President Obama has promoted the recently agreed Iran deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) as “a comprehensive, long-term deal with Iran that will prevent it from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” There are many fallacies and ambiguities in this statement.
One is that this is a “long-term” deal. With some major nuclear restrictions lapsing as early as year eight and all of them vanishing by year fifteen, the only thing the deal is longer than is Obama’s presidency. But another aspect of this statement is, to say the least, problematic: that the deal stops Iran’s advance toward a nuclear weapon. For the deal fails to put in place any meaningful brakes on Iran’s ballistic missile program and may well even enable it.
There are three main elements of a nuclear weapon—the fissile material, explosive device, and delivery vehicle. Credibly preventing a nuclear Iran should mean shutting down any progress, if not outright eliminating the possibility of progress, in all three of these areas. The JCPOA claims to address the first by limiting uranium enrichment and plutonium production and the second by restricting weaponization research. But it does nothing to keep Iran from building the ballistic missiles that could accurately deliver a nuclear warhead anywhere in the Middle East, Europe, or even the United States.
Once upon a time, the Obama administration believed in targeting all three of these elements. While the interim November 2013 Joint Plan of Action, upon which the JCPOA is based, ignored ballistic missiles, in February 2014, then-Assistant Secretary of State Wendy Sherman testified before Congress that Iran’s ballistic missile program “is indeed something that has to be addressed as part of a comprehensive agreement.” And President Obama claimed on July 15 that “what I said to our negotiators was . . . let’s press for a longer extension of . . . the ballistic missile prohibitions . . . and we got eight years with respect to ballistic missiles.” But that is not what he got at all.
The putative eight-year restriction on Iran’s ballistic missiles is not part of the JCPOA deal. It isn’t mentioned anywhere. Instead, there is language in the U.N. Security Council resolution lifting sanctions and endorsing the deal that the administration rammed through on July 20 before Congress had a chance to review and vote on the agreement. But it is not part of the actual resolution, the contents of which, “Member States are obligated . . . to accept and carry out.” Instead, buried in an annex 99 pages into the resolution is this language:
Iran is called upon not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology, until the date eight years after the JCPOA Adoption Day or until the date on which the IAEA submits a report confirming the Broader Conclusion, whichever is earlier.
Notice that there is no actual mandate for or obligation on Iran in this language. Instead, Iran is merely “called upon” to refrain from pursuing ballistic missiles. This is why Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was able to call the provision “non-binding.” Further, the duration of the polite request that Iran forgo building missiles that can deliver nuclear warheads is supposed to last eight years. But it could be shortened by a finding from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). By issuing the so-called “Broader Conclusion,” a certification that it believes Iran’s nuclear program will be limited to peaceful uses only, the IAEA could eliminate whatever weak restrictions do exist on Iran’s ballistic missile program. There are no clear conditions for arriving at the Broader Conclusion—it is entirely at the discretion of the agency and its director. IAEA director Yukiya Amano has been muscular in pursuing Iran’s nuclear transgressions, but Amano will be gone in 18 months and whoever replaces him might be more lenient toward Iran.