Criticism of Iran’s conduct in relation to the 2015 nuclear deal does not withstand scrutiny. US withdrawal from the agreement would not convince other parties to re-impose sanctions, but could trigger a global crisis. 

Rex Tillerson speaks at a podium. Credit: Flickr/iip-photo-archive

By Mark Fitzpatrick, Executive Director, IISS-Americas

A pernicious claim is taking root in some quarters in Washington that Iran has violated the July 2015 nuclear accord, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The unfounded claims are contrary to the considered judgment of every government and international organization involved. If the Trump Administration or members of Congress use the false claims to try to kill the JCPOA, the US will be isolated to no good purpose. 

On 17 July, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson certified in a letter to Congress that Iran as of that date had met the requirements for compliance with the JCPOA. White House talking points and the State Department spokesperson both stated that Iran was in compliance. The case was clear, backed up by intelligence. Under the provisions of the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015, the compliance certification determined that:

(i)                 Iran is transparently, verifiably and fully implementing the agreement, including all related technical or additional agreement.

(ii)              Iran has not committed a material breach with respect to the agreement or, if Iran has committed a material breach, Iran has cured the material breach; and

(iii)            Iran has not taken any action, including covert activities, that could significantly advance its nuclear weapons program.

Every involved government and international organisation that has spoken on the issue has reached a similar conclusion that Iran is faithfully implementing the agreement. EU Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini said so on 14 July. So did the German Federal Foreign OfficeBritish Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said so on 13 July. The French Foreign Ministry on 17 July expressed satisfaction with JCPOA implementation and said problems regarding heavy water were resolved. Following a 21 July meeting of the Joint Commission, the chair issued a statement that noted Iran’s ‘compliance’.

At the Joint Commission meeting, no party alleged that Iran had violated any part of the deal. Non-governmental analysts and commentators who claim violations do so based on their own inferences and definition of the word. As I explained in a 15 June post, while Iran has been unhelpfully pushing the envelope on permitted R&D, these actions are not violations by any agreed definition.

President Trump reportedly did not want to make the 17 July certification of compliance, and ordered political aides to come up with a rationale for not doing so the next time the 90-day certification requirement comes up, sidelining the State Department. This is highly improper. Certifications should be made on the basis of fact, not politics or ideology. 

To buttress a non-certification decision, the political aides will likely turn to the false claims that have been made about Iran’s implementation of the deal. A 11 July letter by four US senators is a case in point. None of its four allegations of violation stand up to examination. If a baseball analogy might be permitted, they amount to three strikes and a foul ball.

Firstly, the letter claimed that ‘Iran is currently operating more advanced nuclear centrifuges than it is permitted’. This is simply untrue, sources familiar with Iran’s R&D activity tell me.  If it were true, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) would have reported it, in accordance with its verification responsibilities. It is possible, of course, that Iran is conducting secret research, but such supposition is not what the senators meant. The basis for the claim, rather, lies in a difference of interpretation among the JCPOA parties about how many advanced centrifuges can be operated for research and development purposes. While the difference again surfaced during a 21 July meeting of the JCPA Joint Commission, Iran is not currently operating more than the other parties contend is allowed. Strike one for those who claim violations.

The letter also claimed that ‘German intelligence agencies in 2015 and 2016 reported that Iran continued illicit attempts to procure nuclear and missile technology outside of JCPOA-approved channels’. This assertion misconstrues the facts. The 2015 report in question referred to Iran procurement of nuclear and missile technology that apparently took place before the JCPOA’s procurement channel was in place. The 2016 report referred mainly to missile procurements, which are not covered by the JCPOA. The report concluded that: ‘the BfV (Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz, the domestic intelligence service) found significantly less evidence of Iranian attempts to acquire proliferation-sensitive material for its nuclear programme. As far as the BfV was able to verify such evidence, it did not reveal any violation of the JCPOA.’ Strike two.

Another claim was that ‘Iran has repeatedly exceeded the limits the JCPOA places on its heavy water stocks’. The letter noted that this has happened twice, which only barely meets the definition of ‘repeatedly’. Both occasions occurred last year and were minor in degree and of no proliferation concern. It would be good to tighten the limits on heavy water, so that they apply to excess product sent to Oman while an international purchaser is sought, but this awkward arrangement is not prohibited by the JCPOA, which explicitly refers to limits on heavy water in Iran. Foul ball.

Finally, the 11 June letter referred to Iran’s alleged ‘refusal to grant international inspectors access to nuclear-research and military facilities’. This claim is based entirely on false conjecture. As of 25 July, the agency has not been refused access for JCPOA verification. It may be the case that the IAEA has not yet sought access to military facilities because inspectors have been able by other means to answer any questions that have arisen about Iranian activities under the JCPOA. To say, however, that Iran is in violation because it hasn’t been asked, is patently wrong. Strike three. 

While it is important to keep a close watch to ensure that Iran stays within the agreed limits on its nuclear programme, it is disingenuous and dangerous to twist the facts. If the US were to end its obligations under the JCPOA under a false pretext, no major partner would join in re-imposing sanctions. Iran would have an excuse to ramp up enrichment and the world would be back in crisis mode. 

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