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The route between cancelling and changing the nuclear agreement with Iran

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Putting aside the questionable jokes about penguins in Antarctica and Amazon reviews for the Bible, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu raised very real concerns in his UN General Assembly speech about the consequences of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran.

Netanyahu – long a vehement opponent of the agreement – focused on the so called “sunset clause” which imposes an expiry date between 2025 and 2030 on any restrictions on elements like Iranian stockpiles of low-enriched uranium. Netanyahu’s comments were echoed by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who told Fox News yesterday: “The most glaring flaw is the sunset provision.” He added: “We all know this is merely a kick the can down the road agreement.”

Debate continues to rage in Israel and on both sides of the Atlantic over to what extent Iran has been complying with the letter and spirit of the agreement with think tanks and security experts weighing in on both sides of the divide.

 “Fixing” or “nixing” is unlikely to happen

Netanyahu detailed that “nixing the deal means restoring massive pressure on Iran, including crippling sanctions, until Iran fully dismantles its nuclear weapons capability” while fixing it “requires many things, among them inspecting military and any other site that is suspect, and penalizing Iran for every violation… above all …getting rid of the sunset clause.”

Yet despite many in the Trump administration agreeing on the problematic nature of the JCPOA, senior officials, such as National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, Secretary of Defence James Mattis and Chief of Staff John Kelly, all reportedly oppose cancelling it.  Moreover, because the JCPOA provided Iran with significant sanctions relief immediately, cancelling it now would create a ‘lose-lose situation’ in which Iran would have both received significant gains and enjoy an absence of restrictions in advancing its nuclear ambitions.

Fixing the deal may also not be possible. The other parties to the JCPOA – the UK, Russia, China, France and Germany – seem unwilling to re-open it. Addressing the UN General Assembly yesterday, French President Emmanuel Macron called the agreement solid and  robust, arguing that it “verifies that Iran will not build a nuclear weapon,” and that “to reject it now without proposing anything else would be a grave error, and not respecting it would be irresponsible”

And of course, even if these countries could be brought around, Iran is liable to reject any suggested changes.

The route between cancelling and changing

In light of this, one potential approach the administration may be planning was hinted at in a speech by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley at the American Enterprise Institute. It would involve Trump reporting to Congress in mid-October that he can no longer certify that Iran is in compliance with the deal. Such de-certification would not break the deal. But it would allow Congress to increase sanctions against Iran if they so wish, and / or allow the administration to threaten “secondary sanctions” that could cut off European and other banks and businesses that do business with Iran from the U.S. financial system.

Another option is for the administration to ramp up sanctions against the threat posed by Iranian activity in non-nuclear areas that are not covered by the agreement. These areas would include the testing of ballistic missiles, shipments of weapons to organisations like Hezbollah and regional subversion in the form of Shia militias. While some hoped that the JCPOA would moderate Iran’s regional adventurism, the opposite seems true, with Iran intimately involved in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Two years after the deal, the Islamic Republic has boosted its financial support to Hezbollah from to $200m a year to $800m.

It’s unclear whether the Israeli government genuinely believes the deal can be cancelled or changed, or whether the weighty rhetoric is primarily geared towards leveraging the US to apply greater pressure on Iran within the current confines of the deal.

In any event, ways do exist to pressurise Iran. The U.S should clarify to other P5+1 members that it will not accept an unconditional sunset of the deal if there is no change in Iran’s behaviour, a move that may be met with openess by America’s partners as France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian this week raised the possibility of resuming talks to strengthen provisions in the accord after 2025. The US could also work to intensify the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency on the sites in which suspicious activity is taking place.

The debate about the deal has been too binary – either it was an embarrassment and should be cancelled or it was wonderful and should be maintained as is. Israel and the international community should aim to move away from this framing and focus on ways to prevent Iran – to the extent possible – from continuing to advance its dangerous nuclear and regional ambitions.