The drama surrounding plans for a summit between North Korean President Kim Jong-Un and US President Donald Trump presages a crisis in US proliferation diplomacy. The Trump Administration has no coherent strategy that signals a feasible bottom line for negotiations. Instead, US diplomacy is hobbled by the president’s impulse to show, in presumed contrast to former President Barack Obama, that he is a tough man. By echoing this posture, Trump’s hard-line advisors are making a bad situation worse.
US Iran policy is one casualty. It is hard to remember when a secretary of state has tossed the kind of ill-advised verbal hand grenade like the one that Mike Pompeo lobbed during his May 21 Heritage Foundation speech about a purported American policy on Iran. The speech misrepresented the facts and geostrategic considerations that led Obama to back the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Pompeo’s distortions are a cover for a policy that seeks to compel Tehran to swallow a new “deal” he surely knows no Iranian leader can endorse. His bombastic threats are pulling US nuclear diplomacy down a very deep and dangerous hole.
US Anti-Proliferation Diplomacy: Three Different Models
To fully appreciate the bill of goods that Pompeo tried to sell, it would be useful to summarize three general and feasible models for dealing with proliferation challenges, ones that have been useful in international diplomacy over the last two decades.
Model A: If the country is militarily weak, lacks a credible nuclear threat, and is dependent on international trade for its economic existence, it might abandon the effort to create nuclear weapons and in return get a commitment from the United States to help restore its economic lifeline and not to pressure it into regime change. This was the “Libya model” that Muammar Qadhafi accepted before he was assassinated in 2011 by enemies who acted under the umbrella of NATO air cover.
Model B: Although yet unrealized, what can be called the “North Korea” model implies that a regional power reduces its nuclear weapons system but does not eliminate it altogether. In return, the United States and its allies remove sanctions, foster international trade, reduce their military footprint, and accept the political survival of the regime. The logic of this type of a deal flows from North Korea’s creation of a nuclear arsenal with sufficient warheads such that Pyongyang has a “second strike” capability. Paradoxically, this situation of “mutual assured destruction” could invite a deal—because none of the key rivals has a credible military option that would not lead to the annihilation of millions of people. The choice is between forging a deal or living with constant conflict and a dangerous game of brinkmanship.
Model C: This, the “Iran model,” is based on what US intelligence agencies agree was Iran’s 2003 decision to give up any quest to create a viable nuclear weapons system. In all likelihood, Iran’s leaders did so because they knew that they could not build such a system with just one bomb. The very effort to do so risked provoking a military attack from the United States and Israel. Instead of building what some proliferation experts call a “family of bombs,” Tehran expanded enrichment but without taking all the necessary steps to go the North Korean route—including testing. The idea, it seems, was to show that Iran was moving toward accumulating enough uranium for one bomb, after which it would propose a deal: a very deep and internationally monitored reduction of enrichment in return for eliminating European and US nuclear-related sanctions. This would include an implicit or explicit pledge by Washington and its allies not to pursue regime change.
The Logic of the Iran Nuclear Deal
Model C was the basis for the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or the JCPOA. In backing this agreement, the Obama Administration stuck to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to which Iran is a signatory. While noting a “right to…use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes,” the NPT does not state that enrichment is a “right.” Nor does it require zero enrichment. Instead, it sets out conditions by which a country can enrich and the consequences if these conditions are violated.
That said, prior to Obama’s election, successive administrations insisted that zero enrichment was the only basis for talks. Tehran responded by expanding enrichment. The US and its allies did not try to stop Iran by attacking its enrichment sights; in fact, it was not hard to assume that bombing might even induce Tehran to rebuild and accelerate its program. Rather, Washington imposed “punishing” economic sanctions and these did not force Iran to accept zero enrichment. The result was that by 2008 Iran had some 5,000 centrifuges, a figure that tripled by 2015. With Tehran’s negotiating leverage inadvertently enhanced, Obama bit the bullet by forging a deal based on limited enrichment.
Misrepresenting the JCPOA’s Underlying Logic
In his speech, Pompeo announced that henceforth, the United States would act “outside” the nuclear agreement. To make his case, he distorted the JCPOA and misrepresented its underlying logic.
The first distortion relates to the relationship between the agreement and Iran’s actions in the Middle East. Pompeo asserted that the JCPOA did not “deter its [Iran’s] quest for a regional hegemony.” Putting aside the claims of “hegemony,” Pompeo’s assertion is true. But as he knows, the agreement was exclusively about nuclear issues and had no relation to Iran’s regional behavior. Moreover, there is no evidence that the JCPOA spurred Iran’s actions in Syria, Iraq, or Yemen. Tehran had intervened in Syria before it signed the JCPOA because it deemed President Bashar al-Assad’s survival vital to its security and strategic standing. It then expanded its operations because the so-called Islamic State threatened both Tehran and Damascus. Thus, Pompeo’s claim—that the oil income that flowed after the agreement funded Iran’s Syria gambit—is ridiculous. Tehran supports Assad’s murderous regime for the same reasons that it spends as much as needed to defend its strategic interests. Pompeo’s speech offers no insights as to how Washington will address this fact. Indeed, the administration has not only lost almost all international support, but it has done so without the anchor of a nuclear agreement that would prevent Iran from renewing enrichment.
Moreover, Pompeo misrepresented the crucial if complex issue of enrichment itself. Quoting former Secretary of State John Kerry, he observed that he had declared in 2015 that, “We don’t recognize a right to enrich.” In a narrow sense Pompeo is correct, though Kerry was only repeating standing US policy. That policy is partly based on the NPT, a treaty that does not recognize any specific right to enrichment. The JCPOA echoes this basic distinction: it provides no recognition of Iran’s enrichment “rights,” but it does spell out the degree of enrichment Iran will be allowed and the conditions under which this will take place. Pompeo’s selective quote thus does Kerry a double injustice: it implies the JCPOA recognized Iran’s right to enrichment—which is simply not true—and/or that Kerry was aware of but ignored this fact, which is also not true.
Ultimately, this ungenerous misrepresentation of the enrichment question also deflects from the JCPOA’s ample inspection provisions, which will be in place for at least 15-20 years. Whether Iran maintains or expands enrichment after that point will have nothing to do with “rights.” Instead, it will have everything to do with sustaining the massive economic benefits the regime needs. Stated differently, Iran’s decision to limit enrichment is about regime survival, a goal that will in fact be undermined by any effort to create a robust nuclear weapons program.
Zero Enrichment Equals Zero Policy
Pompeo’s manipulation of the enrichment issue is a smokescreen. As he declared in his speech, enrichment is unacceptable under any condition; thus, he insists on returning to a policy of zero enrichment. This demand is one of the 12 conditions he enunciated, all of which amount to this formula: the United States will negotiate once Iran capitulates by giving up any enrichment and at the same time ceasing all military activities in the region. Either Iran submits or, as Pompeo proclaims, it will be sanctioned and its proxies “crushed.”
To force Iran’s compliance, Pompeo does not threaten war. Instead, he promises that the White House will continue existing sanctions and impose new ones. The actual battle will therefore be economic, waged by cutting off Iran’s oil sales and wrecking its economy. Noting the protests that erupted in Iran in winter 2018 and praising the hijab protests of Iranian women, Pompeo suggests the administration will save the Iranian people by choking them to the point that they revolt and topple the regime. Yet while the regime needs to sell oil, an economic war is more likely to empower hardliners than compel Tehran’s capitulation or bring democracy to the Islamic Republic. Indeed, the White House has no other plan that would reassure its allies in Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia that the very Iranian leaders most hostile to these four countries would not prevail once the JCPOA is dead and buried.
The Iranian Debate: Save the Deal or Pursue a Dangerous Option?
Iran’s hardliners can now reap the political benefits of having demonstrated, as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei put it recently: “I said many times from the first day: Don’t trust America.” Proven correct, the hawks now want vengeance at home and abroad. But what precisely can they do?
Many experts argue that they will push moderates aside, abandon the JCPOA, renew and expand enrichment, and leave the NPT. But even if they do so, the reality is that Iran has no safe path to creating a viable nuclear weapons program. Before the nuclear agreement, Iran was close to having enough high-grade uranium for just one bomb. When it was signed, the JCPOA extended the “breakout” time from two months to one year or more. Even if Iran is no longer constrained by this deal, it is hard to imagine how it would produce many bombs and hide them. Further, Tehran would also have to test at least one warhead. When it does, and probably well before, the United States and Israel would most likely attack it. In other words, any effort to create a viable nuclear weapons capability would invite war.
Knowing this, and given the economic costs Iran would pay if it goes the nuclear route, President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif are desperately trying to save the JCPOA. This will require a credible commitment from European governments to shield businesses from US sanctions and a guarantee from these governments that Iranian oil sales will continue.
The failure to realize these goals will also be no picnic for the hardliners. Even if their political fortunes skyrocket, they surely appreciate how dangerous it will be to pursue nuclear weapons. No wonder, then, that even Khamenei has sent mixed signals. While denouncing the United States, he nevertheless called for Europe to continue trading with Iran to sustain the nuclear agreement. As for his hardline allies, they are probably not going to risk actions that invite war with the United States or Israel. Recourse to destabilizing activities, including terrorism, is possible; however, Iran’s hawks will probably focus on expanding a “resistance economy” to mitigate the effects of sanctions. China and Russia will be crucial, but now Tehran also has Western Europe’s ear and support.
US Proliferation Policy Meltdown
Indeed, the administration has no clue as to how to bring Iran to heel. This is bad news for Israel, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia, as their alliance with Trump is not terribly useful if the administration is incompetent. On this score, the continuing discussions over the US-North Korea summit come in sharp relief, as they were presaged by confusing Oval Office statements. National Security Advisor John Bolton warned North Korea to accept the “Libya model” or suffer Qadhafi’s fate while Trump retorted that the Libya model would guarantee the regime’s survival. But with one eye on Bolton and the other on Qadhafi’s ghost, North Korean leaders concluded that the Libya model would equal bloody regime change. Further, and like South Korea, Pyongyang is surely worried by Trump’s reneging on the Iran nuclear deal. What is more, the North Koreans are unlikely to submit to US demands to dismantle their nuclear weapons program totally. Yet, the meeting between President Trump and the North Korean emissary Kim Yong-Chol on June 1 and the announcement that a summit with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-Un will be held on June 12 in Singapore may produce some unforeseen surprises.
The administration’s proliferation policy is now in meltdown, one which no threat of “steely resolve” (to use Pompeo’s words) will easily contain. It is hemorrhaging in part because the administration has yet to forge a strategy that consistently and credibly signals a feasible bottom line that includes living with—rather than destroying—regimes it despises or fears. Europe is not likely to gallop to the rescue. Instead, US political leaders on both sides of the aisle must call for a US model that has some reasonable hope of restraining America’s foes and bringing security to its Middle East allies.