
And then, lastly, without this agreement we wouldn’t be close to any of the sort of verification that we have now. So I guess my bottom line on that is no arms-control agreement, again, other than maybe after a defeated country with an occupation, can be perfect. But what we have in terms of the current ongoing regular access forever—and Iran is abiding by the IAEA’s additional protocol now; it will ratify it if the deal is not blown up, and no country’s ever gotten nuclear weapons while being part of the IAEA’s additional protocol—all of that is much, much better than the situation we would be in if we got rid of the deal or that we were in prior to getting the deal. So I think that’s—
Q: Just one follow-on. You mentioned earlier—
ROBBINS: No, no. I ‘m sorry. I’m sorry. Is this Ray or—
Q: This is Howard.
ROBBINS: Oh, Howard.
Q: Howard Berkowitz.
ROBBINS: I’m sorry. We can’t do this. We have many other people in line.
Q: Well, can I just ask one follow-on? Because it dealt with something that was said, and that was, they say—you said that there are only 6,000 centrifuges now, down from 20,000. Did they just destroy them? Did they sell them? Where do you think they went?
GORDON: They were uninstalled, dismantled. And, look, Iran has the capability of making centrifuges. They know how to do it. We can’t take that away. So if what you’re getting at is somehow they’re, you know, right there, ready to be reinstalled again, even if they were pulverized into powder, Iran would have the ability to construct and install centrifuges if there was no deal.
So I think, you know, that’s not a particular concern that somehow they’re hiding these things, and even in the face of inspectors are going to somehow quickly install and use them. They used to be installed and spinning and enriching uranium. They’re not anymore. And now with the deal there are only 5,000 at the Natanz site, which have to remain their older IR-1 models, much less capable of quickly enriching uranium. So I think that’s a pretty satisfactory aspect of the deal.
TAKEYH: I’ll just say one—
ROBBINS: Let’s go on to the next question.
TAKEYH: OK, that’s fine.
ROBBINS: Ray, I’m sorry. Yes.
OPERATOR: Thank you.
ROBBINS: No, Ray. Let’s go on to the next question, but Ray, I’m sure you have an answer to this too, and I’m sure you can cleverly weave that into the next question. (Laughs.)
OPERATOR: Our next question will come from Jeh Johnson; Paul, Weiss.
Q: Good morning. Philip, could you explain the thinking that went into the certification requirement, the theory behind it, what it was supposed to accomplish, the 90-day certification requirement?
GORDON: Sure. So that, you know, comes in the context—remember, this was part of a congressional law even before there was a deal, and in the context of the degree to which Congress would be involved in approving or disapproving any deal. And what Congress decided to do to give itself a role in reviewing what would become the JCPOA is it gave itself a certain amount of time to study the deal in the first place before taking a potential resolution of disapproval where the Senate could have stepped in and said it disapproved of the deal and then wouldn’t have given the president waiver authority to participate in the deal. So it did that, first of all.
But then, to give itself an ongoing review capacity while the deal was being implemented, it required the president to come back every 90 days and certify that Iran was transparently, verifiably, and fully implementing the agreement; a number of technical things. It was implementing the deal that Iran wasn’t in material breach of the deal or doing any covert activity. So it said we need you to come back to us.
Remember, this was in the context of an administration that supported the deal. You have to think about that too. It was written with, in mind, an administration that supported the deal. It was done during the Obama administration with a view toward, you know, there might have been another administration that supported the deal afterward.
So it said come back to us every three months and confirm that Iran is not violating. You know, you guys, who like this deal, come back every three months and confirm, certify, that it’s acting consistent with it. But then, as I mentioned earlier, Jeh, it also added—you not only have to certify that it’s technically in compliance, you have to certify that it’s vital the national security interest of the United States. So that’s why the president has to do this. What’s different now, of course, is you have an administration, a president who doesn’t support the deal having to go back and verify those things. And as I said at the very top, that’s why this president is so frustrated having to do so, because that’s not his position.
ROBBINS: Ray, can you respond to the first question?
TAKEYH: Yeah. I’ll just say I’ve never been particularly excited about the compliance issues, because if Citibank gives me a mortgage with zero percent interest rate, they shouldn’t pat themselves on the back that I’m complying with it. So it’s a generous agreement for Iran. Of course they’re going to comply with it. I think somebody, maybe Phil, said that Iran can reconstitute its centrifuges and they have that capability. It didn’t have the capability to reconstitute and develop IR-8 and IR-6s, the high-velocity centrifuges. That is something that was sanctioned by the deal and a permissive R&D schedule. And they do have a capacity to reinstall the primitive IR-1s, which actually Vice President Salehi, he didn’t want to do anyways. So that’s something that the research and development is allowing Iran to modernize its program under the auspices of complying with it.
Finally, there is some issue of compliance, which I don’t think is that—needs clarification under Section G of the agreement, about whether this experiment with explosive issues. Does—the IAEA just needs a road map about how to essentially conduct that inspection. That’s something IAEA Director-General Amano has notified the members of the 5+1. The Russians seem to be an obstacle about this, but that’s something they need to work on. But as I said, I’ve never been excited about the particular compliance issues. One of the things that the administration is seeking to do in terms of renegotiating the agreement, is renegotiate it in the context of the Iran Review Act.
It’s essentially put a number of provisions in there that suggest for United States part of this deal it will not abide by the sunset clauses or by the ballistic missile development. Therefore, in essence, the United States itself will have some conditions about its continued compliance with the JCPOA. And they want to do that legislatively. I don’t know if that will succeed, given the relationship between the executive branch and the legislative branch, but that’s another attempt to essentially establish the legal benchmarks about what it is that the United States would abide by.
At this particular point, this is not a treaty. It doesn’t even have a legislative standing, as the administration is seeking to codify. It’s an executive agreement determined by the president to be in America’s national interest, and rejected by a majority of members of Congress. Fifty-eight senators voted against the JCPOA. The vote didn’t come on board because it was filibustered. So, let’s have a vote. So it doesn’t have standing in American law, but it does have international support in terms of the U.N. Security Council. And that’s one of the complicating aspects of the JCPOA. Its embedded in international legal institutions, but it doesn’t really have domestic standing other than determined by the president to be in America’s national interest. And that tension is creating some problems for administration as it kind of thinks about its options.
ROBBINS: Thank you. So next question, please.
OPERATOR: Our next question will come from Baman Kabassi (ph), BBC News.
Q: Thank you. First, to Ray, you said at the opening of your remarks that Mr. Zarif had said, and I quote, “They will,”—he promised parliament in an open session that they would incrementally violate the deal. Where did you see that—
TAKEYH: No, excuse me. I know what I did say. He said that incremental violations will not be prosecuted, by material breaches. It was actually by BBC itself. And if you send me an email, I’ll send you the attachment about what he said in English.
Q: OK. So he never promised to incrementally violate the deal, that you say—
TAKEYH: He said incremental violation—he said—he said incremental violations will not be prosecuted. It was reported by the organization that you work for. You want to send me an email, I’ll send you an attachment.
Q: I will do that, because I don’t see that either.
TAKEYH: Well, I’ll send it to you.
Q: And the second one—the second one is for Phil. You know, the impact of this politically in Iran is very clear. In the only last few years we’ve seen not only the moderates and hardliners coming together, the public in Iran, which by most accounts is most pro-American, most interested in opening up to the West and having trade, sees this as a serious sort of breaching of trust. What can the U.S. administration do in the future if there’s a different administration to remedy this, if this feeling that—the argument that the supreme leader has been making, that hardliners have been making all along that you should never trust the United States actually materializes in the form of Mr. Trump decertifying?
TAKEYH: Phil, can I just—
TAKEYH: Apologies. Just—Phil, can I just read what the minister said? He said to the parliament? And I apologize for intruding on your time. He said, according to BBC—he noted that according to the deal the sanctions can be re-imposed on Iran only in case of serious violations of those obligations and not in the case of small-scale violations. That is a report by BBC on July 21st, 2015. I’ll be happy to send it to you and all members on this call. Apologies to Phil. Please go ahead.
GORDON: Sure. No, I think the issue of breach of trust is a considerable one, as you said, vis-à-vis the Iranian public, but also vis-à-vis our allies, and the vis-à-vis hypotheticals where anyone who might be contemplating doing a tough deal with the United States—and I’m referring in part to North Korea—would have to think: You know, why would I do that if I can’t count on the fact that they would carry on with their commitments once made? So I think it’s a real problem, and therefore sort of an own-goal—not to raise the sore subject of soccer for people following the American team. But it’s not necessary.
And it actually related to—Ray made a point about sunset clauses which—even if you’re concerned down the road about what happens after 2030 when they start accumulating a bigger stockpile and enriching uranium, I don’t know why you’d blow it up now with all of these consequences and deal with this urgent crisis and break trust and all of that, when we’re in a position that you don’t have to worry about that for almost 15 years. And I don’t oppose—I mean, Ray is right. I think we should be thinking now about what that world should look like, and imagining arrangements to extent aspects of the deal that would provide reassurance that Iran can’t build a nuclear weapon then either. But to tear it up, blow it up now because of some concern that, you know, after a decade you might have something to worry about just seems to me counterproductive.
One other brief point, is Ray brought up R&D. I just want to be clear, the deal didn’t give them any new right to R&D. They were doing research and development on advanced centrifuges as rapidly as they could. The deal actually constrained that. And Iran has entered an agreement with the IAEA according to an agreed research plan. It does allow for some research on more advanced centrifuges, but in a very limited way. For the next eight and a half years, they can only do research with uranium on single IR-4s, -5s, -6s, and -8s, at—and only at Natanz, where inspectors are watching. And after eight and a half years, they can start testing two dozen of these centrifuges, but not in the big cascades with gas introduced and in a way that would enrich uranium.
So it really does constrain rather than—I don’t want anyone to have the impression that somehow the deal gave them some ability. And it goes back to the context in which I brought that up in the first place. Without this deal, they could do whatever they wanted. And as far as that R&D—
TAKEYH: Well, that’s actually not entirely accurate, because if you listen to Vice President Salehi, he’s the head of Atomic Energy Organization, and other members of the Iranian team have said since, they do need eight years of research and development before they become capable operating IR-6 and IR-8s. Therefore, the agreement gave them the time allotted that they needed to introduce these generational centrifuges. In absence of this agreement, they would need eight years to develop IR-8. In presence of this agreement, they need eight years to develop IR-8. Actually, we’re talking about six now.
GORDON: It’s hard to argue that. I mean, you can argue that it doesn’t constrain them as much as you would like to constrain them. I don’t think you can argue that—
TAKEYH: Well, I don’t think it constrained them at all.
GORDON: —this research plan somehow boosts their capacity to do R&D compared to no plan at all, right?
TAKEYH: There’s no distinction between the two.
ROBBINS: And this is what’s so great about the Council, is that we have people who can disagree with each other with great expertise.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Joan Spero, Columbia University.
Q: Hi. Thank you for the interesting discussion. I’m not sure that I understand the “Seinfeld” model, but if I do it means that the agreement is in place, that the removal of sanctions remains. And the question I have is, if the United States wanted to impose sanctions for other activities of the Iranian government, whether it’s terrorism or its activities in the Middle East, do we have any other tools in our toolkit to do that? And if we did that, what impact might they have, particularly if the Europeans aren’t going along with us?
GORDON: I’ll go ahead and respond.
GORDON: Even though I wanted to be clear that Ray is responsible for the analogy. (Laughter.)
TAKEYH: Well, all the “Seinfeld” model is is it’s a show about nothing. So if it’s a decertification about nothing, it becomes a “Seinfeld” decertification.
ROBBINS: I got it.
GORDON: No, I completely get it.
ROBBINS: I totally got it.
GORDON: I think, like I said, I think that’s what they’re doing. I would add to it, you know, that we should “curb our enthusiasm” because I don’t think it’s going to work. (Laughter.)
But with that bad joke aside, look, Joan, yes is the short answer to your question. We reserved the right then and made very clear that all of the sanctions and measures we had on the books prior to the deal to sanction Iran for terrorism, human rights violations, ballistic missile development would remain on the books and reserved the right to impose new ones and did so numerous times. The Obama administration did so. The Trump administration did so. Remember very early on when, you know, Michael Flynn gave that early statement they added 23 entities. They’ve done it a number of times since. So absolutely, the United States can and will continue to penalize Iran for other activities.
What it can’t do, and this is the fine line that Congress will have to think carefully about when it does pass new sanctions, because I’m sure it will, is what it can’t do is reimpose the sanctions that had been imposed to constrain Iran’s nuclear program and were lifted in the context of the JCPOA. And that’s what the Iranians and others would call a backdoor nuclear sanctions where a certain set of entities had sanctions because they were, you know, involved in the enrichment program, that program now has certain parameters. If we then reimpose sanctions on the same entities or persons and just say, oh, no, those are terrorism sanctions, not nuclear sanctions, that could be seen as reimposing nuclear sanctions, which would interfere with the deal.
But other than that, Congress will, and I fully expect it to and the administration—and, you know, Ray mentioned the IRGC sanctions, that would be also in the context of we always said that we would reserve the right to penalize Iran for other things and we will do so.
ROBBINS: Next question, please?
OPERATOR: Our next question will come from Paul Shinkman, U.S. News & World Report.
Q: Yeah, thanks very much for doing this. This kind of follows up on that last question, sort of looking at this technically and from a broader perspective. If the idea is to ultimately deter Iran and rein in its, whatever you want to call it, malign influence in the Middle East, what tools are available to President Trump if he were to decertify, that he does not currently have today? And then looking at the opposite side as well, technically or as a matter of precedence or policy, are there things that Iran could do to follow up with its threats against Trump decertifying, that it could do after he decertifies that it couldn’t do today?
TAKEYH: In terms of Iran’s malign activities, the JCPOA, to the extent that it has an impact on this is an indirect one.
I’m just hearing an echo.
GORDON: Yeah, maybe someone can mute. It sounds like a keyboard.
Q: That might be me. I’ll mute my—yeah, that’s me.
TAKEYH: —indirect impact on Iran’s regional activities in a sense that it reintegrates the economy back into the global markets. I think the Iranian economy, according to the Iranians, which is always kind of difficult to take their statistics for sure, is supposed to go about 3, 4 percent. This was an economy that in 2013 had a negative 6.8 percent growth. So there has been some measure of quite substantial economic turnaround as a result of a combination of activities, JCPOA being one and the commerce and so on it has generated as such. So if you didn’t have the JCPOA, you presumably have the ability to once again financially constrain Iran by targeting its bank, particularly the central bank of Iran and so forth. So that’s one thing.
In terms of other activities in the region that Iran is doing, you know, that—to me, pushing back on Iran, which is everybody’s favorite theme, means disarming Shia militias, including lethal Hezbollah, and killing a large number of Revolutionary Guards in a large swath of the Middle East. That strikes me as a confrontational policy. But this phrase is thrown around as if it’s benign and antiseptic. It requires American commitment to rehabilitation of the region’s failed state and chasing Iranians out from places that they have embedded themselves in. That requires a quite substantial commitment by the regional allies and by the United States itself. So that’s what pushing back on Iran means.
And JCPOA bars quite substantially the ability to impose sanctions on Iran. You can have a sanctions regime on Iran, just not an optimal one. There’s 150 pages of JCPOA. About 70 percent of it actually deals with sanctions as opposed to arms-control provisions.
And, you know, the Iranians entered JCPOA not to make themselves vulnerable to a sanctions regime again. I mean, they’re not—if you believe that, then you believe they’re stupid. And they’re not. They entered the JCPOA not only to release sanctions that were imposed on Iran, but negate the possibility of reimposition of rigorous sanctions on Iran, therefore and henceforth. So that’s how JCPOA constrains American sanctions policy, and that’s why the Iranians did it.
ROBBINS: So we have—
GORDON: Can I add just a quick thing to that, Carla?
ROBBINS: Yeah, because we only have—probably have time for one more question to be asked.
GORDON: OK, I’ll be brief.
It’s important to remember the role of international sanctions in all of this. The U.S. still has scope to impose—you know, we don’t trade with Iran now. We don’t invest in Iran, with minor exceptions. But the key is getting everyone else onboard, if you really want it to have an impact on Iran. We had them onboard for the nukes. It is unlikely that we’re going to get all those sanctions we impose to do this, quote/unquote, “pushing back” on Iran.
I do—on that, though, I would just say—and I agree with Ray underscoring that this is serious business. It’s easy to say, you know, we need to push back on Iran, take a tougher line. Well, I hope the administration thinks that through carefully, including the next steps, because to the extent we do go for that more confrontational policy it’s inconsistent with the president’s simultaneous desire to limit American commitments in the Middle East and stop, as he would put it, wasting blood and treasure there, because the Iranians won’t sit back without a response. So fine if you want to say this is so important to the United States we should confront them off the coast of Yemen, and go after them in Syria and Iraq, and as Ray put it, you know, dismantle the Shia militia. But they will fight back, as they did in Iraq before, killing American soldiers, and then you have to be prepared to deal with that and up the ante as well. So pushing back is a nice slogan, but I hope if we do it we understand the consequences and are ready to accept them.
ROBBINS: We actually only have two minutes left. So one minute from each of you, a summary point that you guys want to share? Ray, Phil?
TAKEYH: Yeah, I’d just repeat the fact that in the aftermath of decertification—should it happen tomorrow, which is likely—the president and Congress are going to face a lot of traps, and they have to figure out how to navigate those traps. And one of the most important ones is if they fail to follow up on decertification and suggesting that this agreement is not a national interest, and fail to follow up with a punitive strategy and punitive measure. Then that really significantly erodes the credibility of the United States and diminishes its coercive leverage. So if you’re going to do this, you might—you have to have follow-on steps that are significant and substantial.
GORDON: Well, I guess I could just address the same points. It provides a nice contrast with Ray and something to think about.
I do think the ball goes into Congress’ court. It’s pretty clear that the president is going to punt this to Congress. But I worry. I mean, what Ray calls failure to follow up, I in some ways worry about the opposite. I think if Congress acts in a way that is inconsistent with the JCPOA, such that it causes it to blow up, then we isolate the United States, raise questions about our reliability, give Iran a pretext to resume its nuclear program, fail to get other countries onboard for new sanctions to deal with all of the other issues we face, and then find ourselves essentially where we were in 2012 again: without a good answer to deal with Iran’s nuclear program, ultimately, I fear, leading back to that terrible binary choice between accepting the reality of an Iranian nuclear weapons program, essentially as was done in North Korea when we didn’t have a deal, or using military force to deal with it, which is one option but not one without complications.
ROBBINS: I want to thank Ray Takeyh and Phil Gordon and all the members for joining us today for this on-the-record conference call on “Decertifying the Iran Nuclear Deal.” And we brought it in exactly at noon. Thank you all very much.
TAKEYH: Thanks, everybody.