In January 2016, the International Atomic Energy Agency certified that Iran had complied with all of its obligations under the JCPOA (nuclear deal). The Obama administration responded by saying, “That will ensure Iran’s nuclear program is and remains exclusively peaceful.” At that time, the White House assured Congress and the American people that the deal would apply only to Iran’s nuclear weapons program, not to any of its other nefarious activities.
To reassure the majority of the American public who were against cutting a deal with the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, the White House said, “Sanctions on conventional weapons, WILL REMAIN IN PLACE UNDER THE IRAN DEAL,” according to the official White House website whitehouse.gov. “UNDER THE IRAN DEAL, THE US WILL ONLY LIFT NUCLEAR-RELATION SANCTIONS,” again in bold letters for emphasis.
Yet last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was forced to start a process to extend the arms embargo on Iran that is scheduled to end this October. Didn’t president Obama promise that the nuclear agreement was only about nuclear issues?
In one of the great sleight of hands for any executive branch, especially for an administration that claimed it was the most transparent in history, the White House purposely obscured the fact that the JCPOA and the accompanying United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2231 – which were supposed to enshrine the JCPOA in international law – were not the same document, allowing both the US and Iran to maintain a fiction on what the Iran deal really meant and what would be respected.
So it comes as a shock to the American people that any future administration would need to deal with Iranian conventional weapons purchases that Obama seemingly promised would not be part of the nuclear deal.
None of this should be a surprise.
Back in 2015, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif and Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi made it clear that they viewed the two documents as completely different.
A MEMRI (Middle East Media Research Institute) translation of Araghchi’s comments said, “We told them [the Americans] explicitly [if you insist on including these articles on the arms and missile embargoes in the JCPOA], there is no agreement, and we will not accept an agreement in which embargoes on weapons and missiles continue.”
MEMRI commented at the time, “The Iranian perspective regarding UNSCR 2231 hinges entirely on its non-binding nature. Iran deems only the JCPOA to be binding… Iran insisted on relegating disputed issues [arms embargo, ballistic missiles] to UNSCR 2231.”
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said after the agreement, “There is nothing in the JCPOA about missiles, defense and weapons. Those that exist are in [UN Security Council] Resolution 2231…. In this new resolution, restrictions have been proposed instead of sanctions. The export and import of weapons have been converted from a permanent ban to a five-year restriction.”
Yet former secretary of state John Kerry and chief negotiator Wendy Sherman somehow spun losing out on a long-term ban and accepting a five-year restriction on conventional arms sales as a success. They said if they didn’t accept ending the ban in five years, the whole nuclear agreement would have fallen apart.
So they blinked and we are now dealing with a terrorist state being able to purchase sophisticated weapons systems in less than six months. They capitulated by moving anything objectionable to the Iranians to an obscure Annex B in UNSCR 2231.
That is how the Obama administration could technically say the JCPOA only dealt with nuclear-related activities, while transferring contested issues that were not respected by the ayatollah and the Revolutionary Guards to UNSCR 2231.
FAST FORWARD to May 2020, and we are only months away from Iran being able to buy any conventional weapons with full international approval. They will also be able buy ballistic missiles in just two more years.
So now Secretary Pompeo, for US security interests, is trying to extend the conventional arms embargo by a surprising tactic, claiming the US still remains part of the UNSCR 2231, even though it withdrew from the JCPOA. That is a fine line to walk.
The Obama administration created the fiction that the JCPOA and UNSC 2231 were the same, while using their differences when convenient. So you cannot cry foul when Pompeo is doing the same thing. This was the deck handed to him by Kerry.
According to David Sanger, writing in The New York Times, the Trump administration is developing a “strategy to pressure the UNSC to extend an arms embargo on Tehran, or see far more stringent sanctions reimposed.”
The strategy asserts that the US is still a participant of UNSCR 2231 but “only for the purpose of invoking a snapback of preexisting [sanctions].”
This will be an uphill battle, as Russia, China, Germany and France will claim that since Trump withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018, he also withdrew from UNSCR 2231. They would all like to sell arms to Iran (especially Russia, for a much-needed cash infusion in the post-COVID-19 era), while sticking a thumb in the eye of Donald Trump.
They ignore that the arms will strengthen Iranian hegemonic expansionism that has been crucial in supporting the Syrian genocide, or the reality that today the Iranian controlled militias have turned Iraq into an Iranian puppet. The proponents of the Iran nuclear deal can’t blame Trump for Iran’s ability to buy arms this fall; that is their work, and it would have happened on the watch of any president.
Germany, France and the UK were part of the Obama chorus that not only sold the JCPOA as a way to stop the Iranian nuclear program, but as a way to incentivize Iran to return to the family of nations. They all reassured skeptics that this would moderate Iranian behavior.
Considering that just 10 days after the JCPOA agreement Iran sent terrorist mastermind Qasem Soleimani to Russia to create a plan to carve up Syria, you would think that these democracies would be hesitant to sell weapons to Iran. The only thing that will stop Germany and France would be Trump sanctioning those countries’ industries for doing business with Iran. If they think they can get away with arms sales to Iran without financial penalty, they will. The UK under Boris Johnson may resist.
Pompeo’s strategy is to claim the US is still part of UNSCR 2231 and to use that leverage to either extend the arms embargo with a new UNSCR, or force the Security Council to institute snapback sanctions against Iran. No matter what one thinks about the Iran deal, the question remains: How can democracies, in good conscience, support selling arms to the Islamic Republic this fall?
The writer is the director of MEPIN (Middle East Political Information Network) who regularly briefs members of the Senate, House and their foreign policy aides, as well White House advisers. He is senior security editor for The Jerusalem Report, and his work has appeared in The Hill, JNS, JTA, and Defense News.