What will Iran do if Trump tears up the Nuclear Agreement?

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Recently I was asked whether, if Trump succeeded in undermining the Joint Plan of Collective Action (JCPOA), the Iran nuclear deal, whether Iran would reply by going for broke to create a nuclear weapon. A related question is whether a collapse of the JCPOA would strengthen Iran’s hard liners.

Here is what I said

Iran’s clerical leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will not allow development of a nuclear weapon. He has repeatedly given fatwas or considered legal opinions that making, stockpiling and using nuclear weapons contravenes Islamic law. In formal Islamic law, you cannot target civilians. The Qur’an says, “Fight those who fight you.” In Iran’s Shiite Islam, by the way, only defensive jihad or holy war is allowed. An atomic bomb, as the US demonstrated at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, kills very large numbers of innocent civilians. Khamenei can’t climb down from decades of such fatwas without undermining his clerical authority and hence the foundations of his entire regime. Saying he secretly wants a bomb is like asserting that Pope Francis has a covert condom factory in the Vatican basement.

Iran has never had the aim of creating a bomb or it would have one by now.

The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and hard line scientists and engineers tried to finesse Khamenei. They seem to have convinced him to allow them to developing facilities and experiments leading to expertise and capabilities with regard to nuclear weapon production. This capability amounts to what specialists call nuclear latency or the “Japan option.” That is, if the world knows you could slap together a nuclear bomb tout de suite, they are less likely to invade you. Everyone knows Japan has stockpiles of plutonium and technical know-how, and that they could produce a nuclear weapon in short order if they felt really threatened. Trump even encouraged them to go this route.

The Iranian hard liners likewise wanted a deterrence effect via a short time-line to a break-out capacity, i.e. potential bomb production, especially after the US invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. As long as they didn’t actually make a bomb, they could escape the ayatollah’s wrath.

Because of Obama’s severe sanctions from 2012, a short time-like to break-out incurred unacceptable costs for nuclear doves like Rouhani, who got Khamenei’s ear and warned him of civil unrest a la 2009 if sanctions continued. Iran was kicked off currency exchanges and had trouble selling its oil, being forced to reduce exports by 1 mn. barrels per day, from 2.5 mn. b/d down to 1.5. (It is back up to exporting 2.6 million barrels per day of petroleum and condensates, but the price has collapsed).

The compromise reached in the JCPOA by the UN Security Council plus Germany was that Iran could keep latency, i.e. the expertise for a Japan option, but had to lengthen its time-line to break-out. It bricked in and abandoned its planned heavy water reactor at Arak. It limited the number of its centrifuges. It destroyed stockpiles of uranium enriched to 19.5% for its medical isotopes reactor. It consented to regular inspections of its facilities by the UN. (Plutonium signatures can be detected months later and no matter how you try to vacuum up the particles, so Iran really can’t cheat as long as it is inspected).

Iran retained latency capabilities and nothing in JCPOA forbade them. What JCPOA insisted on was a long production time-line rather than a short one, i.e. 6 to 8 months rather than a few weeks.

As long as Iran does not ramp up production capabilities to shorten the break-out time-line, it is in compliance.

The cult, the Mojahedin-e Khalq or MEK, i.e the People’s Jihadis, is now pushing a line that something sinister is going on at the Parchin military base. The UN inspectors visited it in 2015 and are not interested in going there again. The Non-Proliferation Treaty excluded inspections of military facilities at US and USSR insistence, and the JCPOA followed that legal tradition. The MEK, which is a small terrorist organization that wants to overthrow the Iranian government in favor of its mixture of Shiite fundamentalism and Marxism, has some sort of shadowy and creepy relationship with AIPAC and the Israel lobbies. Giuliani regularly speaks for big bucks at their meetings. This sort of thing is much more suspicious than the Russian connection.

If, however, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the agency charged with inspecting Iran, wanted to visit Parchin again, centrist President Hassan Rouhani would allow it. Transparency benefits him.

The IAEA does not want to visit Parchin because they think the optics of such a request at this time would aid Trump hawks in undermining JCPOA.

By signing the deal, Iran gave up substantial deterrence effects of nuclear latency for the sake of ending sanctions and reducing tensions, by accepting a long break-out time-line. That is, its leaders accepted a situation where the country was somewhat more likely to be invaded or the government overthrown by hostile great powers like the US.

Iran has received almost nothing in return. The GOP Congress, taking its cue from the Israel lobby, has actually ratcheted up US sanctions on Iran, which is a violation of the JCPOA. Moreover, the Trump people have rattled sabers and spooked European investors. Nobody wants to be sanctioned by the US Department of the Treasury, which has in the past fined European firms billions of dollars for doing business with Iran. There has been a small uptick of Iranian trade with Europe and Asia, but the hard liners are slamming Rouhani for giving away the country’s security and returning empty-handed.

Now Trump is inventing some special US certification procedure for Iran compliance, which is not in the JCPOA, and is aimed at undermining it. I doubt Europe will go along with this scam. Maybe someone should inspect the unsafe thousands of US nuclear warheads. Iran does not have any.

Nuclear Israel is threatening to bomb Damascus over Iran’s Syria presence, and is pressuring Russia to expel Iran. The JCPOA weakened Iran vis-a-vis Israel by reducing the deterrence effects of latency. The world community, which tried to reduce Iran to a fourth world country for merely doing some nuclear experiments, has actively rewarded Israel for flouting the Non-Proliferation Treaty and building a stockpile of some 400 nuclear warheads, with which it occasionally menaces its neighbors.

So yes, all this strengthens hard liners and weakens Rouhani.

But China and Russia want the JCPOA and Iran is unlikely to try to get a bomb both for this reason and because of Khomeinist commitments (Khomeini, the father of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, called nukes the tools of the devil, and his successor, Ali Khamenei, agrees).

However, hard liners could try to shorten the break-out window again if they felt the West had severely violated the terms of the deal.

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Related video:

Trita Parsi: Inside the Iran Agreement: The Art of the Deal

14 Responses

  1. Trump’s mental weakness and vicious personality, which is without compassion and or conscience, is bolstered every time our former game show host president undoes any of Obama’s successful accomplishments such as ACA, environmental safeguards, bank regs, nuclear deals etc. all the while instituting his own ridiculous policies such as building a needless multi billion dollar border wall ( Damn that Mexican president for not playing along) and pushing coal and oil to fuel our energy needs.

    It’s going to be a long four years.

  2. It seems the obvious Iranian move would be to align more strongly with the rest of the world, sans Israel and the US. Who needs them, really?

    Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is really all about Israel and it’s power to influence US policy against it’s own self-interest. That is, all the lost trade opportunities, nevermind lessening the possibility of armed conflict.

    What I don’t get is how the US has been able to coerce the EU to participate in sanctions. While one can understand why they were able to do so in the past, at this point the landscape has totally changed.

    • And why is it that every time I think of Israel and the US I think of George and Lennie, in Of Mice and Men?

      It Isn’t as though Israel cares about the US, other than as a place to fleece and otherwise do business.

  3. These statements are generally true, however they undersell the Iranian nationalism. I hear from relatives in Iran who are fully in the dissident camp that they are fed up with the Iranian government for bending to US pressures and now leaving Iran defenseless. There might be an alliance of hardliners and hard core nationalists forcing the system to establish the military redlines. If this happens, my guess is that Iran will leapfrog North Korean and will go for the H-bomb directly. Let’s not forget that America’s reaction to North Korean bluster has shown the world the world sheriff is getting old and toothless. We are witnessing a new emerging, multipolar world order and US will slowly walks away from the position of being the police, the judge and the executioner. All said, given America’s declining power, I do not see a major military threat against Iran let alone an actual war.

  4. Iran would have nothing to gain by reneging on the JCPOA whatever Trump does, whereas sticking with it they gain international respect, and trite though it may seem they make Netanyahu look like he’s been crying, Wolf, something he could well do without right now. Poor man must feel dark forces moving in on him; Assad looks like surviving, Iran is in Syria, and Hezbollah has been gaining valuable live military training in Syria’s deserts, mountains and cities. Meanwhile back on the farm the slow tumbrel of Israeli justice can be heard approaching. There’s no one to help, his nukes are no use, Trump won’t get involved, Putin shrugs his shoulders, and there’s only the Saudi princeling who will vanish like a Cheshire cat, not even leaving a smile behind. If Netanyahu falls, the kaleidoscope will be well shaken, no one can bestride the world for Israel and its settlers quite as he does, everything will be turned upside down.

  5. As you point out, I do not think that Iran would move towards manufacturing nuclear weapons if Trump tears up the nuclear agreement, partly due to the religious prohibition, but mainly because of the negative effect that it would have on Iran’s security. Both the Shah before the revolution and the clerical leaders after the revolution have rightly or wrongly stated that having nuclear weapons would attract greater dangers than enhancing their security. Even Ahmadinezhad in one of his speeches during his second term said that he would not be foolish enough to go nuclear, because according to him one or a few bombs would be no answer to America’s thousands and even Israel’s hundreds of nukes.

    What the Trump Administration is doing has a number of other negative consequences.

    1- The first consequence is that it is alienating a large number of young educated Iranians who were well-disposed towards America and who looked up to it as a mature and rational country. They now see that, contrary to what they profess, the neocons in the administration and in US Congress are not just against Iranian hardliners but are looking for excuses to humiliate, isolate and ultimately attack Iran and turn it into another Iraq.

    2- The second noticeable consequence has been that a large number of Iranians who live in the United States and who are normally hostile to the clerics have begun to condemn the demonization of Iran and the real hardships that they and their relatives who wish to visit them are facing, due to visa restrictions and banking difficulties inflicted on all Iranians. Trump has already drastically curtailed cultural relations with Iran:
    link to al-monitor.com

    3- The third effect of these anti-Iranian measures has been that the hardliners in Iran have been emboldened and government officials, especially Iran’s able foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, are under a great deal of pressure. Iranian newspapers are full of articles these days saying that the Iranian officials were fooled by the promises of the lifting of sanctions. They gave up their advanced nuclear program and got nothing in return. Even a leading foreign policy advisor to Ayatollah Khamenei and the brother of Iranian Majlis speaker who is not normally regarded as a hardliner gave a long interview two days ago and called on the government to admit that they were fooled and that Ayatollah Khamenei was right to say that they could not trust the Americans. He called on the Majlis to pass a resolution saying that if America leaves the agreement Iran should also leave it and resume its nuclear work.

    3- The fourth effect of adopting a hostile policy towards Iran is that the Iranian government has no option but to move closer to Russia and China. Already, Russian and Chinese officials are making strong noises for closer links with Iran. Even President Erdogan of Turkey, a member of NATO, is buying S400 missile defense system from Russia, and Iran too is signing major economic and arms deals with both China and Russia.

    4- On a global scale, the undermining of the JCPOA will do great harm to the cause of non-proliferation as other countries see that the United States does not honor its pledges. Seeing how the US administration is treating Iran, North Korean leaders would be foolish to give up their nuclear weapons on the basis of a peaceful agreement with the United States.

  6. At this point it seems Iran is willing to join the world community, and Trump USA is not. He has distanced this country from many joint international issues, including the Paris Accords, isolating our nation, from important issues, where we previously showed leadership, and initiative. Trump only needs other nations when he wants to expand his business by building hotels, golf course, or where Ivanka’s many businesses will benefit. Luckily the Iran nuclear deal has other signatories, who have already signaled that they are not going to join the Trump anti Iranian move.
    It is strange how Trump embraces Russia, does not utter a single negative word about it, and yet demonizes Iran for no valid reason. Perhaps Netanyahu may be sending Trump cartoon bombs occasionally!

    Lastly, it goes without saying that this is yet another Obama accomplishment, that Trump will want destroyed.

  7. Given ongoing American threats toward the Islamic Republic, the world should applaud Iran’s acceptance of the July 2015 nuclear deal. Consider that in 2017 “A senior delegation of United States Senators travelled to Tirana, the capital of Albania…to meet the Iranian opposition leader Maryam Rajavi, who heads the National Council of Resistance of Iran”, and to also meet “members of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK)…”

    “The NCRI is a political coalition calling for regime change in Iran and considered the main threat to Tehran’s mullahs. The MEK is the main member of this coalition of a variety of Iranian dissident groups and individuals.”

    “Analysts believe this visit sends a strong signal to Tehran over how the NCRI is gaining momentum through a growing consensus in Congress over the necessity of adopting a policy of regime change vis-à-vis Iran.” link to detailedpoliticalquizzes.wordpress.com

  8. Even if the JCPOA were abandoned by all parties, Iran is still party to the NPT. Yet we continue to hear ‘they’ll have the bomb in 10 years’ regularly in the Mainstream media. Frustrating, but thanks Prof Cole for repeatedly trying to set the record straight.

  9. We have an ignorant administration and they must be kept in check.It is a dark time for the US that governs with complete lack of awareness . May they soon be history including Pence.Thank you Juan for your excellent article.

  10. Follow the money . . .

    Quietly, behind the curtains, The world financial structure is changing. China is building a modern, financial transaction system that rivals the UK/US controlled SWIFT system. This network prevents the USA from seeing any transactions and prevents the USA from blocking any transactions. The more the USA threatens the integrity of the SWIFT system, the more countries and businesses move transactions to the Chinese network.

    Basically the USA threats to European companies are becoming very hollow.

    It is important to note that smuggling and evasion of financial restrictions have been in existence thousands of years before the USA ever existed and the USA leadership is no smarter than the kings and rulers that the world has had for thousands of years.

    Over the next few years if Iran can keep its cool, they will discover that they can thumb their noses at the USA because the USA is becoming more impotent by the day.

    With careful diplomatic management by Iran, the USA can be blunted and Iran will thrive, much to the frustration of the USA leadership.

  11. I enjoy the deep analysis of every body but let’s be honest….US did not financially gain a dime from this deal so le president Trump is eager to tarnish this… Iranians will welcome the move and renegotiate the heck out of it…. US won’t swing it her way anyway…

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