Editor’s Note: Thomas Countryman is a career diplomat and served as United States assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation from 2011-2017, and an adviser to Diplomacy Works, an organization that advocates in favor of the Iran nuclear deal. Its advisory council is led by former Secretary of State John Kerry, a key architect of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Thomas Countryman: Trump seems ready to ignore evidence and experts on Iran
But good American foreign policy is not made with alternative facts
Last week, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) once again reported that all parties to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – including Iran – are in full compliance with the agreement. This marks the 8th time the agency, in its regular reports mandated by the JCPOA, has confirmed that the nuclear deal is working – and it must be noted that since the implementation of the JCPOA, not once has the agency found Iran to be out of compliance.
The deal took the threat of a nuclear Iran off the table, but President Donald Trump seems ready to ignore the evidence and declare Iran out of compliance in defiance of all the experts. US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley even made the case for the withdrawal from the Iran deal on Tuesday.
But the Trump administration’s approach to Iran is dangerous. Good American foreign policy is not made with alternative facts, but that is all they offer when it comes to rationalizing their approach to Iran – as we heard Tuesday from Ambassador Haley, who tried to build a case against staying in the deal by citing violations that didn’t happen, implying that there are hundreds of suspicious sites left uninspected when there aren’t, and brushing off the security concerns of our allies.
The IAEA is not a political organization, but rather the independent agency tasked with overseeing the most invasive inspection regime ever acceded to under a nonproliferation agreement. The IAEA has access to the most detailed information about Iran’s nuclear program, benefiting from the intelligence apparatus of the United States as well as the other deal signatories like the United Kingdom and France. The IAEA continuously monitors every element of Iran’s nuclear program to ensure that Iran is adhering to all aspects of the agreement.
Additionally, if the IAEA suspects that covert efforts are underway to produce fissile material, such as enriched uranium, or advance Iran’s nuclear program in a way not permitted under the deal, it is their prerogative to request additional information and inspections until they are satisfied that no violation of the JCPOA is taking place.
The IAEA knows the ins and outs of the Iranian nuclear program better than any other entity so it makes sense that its reports that Iran is in compliance with its commitments are accepted across the board, other than perhaps by the Trump administration.
The President campaigned on rash promises, including plans to tear up the deal, and he made it clear this summer that he still expects to pull out of “the worst deal ever.”
Sadly, he may do so even without any evidence to justify such an extreme course of action.
Here are the facts: Since taking office, President Trump reissued the waivers for nuclear-related sanctions when they came up for renewal in May, keeping the US in compliance with our commitments under the JCPOA for another 120 days and signaling that the US had no evidence Iran was violating the JCPOA. Additionally, the administration has recertified Iran’s compliance to Congress twice since January, something it must do in order to prevent Congress from considering the reinstatement of those sanctions through a process laid out in the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act.
The first time Trump waived sanctions, it was accompanied by a strong political declaration that included a promise of a comprehensive inter-agency review of whether lifting nuclear sanctions on Iran – and therefore keeping the nuclear deal intact – was still in America’s national security interests. While we still await the formal results of this review, the administration recertified Iran’s compliance to Congress just a few weeks later.
Each time the executive certifies to Congress that Iran is in compliance, the White House is essentially saying that it knows Iran is meeting all its obligations. So far, the White House has no evidence to suggest otherwise, despite provocative rhetoric.
In late July, Trump spoke to the Wall Street Journal and said he could not “see Iran passing certification” despite having just certified their compliance only eight days prior. That shows us that the administration is actively looking for evidence – even perhaps encouraging the manipulation of intelligence to generate it – to justify leaving the deal.
It was even reported that the President tasked White House staff with finding such a justification when Secretary of State Tillerson did not present one during a National Security Council meeting on JCPOA recertification because the State Department, and US intelligence agencies, lacked any evidence of Iranian violations. This sets a dangerous precedent of politicizing intelligence, which is exactly what we saw the Bush administration do when they wanted to start a war with Iraq in the early 2000s.
Haley has been deeply critical of the JCPOA in the past, and in remarks at the American Enterprise Institute, laid out a rationale for the President to decertify Iran’s compliance with the deal, not because of any failure in Iran’s adherence to the JCPOA’s terms, but because she thinks it is fair to assume Iran has malicious intentions regarding the agreement.
Just last week she traveled to Vienna to speak with the IAEA and asked the agency to begin inspecting Iranian military sites because they had conducted covert nuclear work there prior to the agreement. Although this sounds compelling on its surface, none of our allies or other signatories to the JCPOA are calling for these inspections because they have no evidence to suggest they are necessary.
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The role of the IAEA is to determine where such inspections are necessary based on facts. The fact that last week’s report further proves that the Trump team is making decisions divorced from the facts, leads me to believe that they are seeking to bring about a situation in which Iran refuses to comply with unjustified inspections so that the US can claim it has a good enough reason not to certify their compliance with the deal.
This is a risky game. We are still feeling the consequences of the last time an American administration tried to make facts fit with foreign policy goals instead of the other way around. Our credibility with our allies – let alone the ability to deter Iran – will likely not survive another attempt to replace facts with fiction.
The IAEA has provided the facts: Iran is complying with the nuclear deal, and we are safer for it. Let’s move forward by addressing today’s problems instead of dwelling on old ones because we don’t like who fixed them.