The question is not whether Iran can be trusted to uphold the nuclear deal now being negotiated in Vienna (it can’t), but whether the Obama administration and its P5+1 partners can be trusted to punish Iran when it violates the agreement?
Experience shows that unless Iran violates the deal egregiously, the temptation will be to ignore it. For instance, Iran got away with selling more oil than it should have under the interim agreement. More ominously, Tehran repeatedly pushed the envelope on technical aspects of the agreement—such as caps on its uranium stockpile—and got away with it. The Obama administration and other Western powers have so much invested in their diplomatic efforts that they’ll deny such violations ever occurred.
More evidence of Iranian violations has now surfaced. Two reports regarding Iran's attempts to illicitly and clandestinely procure technology for its nuclear and ballistic missile programs have recently been published. They show that Iran's procurement continues apace, if not faster than before the Joint Plan of Action was signed in November 2013. But fear of potentially embarrassing negotiators and derailing negotiations has made some states reluctant to report Tehran’s illegal efforts. If these countries have hesitated to expose Iran during the negotiations, it is more likely they will refrain from reporting after a deal is struck.
The first report was released last month by the U.N. panel of experts in charge of reporting compliance with U.N. Security Council resolutions regarding Iran. The panel noted that U.N. member states had not reported significant violations of U.N. sanctions and speculated as to why: either Iran was complying, or countries did not wish to interfere with negotiations.
The second report, released last week by Germany's domestic intelligence agency, is less ambiguous. The agency, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, confirmed to us that Iran continues to seek illicit technology for its nuclear and ballistic missiles programs.
Iran has had a long history of trying to obtain nuclear technology from German companies, particularly by seeking ways to transport merchandise in circumvention of international sanctions. Since November 2013, Tehran has sought industry computers, high-speed cameras, cable fiber, and pumps for its nuclear and missile program. It appears that Iran's readiness to negotiate does not reflect any substantive policy change. Rather, it is a diplomatic tactic retreat forced by economic distress, not a strategic rethinking of its priorities.
Iran's cheating should give Western negotiators additional resolve to impose ironclad guarantees in the agreement. They should compel Iran to reveal its past activities, including its post-JPOA procurement efforts, and impose tough, intrusive, "anytime, anywhere" inspections before sanctions are suspended, let alone lifted.
Instead, the lack of reporting to the U.N. despite evidence of cheating suggests a lack of resolve on the part of Western nations, and their willingness to downplay all but the most egregious violations. This does not bode well for the future. If Western powers are reluctant to penalize Iran for trying to evade sanctions because they’re afraid of spoiling the negotiations, what will happen in the future when Western powers have even more invested in preserving an agreement?
Emanuele Ottolenghi is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Benjamin Weinthal is a research fellow.