It is striking that Kerry throughout the talks was so cavalier about the clerical regime’s past “possible-military-dimension” nuclear research. If America had insisted on standard IAEA procedures (they turn over all of their paperwork and have their nuclear scientists and engineers sit down for thorough discussions with IAEA inspectors), we would have, of course, discovered the vast range of their mendacity, as well as the intimate details of the global dual-use import network that the regime has used to build clandestinely their nuclear-weapons program. Such routine discussions and verification would have exposed Salehi, Khamenei, Rouhani, Foreign Minister Mohammad-Javad Zarif, and so many others, as just stellar liars. I really don’t recall Rhodes and Kerry before the JCPOA was concluded harping on the consummate dishonesty of these people.
As my colleague, the former No. 2 at the IAEA, Olli Heinonen has pointed out, the clerical regime could have a lot of components for the clandestine production of high-velocity centrifuges, but we can’t verify their stockpiles and compliance because we can’t answer the big questions about Iran’s development of nuclear weapons. At this moment, the clerical regime could have a clandestine centrifuge site in Mashhad in northeastern Iran. And we would not know it. I worked on Iranian operations for nearly a decade in the Central Intelligence Agency. I have a decent idea of what the National Security Agency can and cannot intercept. There is nothing in the JCPOA that would aid us in discovering this or any other possible secret facility.
The JCPOA, then, isn’t really an arms-control agreement; it’s just cover for American inaction, and for President Obama’s acute desire to leave the Middle East. So, let us go post-JCPOA. The deal’s defenders have understandably and quite correctly expressed dismay that the Trump administration doesn’t appear to have done much preparation for the day after. That is undoubtedly true: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, and Secretary of Defense James Mattis obviously didn’t want to withdraw from the nuclear agreement. When you don’t want to do something, it’s human nature not to prepare. The easier route is always to maintain the status quo. The democratic way is to punt problems down the road, to hope that the unpleasantness goes away. Then add on the Trump factor, which is discombobulating. But also let us be historically fair: Even the best of planning isn’t necessarily worth much when things get messy, as they often do in foreign affairs, which is defined by the unexpected. And withdrawing from the JCPOA is going to be messy.
So far Trump’s Iran policy doesn’t make a lot of sense. On one hand, his rhetoric is commendably harsh. His selection of John Bolton and Mike Pompeo has certainly gotten Tehran’s attention. It is always good to see a Revolutionary Guard Corps website announce about Bolton that “Trump’s Raging Bull has arrived.” As I and Ray Takeyh mentioned in our Washington Post op-ed, American resolve always convulses and paralyzes the clerical regime. It was no accident, as Rouhani himself explained, that Iran froze its just-revealed clandestine nuclear program in late 2002 because of fear of George W. Bush. And yet Trump’s commendable personnel choices and rhetoric are betrayed by his actions in Syria and Iraq, where he is, more or less, continuing Obama’s policy.