Read part 1 of the podcast.
Cliff May: So where we are right now, and I think I’m using your language on this, is there are two choices that President Trump is considering. One is can the agreement be fixed, and if not, does it need to be nixed? Why don’t you talk a little bit about what would need to be done in order to repair … in order to make this a reasonable agreement. Theoretically at least, the Europeans are charged with trying to come up with these fixes and convince the Iranians to come along. If that doesn’t happen, President Trump is likely to say the agreement hasn’t been fixed, it’s not a good agreement, I’m terminating it. Right?
Mark Dubowitz: That’s correct. January 12th, President Trump says in a statement that this is the last waiver that he’s going to be granting. Every 120 to 180 days under statute, the President has to continue to waive these statutory sanctions that are the most powerful economic sanctions, and he’s provided a number of waivers since he came into office, but very, very reluctantly. In October, he decided to de-certify the deal, where he said look, this deal is a deal where we ultimately got … we got screwed, in the language of Donald Trump. We gave up concessions that were disproportionate to the concessions that we got, and so I’m going to de-certify this deal. And that’s what he did in October. By January, he says no more waivers.
So what does that mean? In practice, it means on May the 12th, when the next waiver is due, Donald Trump is either going to waive or not. If he waives, the deal stays. If he doesn’t, the deal’s gone, and he said very clearly in January, I will waive May the 12th if the Europeans agree to a transatlantic accord that fixes three of the fatal flaws of this agreement: the sunset provisions, Iran’s missile program, and the clear Iranian reluctance to allow the IAEA into military sites. Fix that-
Cliff May: In other words, they can’t … just so you understand, right now there are inspections going on. They’re being called very intrusive inspections, except military sites are off-limits to the inspectors, as if who would be so suspicious as to think that a military site would be someplace to develop military weapons? It’s kind of an odd concept.
Mark Dubowitz: That’s correct. The Iranians have said time and time again, from Khamenei to Rouhani to Zarif to Salehi, all of them have said, “You are never getting into our military sites. Did we stutter? Would you like us to translate from Persian into English for you? You’re never getting into our military sites.” Now, the US position, both under the Obama administration and the Trump administration, as well as the European position, is that’s absolutely not what is allowed under the JCPOA.
The JCPOA actually permits the IAEA to suspect all suspicious sites, and then there’s a whole mechanism that’s set up there. And so we have to get into those military sites, because clearly that’s where Iran is going to conduct clandestine military nuclear activities. How do we know that? Is that speculation? Is that theory? No, we have a decades-long track record where Iran has done exactly that. They’ve developed clandestinely elements of their military nuclear program on Revolutionary Guard military bases.
And so if we don’t get into those military bases, we cannot enforce this agreement. If we can’t enforce this agreement, then this agreement is not worth the paper it’s written on. So that is a demand by this administration, and if the Europeans and the Americans come to an agreement by May the 12th to force inspections on military sites, to constrain Iran’s missile program, particularly missiles capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, and eliminate the sunset provisions, then there will be an accord, and the agreement will stay. If the Europeans are not willing to do that, May the 12th, Donald Trump has promised he’s walking away from the deal.
Cliff May: And on that particular provision, something I think a lot of people don’t understand, why aren’t the international inspectors for the International Atomic Energy Agency, why aren’t the Europeans screaming bloody murder that hey, we’re supposed to be inspecting, we can’t inspect these sites? They haven’t been doing that.
Mark Dubowitz: They haven’t been doing that, and my theory on why they haven’t been doing that is because they don’t want to challenge the Iranians, certainly not this early in the agreement, because the Iranians are saying, “You’re never getting into our military sites.” And if they say, “Yes, we are,” then it creates a standoff, and under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, it begins to initiate a 24-day clock, after which, if Iran has not agreed to allow the IAEA into these military sites, then the United States or some other party can then begin to push, ultimately leading to a unilateral snapback of all of the UN Security Council resolution sanctions, as well as all of the US and European sanctions. And the United States can do that unilaterally. It doesn’t need the agreement of the Russians, the Chinese, or the Europeans.
Well, what does that mean? That means the deal’s over, so this is kind of the nuclear option. So if you’re the IAEA and you want to keep the deal, and you’re the Europeans and you’re desperate to keep the deal, you don’t want to go force an inspection in a military site that you know Iran will reject, therefore initiating a process that ultimately is going to lead to the end of the deal.
Cliff May: Okay, so fixing the deal means fixing inspections. Fixing the deal means stop testing missiles that can carry nuclear weapons. Fixing the deal means, as you said, an end to the sunset provisions. You better take just a few seconds to explain what a sunset provision is.
Mark Dubowitz: The sunset provisions that are built into the deal are restrictions that expire.
Cliff May: They sunset, right?
Mark Dubowitz: They sunset, they expire, they go away. What you’d want in a deal like this, especially after you’ve conceded enrichment to the Iranians, and you’ve effectively conceded reprocessing of plutonium to the Iranians, after, as I said, decades of policy against this, is if you’ve got a program that is today a small program, you want to keep it small. If the Iranians are one year from breakout, you want to keep them one year from breakout. But under the deal itself, these clear restrictions on Iran’s ability to enrich uranium, stockpile uranium, reprocess plutonium, build new enrichment facilities, build new heavy water reactors, the arms embargo that’s in place on Iran’s ability to acquire fighter jets and attack helicopters and combat tanks and all of the equipment they need to build up a very powerful conventional military, that arms embargo, that UN arms embargo, sunsets. It sunsets in three years’ time.
The missile embargo sunsets in six years’ time. So you have a series of sunsets, both on the nuclear side, on the missile side, and on the conventional weaponry side, where the restrictions are going to go away over the time. And by the way, Cliff, what’s interesting about this is they go away regardless of Iranian behavior. It’s not as if they’re linked to Iranian behavior. It’s not as if we say all right, if Iran moderates, if the hard men of Iran become pragmatic capitalists, if they stop brutalizing their own people and funding foreign aggression, only then will the restrictions go away. No, no. Iran gets to be a nefarious actor, a more nefarious actor, and the restrictions still go away, as long as Iran quote unquote complies with the deal.
So the obsession now in Washington, and has been for a number of years, has been Iranian compliance with the deal. As long as the Iranians aren’t cheating on the deal, then they’re going to be afforded all of these benefits. Now, of course, Cliff, if you’re the Iranians and you’ve negotiated that gives you everything you want over time, all you have to be is patient, and by the way, the things that it gives you, you’re not ready to do today. Your R&D schedule in advanced centrifuges and your technical schedule is designed over time. You’re going to be patient, because you’re not ready to install advanced centrifuges. They’re not ready. So you will be patient. Your incentive to cheat actually is not that high. I mean, you’ll still cheat, because the regime can’t help itself, so it’ll cheat and see how far it can get away with, in order to accelerate the timelines.
But you really have no incentive to cheat. You have every incentive to comply with the deal, and if you comply with the deal, the restrictions go away, and when the restrictions go away, you emerge with this patient pathway to nuclear weapons and ICBMs, and by the way, you also have an economy which in 10 years’ time is double the size, so now you’re an 850, 900 billion, trillion dollar economy. You’ve got hundreds of billions of dollars of European and Asian investment, and Cliff, you know why that’s good, is because in 10 years’ time, with all of that money in Iran, our ability to use snapback sanctions will be severely degraded. It’ll be a harder target, and the Europeans and Asians, with all their money in there, will be even more resistant to the use of sanctions than they are today.
Cliff May: I think it’s worth reminding listeners that Iran has been labeled by every US government for 40 years the leading state sponsor of terrorism in the world. Imagine if in 2001 you or I had predicted that within less than a generation, the US would open a paved pathway to nuclear weapons for the leading sponsor of terrorism in the world. People would have called us crazy, but that’s essentially what this JCPOA does, and it’s what we’re on the road to doing. So let me ask this question. Is this agreement getting fixed by the Europeans? Start with that, and then I’ll go from there.
Mark Dubowitz: In two months we’ll know. I mean, right now our negotiating team is today in Vienna. They were recently in Berlin. They have been in Paris. They’ve been in London, and they’ve been negotiating the Europeans on ways in which to fix the deal. I think they’ve been making some progress, some progress on missiles and inspections. They’ve been making very little progress on these sunset provisions. But negotiations have really just begun, and we’re two months away from finding out whether the Europeans are willing to make these concessions in order to keep the deal and whether, if they make these concessions, Donald Trump will believe these are real fixes, not fake fixes, and be prepared to issue the waiver and keep the deal.
Cliff May: So we now have Rex Tillerson stepping down as Secretary of State. We have Mike Pompeo stepping in. How does that change the equation?
Mark Dubowitz: Mike Pompeo coming in as Secretary of State I think changes the dynamic in two fundamental ways. The first is, if you had any doubt that Donald Trump was prepared to walk away from this deal, you should have no more doubt. He is now a Secretary of State who is 100% aligned with the President. Mike Pompeo, when in Congress, led the charge against the Iran deal. Mike Pompeo, in Congress, was one of the most articulate members on the nature and gravity of the Iranian threat. Mike Pompeo, as CIA Director, put the Agency on a very aggressive footing against the Iranian regime, using covert action and the authorities that are afforded to him. Mike Pompeo is coming in with a very clear-eyed view of how dangerous the regime is and how dangerous this deal is, so he will be at the table advising the President, not someone like Rex Tillerson who will be trying to find a way to restrain the President on the Iran issue.
But interestingly enough, Mike Pompeo, because of his impeccable credentials in recognizing the nature and gravity of the Iranian threat and how fatally flawed this deal is, is actually in a better position than Rex Tillerson to sell a fix to the President. If Mike Pompeo believes it’s a real fix, and he advises Donald Trump that this is a good deal with the Europeans, he has much more credibility to persuade the President to accept that fix. I think that any fix that Rex Tillerson had presented the President would have been looked at skeptically by the President and the White House. So again, if the Europeans are willing to play ball, if they’re willing to negotiate a transatlantic fix, I think there’s a greater likelihood that Donald Trump will accept it with Mike Pompeo as his Secretary of State.
Cliff May: You know, a lot of people think, while we’ve got this terrible crisis with Iran, at the same time we’ve got this very separate crisis with North Korea. What you point out, along with FDD’s Rich Goldberg in a recent op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, is that actually these are not two separate crises, they’re intricately linked, and they’ll work out, in a way, the same, because we’re talking about what it is we’ll allow rogue regimes to do. You can’t tell everything in that op-ed. People should find it and read it, but maybe you want to just talk a little bit about why these are interlaced.
Mark Dubowitz: They’re interlaced because number one, Iran and North Korea are interlaced. The three-decade nexus between these two rogue regimes, these two rogue regimes have cooperated extensively on missile develop. There are tantalizing hints in the public record of nuclear cooperation. They’ve cooperated on illicit financial activities. And they have learned from each other. As each country has run a playbook against the United States, they’ve learned how to play the United States. The North Koreans started this in 1994 with the Agreed Framework, and they’ve been playing us since, taking a patient pathway to nuclear weapons. The Iranians watched the North Koreans, took pages from their playbook, and in 2013 negotiated a deal that gives them patient pathways to nuclear weapons. So the Iranians watch the North Koreans, the North Koreans watch the Iranians, and they cooperate extensively across the field.
Now, what’s really important from a negotiating perspective is on May the 12th, Donald Trump is going to decide whether to fix or nix the Iranian deal. Sometime at the end of May, or maybe sometime in the summer, there’s going to be a big summit between Donald Trump and the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un. Now, if Donald Trump strikes a serious deal with the Europeans on Iran, that will be a message to Kim Jong-un that the United States of America today is not prepared to strike fatally flawed deals, give up massive concessions up front, and enable a rogue regime to take these pathways to nuclear weapons and ICBMs. So what he does in Iran is very important in signaling to Kim Jong-un that he is serious.
If on the other hand, he folds on May the 12th, it’s a weak fix, it’s a fake fix, Kim Jong-un will interpret from that that Donald Trump is a paper tiger and that he can be rolled. And I can assure you the North Koreans will do everything they can to roll this administration when they get them in the same room. So very, very important that there be a real fix or, if there’s no real fix, Donald Trump walks away from this deal. No punting, no diplomatic tar sand, no excuses. Fix the deal. If you can’t fix it, nix the deal, and then send a message to the North Koreans that this is a administration that is serious about negotiating using leverage and using all instruments of American power.
Cliff May: Final question, for now at least, is if the deal is not fixed, can’t be fixed, then it is terminated. What plays out after that?
Mark Dubowitz: It’s a great question, and we could spend an entire podcast on that question.
Cliff May: And we may have to later on.
Mark Dubowitz: We may have to. I support a fix, a real fix, not a fake fix. I think that if we nix the deal, it’s a whole new game. The United States has got to be prepared to deal with the fallout. We have to have a plan in place to deal politically, militarily, economically, through cyber, through covert action, in order to deal with the Iranians. If they escalate on the nuclear side, if they escalate regionally, we have to be able to deal with the Europeans, and we have to have a plan in place to make sure that banks and companies around the world understand that if they go back into Iran, they’ll feel the force of American financial and economic power.
Cliff May: This is a critical issue for America’s future. It’s a complex issue. I think you’ve helped unravel it a little bit today, and we’ll want to have you back to talk about it a couple of months down the road. Thanks so much, Mark Dubowitz for being with us on “Foreign Podicy”.
Mark Dubowitz: Thank you, Cliff.
Cliff May: Thank you for listening to this week’s episode of “Foreign Podicy”. For more of Mark Dubowitz’s analysis, look him up on FDD’s website. That’s DefendDemocracy.org. As always, you can find and subscribe to our show on iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher. If you liked this week’s episode and have feedback for us, please consider leaving us a review on iTunes. We’d appreciate your thoughts, your comments, even your criticisms. We hope you’ll join us again in the near future. Until then, I’m Cliff May, and you’ve been listening to “Foreign Podicy”.