By Daniel Schwammenthal
4 May 2018
If anyone still wondered whether U.S. President Donald Trump is serious about withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal unless Europe helps mend it, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu's dramatic presentation Monday evening ought to have brought certainty. Israel's intelligence services had not only located Iran's secret nuclear treasure trove in south Tehran but managed to break in and carry 50,000 pages and 150 gigabytes of data detailing the regime's nuclear weaponization program to Israel. President Trump's reaction was short but poignant: "What we have learned has really shown that I was 100 percent right."
With just eight days left before President Trump's deadline to fix or nix the nuclear deal, European negotiators striving to save the JCPOA ought to redouble their efforts now to find common ground with their American counterparts. Instead, though, some supporters of the agreement quickly dismissed Israel's prove positive that Iran lied about ever having a military nuclear program and continued to carefully preserve its knowledge for future use as supposedly nothing new.
A more compelling reaction of JCPOA negotiators is that Israel's intelligence coup underscores that the Iranian regime can't be trusted which is precisely why they pursued the nuclear agreement in the first place. There is no denying, however, that Monday's revelations underscore also the agreement's deep, structural flaws that ought to be fixed.
Chief among them is the sunset clause. The deal's most significant restrictions on enrichment and advanced centrifuges will be lifted over the next decade. Instead of the current 12 months breakout time--the time needed to enrich enough fissile material for one bomb--Iran will be just days from producing enough nuclear fuel for an entire arsenal of nuclear bombs. This will put us in a worse situation than before the agreement, when Iran's breakout time was about three months.
The deal's defenders argue that Iran would still be bound by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Additional Protocol. But that's like arguing for the early release of a criminal because he would still be bound by law not to commit another crime. One cannot praise the nuclear agreement as a diplomatic breakthrough and simultaneously dismiss the sunsetting of its key provisions as inconsequential.
It is here that European and American negotiators made the least progress over the past few months. But if Israel's intelligence coup showed anything it proves that the sunset clause is a fatal flaw in the deal's architecture as Iran not only lied about its weaponization program but obviously made careful preparations to be able to revive it--assuming it's not already continuing weapons research in secret. At the end of the sunset period Tehran would thus be able to marry its military nuclear program with an internationally sanctioned, industrial size enrichment program.
Israel's new evidence of Iran's ongoing efforts to deceive the international community also underscores the need to find a solution for the inspection regime. Iran absurdly insists on the exclusion of military sites. It is precisely because we can't trust a regime that has been caught hiding illegal enrichment facilities in military sites that a truly rigorous inspections regime is necessary. So far, IAEA inspectors have not asked for access to military sites. We must ensure this isn't done out of fear of triggering a negative response and apparently U.S. and European negotiators have made good progress on this front.
A key part of Mr. Netanyahu's presentation, complete with original Iranian schematics, showed Tehran's intensive research on fitting nuclear heads on missiles. And yet, Iran's continued work on missiles was incomprehensibly left outside the deal even though delivery systems are an integral part of any nuclear weapons program.
But since the deal doesn't deal with missiles, addressing this shortcoming is diplomatically easier. That's because demanding that Iran limits the range and capability of missiles carrying nuclear warheads cannot possibly be interpreted as rewriting or violating the deal.
The discussions, though, seem to center on missiles only above 2,000 kilomenters. This would bizarrely suggest that nuclear-capable missiles in the hands of Iran are only really a problem if they can reach all of Europe and the U.S., leaving Iran's more immediate neighbors exposed. How this squares with Europe's alleged commitment to Israel's security is difficult to say, to put it mildly.
Arguments that the Iranians will never agree to changes in these areas are a self-fulfilling prophecy. Indeed, overly empathetic negotiation tactics may have contributed to this rather flawed deal in the first place.
Certainly, it is more promising to start this discussion now than waiting for after the sunset clause kicks in, when Iran will have an industrial-size enrichment program of advanced centrifuges with near-zero breakout time, missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads, and a more formidable military due to the lapse of the arms embargo.
The challenge is to embed this in a comprehensive strategy to confront also Iran's regional aggression. Any serious European contribution ought to include listing Iran-backed Hezbollah in its entirety as a terror organization, doing away with the faux distinction between so-called military and political arms, a distinction Hezbollah itself rejects. As the EU has listed only the "military" arm, Hezbollah can continue recruiting and raising funds in Europe. This must end. Smart European sanctions would target the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), whose corrupt grip on the country's economy diverts funds away from the Iranian people and to terror and war in the region.
Both critics and defenders of the nuclear deal ought to be able to rally around these parameters. And indeed, when French President Emmanuel Macron visited Washington last week, he outlined a "four-pillared" strategy that would maintain the 2015 agreement while addressing its weaknesses and Iran's regional aggression. German Chancellor Angela Merkel echoed that sentiment when she visited Washington only days later, saying that from a German perspective the JCPOA "is not sufficient in order to see to it that Iran's ambitions are curbed and contained."
Having found so much common ground on the broad principles for an improved Iran strategy, it would be a particular shame if the negotiations still failed. Rather than allowing the disagreement of what at this stage are only details, albeit important ones, over Iran turn into a transatlantic crisis, a renewed resolve to confront Tehran's destructive behavior ought to reinvigorate the European-American partnership.
Daniel Schwammenthal is Director of the AJC Transatlantic Institute, the American Jewish Committee's office in Brussels.