His administration is due to review whether to recertify the deal next month. If Iran is found to be in violation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Trump has the option of holding it in contempt of the agreement, thus paving the way for Congress to impose crippling sanctions.
Iran has embarked on a slow-boil approach in violating a number of critical sections of the JCPOA. A leading Washington-based think tank monitoring the nuclear deal, the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, recently warned that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has “omitted key data on Iran’s nuclear activities… raising concern that the agency is concealing compliance disputes that may jeopardize the deal.”
While Tehran continues to cite IAEA quarterly reports to misleadingly claim it is in full compliance, there are broader covert military dimensions to its nuclear program that still have not been inspected by international monitors.
Supporters of the deal claim it is the only way to stop Iran from achieving a nuclear breakout capability, defined as producing enough weapons-grade uranium for one nuclear weapon. They say decertifying the deal would lead to a war that would wreak untold havoc, but this argument is flawed and myopic.
Iran was allowed to maintain its most advanced centrifuges, critical components for quickly enriching weapons-grade uranium. It also refuses to grant the IAEA full access to sites that Tehran has classified as conducting conventional military activity. A senior advisor to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei was recently quoted as saying: “The Americans will take their dream of visiting our military and sensitive sites to their graves.”
Does that sound like a party that has nothing to hide? It is time for the IAEA and the signatories to the nuclear deal to demand immediate and unconditional access to these sites, or hold Iran in gross violation of the JCPOA.
Proponents of the deal are in effect arguing that in order to maintain Tehran’s adherence, it must be allowed to pick and choose which parts it wishes to violate. Such an approach almost certainly paves the way for a confrontation in the near future, with Tehran in possession of nuclear weapons and harder-to-reach uranium enrichment and production facilities.
Western intelligence agencies continue to report that Iran is actively conducting illegal procurement of ballistic missile technology and production parts. It may be covertly working to improve the range of its ballistic missiles and their capacity to carry nuclear warheads, while claiming it is not in violation of the JCPOA simply because IAEA inspectors have not had access to military sites.
The fact that the IAEA does not have access to Iran’s military sites is extremely worrying.
Iran’s continued ballistic missile research and production program is intended at some point to carry nuclear-tipped missiles that could reach the West and blackmail Middle Eastern countries. By not aggressively policing and curtailing its ballistic missile program within the parameters of the JCPOA, Iran is being granted a free pass in the naive hope that it does not pull out of the agreement.
This violation of the spirit of the deal is particularly vexing since Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, in April said Tehran can produce en masse advanced centrifuges necessary for making mass quantities of weapons-grade uranium at will. In effect, Iran has shortened the breakout window if and when it chooses to embark on unrestricted nuclear weapons production once key provisions of the JCPOA expire in 10 years.
According to the Institute for Science and International Security, serious questions remain on “whether Iran is secretly making centrifuge rotor tubes at unknown locations, in violation of the JCPOA.” In order to save the deal, gross violations are being ignored, offering Tehran a blank check to set the stage for nuclear breakout a few years down the line.
So the question remains: If Iran’s nuclear program is truly designed for civilian purposes, why is it seemingly preparing a production capacity and procurement network that far exceed civilian nuclear purposes? IAEA officials told Reuters in August that they will not ask for access to the military sites because they know Iran will say no, which strengthens the logic for withdrawing from the deal.
Tehran’s policy calculus remains fixated on eventually developing nuclear weapons; the nuclear deal does not change that. The JCPOA must either be fully and relentlessly enforced without exception, or wholly jettisoned. Anything in between simply plays to Tehran’s strategic advantage.
• Oubai Shahbandar is a fellow in New America’s International Security Program. He is a former Department of Defense senior adviser, and currently a strategic consultant specializing in technology, energy and Arabian Gulf security.