Middle East Ticker

The Last Days of the Iran Deal?

By J. Dana Stuster
Tuesday, May 1, 2018, 11:46 AM

France, Germany, and Israel Make Closing Arguments to Trump on Iran Deal

With Donald Trump’s May 12 deadline for deciding whether or not to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action closing in, advocates and critics of the agreement are making their case to the president. Last week, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited the White House to encourage Trump to remain in the agreement. Neither came away optimistic about the deal’s prospects: Merkel said that after she presented her arguments Trump responded “exactly as she expected” by returning to his criticism of the agreement, and just hours after visiting the White House Macron told a group of reporters at George Washington University that he expects Trump to “get rid of this deal on his own, for domestic reasons.”

Yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made his case for scrapping the JCPOA in the form of a powerpoint presentation delivered in English, live on television and directed squarely at Trump. Pacing a small stage, Netanyahu presented what he said was new intelligence stolen from a secret Iranian government archive that conclusively demonstrates Iran lied about its nuclear weapons program. That was half right—the files show irrefutably that Iran concealed a nuclear weapons program that was active until about 2003, but though this was the most thorough public release of intelligence on the program, there was nothing new. In fact, details of the Iranian nuclear weapons program, Project Amad, were known to the IAEA in 2011 and reported by the press, and after Netanyahu’s presentation former IAEA chief inspector Olli Heinonen said he had seen some of the exact same intelligence as early as 2008. The details also track closely the findings of the National Intelligence Estimate prepared by the U.S. intelligence committee in 2007, more than a decade ago, which concluded that Iran had shelved its weapons program in 2003 but had continued to supplement its research with an enrichment program that could provide useful knowledge for weapons development.

Rather than making a case for scrapping the Iran deal, Netanyahu laid out the intelligence that demonstrated to policymakers why a deal was necessary in the first place. Claims that the intelligence is revelatory are either misinformed or disingenuous. Intelligence like the material presented yesterday was the foundation of the international campaign to pressure Iran to accept verifiable limits on its nuclear program that resulted in an agreement in 2015. Only one of Netanyahu’s claims suggested that Iran is violating the JCPOA: He argued that the head of Project Amad is continuing to work on developing nuclear weapons in a special division of the Ministry of Defense, but unlike the rest of his presentation, Netanyahu offered no supporting documentation demonstrating continued research. It is remarkable that, in such a huge trove of intelligence, Israeli intelligence agencies apparently could not find any conclusive evidence of Iranian nuclear weapons development since 2015. The most likely answer for why that is the case is that the agreement is working—which is what the IAEA has consistently said in its periodic updates on the deal’s implementation and even some members of Trump’s own administration. Just last week, in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Secretary of Defense James Mattis said the JCPOA is “working as intended” and described the verification measures as “robust.”

Despite the JCPOA’s continued success in constraining Iran’s nuclear program and the pressure to maintain the agreement from other parties to the deal, Trump now appears poised to withdraw and reimpose sanctions by the middle of the month. After the presentation yesterday, Trump and his administration repeatedly mischaracterized the JCPOA and Netanyahu’s report. “In seven years, that deal will have expired, and Iran will be free to make nuclear weapons,” Trump told reporters in the Rose Garden yesterday afternoon. This is wrong in at least two ways: The agreement bars Iran from building nuclear weapons in perpetuity, and though Trump likely meant that the deal would eventually allow Iran to increase its uranium enrichment, the deal does not relax constraints on Iran’s nuclear enrichment until 2030 and even then these operations will remain subject to IAEA verification. Last night, after Trump’s comments, the White House produced a statement declaring that Netanyahu’s presentation was “consistent with what the United States has long known: Iran has a robust, clandestine nuclear weapons program that it has tried and failed to hide from the world and from its own people.” But there is no evidence of a current weapons program, and after reading the statement out and circulating it to reporters, the White House later corrected it to say that—past tense—Iran “had a robust, clandestine nuclear weapons program.” But the stage is now set for U.S. withdrawal. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the intelligence demonstrates that the JCPOA was “built on lies,” and that the State Department is “assessing what the discovery of Iran’s secret nuclear files means for the future of the JCPOA.”

A functioning arms control agreement is now set to be abrogated by an administration that cannot accurately describe its terms or what it was supposed to address—even when the intelligence that demonstrates why it was necessary is presented slide by slide.

Israel-Iran Confrontation Continues to Escalate in Syria

Israel has not only launched a diplomatic attack on the Iran nuclear deal—last week, it continued its attacks on Iran’s operations in Syria. At least 16 missiles, almost certainly launched by Israeli forces, struck regime-held military facilities in Hama and Aleppo provinces, killing at least 26 pro-regime fighters and possibly dozens of Iranian advisors. One of the targets was a weapons cache, which the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told the Associated Press was believed to house Iranian-supplied surface-to-surface missiles. Israel has periodically targeted Iranian weapons in Syria which could be transferred to Hezbollah and directed at Israel, but the cadence of these strikes has increased in recent weeks. Last month, Israeli airstrikes once again hit the Tiyas airbase, where Iran has based several drones.

The escalating Israeli strikes on Iranian facilities in Syria is prompting concerns about a direct Israel-Iran conflict. After the strikes last month, Iranian officials promised to retaliate and Brookings’ Dror Michman and Yael Mizrahi-Arnaud warned that Tehran could be preparing to launch missiles at an Israeli military base or city. International Crisis Group’s Ali Vaez told the New York Times yesterday that the situation is now a tinderbox that could escalate into a wider war. Russia has the most to lose from an Israeli-Iranian war that could unravel its gains in Syria, and Moscow is reportedly now trying to manage both sides with shuttle diplomacy. Last week, Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev met separately with the heads of Israel and Iran’s national security councils, and Al-Monitor reports that Moscow may be organizing back-channel talks. Even if talks are happening, it is unclear if they’re making progress.

Lebanon Goes to the Polls, Elections in Iraq and Turkey Coming Up Soon

Lebanon’s first parliamentary election in nine years is underway. Expatriates have already cast their votes and Lebanese citizens residing in Lebanon will go to the polls on May 6. Previous elections, originally scheduled for 2013, have been postponed several times—Lebanese officials have cited concerns about security conditions as violence spilled over the Syrian border. In the interim, the balance of power in Lebanon’s notoriously dynastic political scene has been rattled by Hezbollah’s persistent influence and the political and financial troubles of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the Sunni leader of the Future Movement. The elections will also be the first held since the implementation of a new law that adjusts Lebanon’s confessional system—which apportions representation by religion, a legacy of the country’s civil war that ended in 1990—to a proportional representation system in which voters will select from party lists instead of individual candidates.

Though Lebanon’s two main blocs—one mostly Shia and aligned with Iran, the other mostly Sunni and backed by Saudi Arabia—are expected to maintain their preeminent role in the country’s government, the new law is designed to increase “the sectarian diversity of MPs within each district,” as Emily Whalen wrote for Lawfare in February. Even then, campaigns had mobilized along religious divides; “Predictable sectarian jostling has occupied headlines in the past few weeks, a sure sign that the political elite are hoping to consolidate support within their respective bases,” Whalen wrote. But, as Sima Ghaddar wrote recently for The Century Foundation, these religious parties now must contend with an array of reformist and secular upstarts that have emerged from years of popular dissatisfaction with the government, and that coalesced around political moments like 2015’s “You Stink” demonstrations. Sectarian tensions and political wrangling have been at a fever pitch in recent weeks, and even led to political violence. In some cases, candidates or their offices have been targeted, Reuters reported last week. “All the parties are tense because they don’t know the outcome of this electoral law,” one candidate, Nabil Badr, told Reuters.

Campaigning in Iraq is also in full swing ahead of elections on May 12. The results will determine whether Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi will remain in office beyond the crisis that brought him there. Despite successfully overseeing the Iraqi state’s fight against the Islamic State, deftly stifling an Kurdish bid for secession, and balancing U.S. and Iranian interests, his campaign has been weakened by a series of missteps that have opened him up to attacks on the government’s service provision and security against terrorist attacks. With the Islamic State pushed from its territorial control, the elections will determine whether Abadi will be entrusted with reconstruction and continuing counterterrorism operations.

Next month, Turkey will also hold elections—which came as a surprise when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced them on April 18. The snap elections leave little time for opposition parties to organize their campaigns, and it is still unclear what the slate of candidates will look like. Abdullah Gul, a senior official in Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party who was president from 2007 to 2014, declared last week that he would not seek a nomination on a multiparty opposition list despite his concerns about the country’s direction. Gul said he decided against running for the presidency because of infighting among opposition parties that prevented a “broad consensus” supporting him, but as Al-Monitor reports, Gul’s announcement also follows a report that he may have been pushed out of the race. Last week, the Turkish media outlet Haberturk reported that Erdogan had sent two senior officials, a presidential spokesman and the chief of the general staff, to meet with Gul and encourage him not to run; Erdogan’s administration denied the report and Haberturk later took down the article and fired an editor in response, but some observers think it is credible. “Erdogan appears to have transformed Turkey from a country where generals intimidate civilian leaders to one where civilian leaders can send generals to intimidate secular rivals,” the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Nicholas Danforth told Al-Monitor.