Nikki Haley should re-read the Iran nuclear deal

By Daniel DePetris

U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley gave a speech this week on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) at an AEI event billed as an opportunity for a senior Trump administration official to have an open conversation “on the past two years since the passage of the Iran deal.” This open conversation was instead a one-sided argument about why the administration would be justified scrapping the accord.

An agreement is a worthless piece of paper if its terms are not implemented. Haley claimed that the Trump administration has assessed and re-assessed Tehran’s compliance with the nuclear agreement, as it is a continuous process for the U.S. intelligence community, the Treasury Department, the State Department, and ultimately the president—the man who has to certify to Congress every 90 days that Iran has not engaged in a “material breach” of its obligations. Overall, this may have been the primary aim of Haley’s address: to deliver a stern missive to the mullahs in Tehran that the United States under the Trump administration will not hesitate to label them non-compliant, even on minor issues.

Unfortunately, Haley’s noble goal was undermined as soon as she began speaking.

Rather than providing a balanced, fact-based analysis that one would expect from a senior U.S. diplomat, Haley publicly lobbied for the winding down of the JCPOA. “In the two years since the deal and the lifting of sanctions, Iran’s GDP has grown by nearly five percent,” she said. “That’s a great deal for them. What [the U.S.] get[s] from the deal is not so clear.”

What we got from the deal, of course, is blatantly obvious: In exchange for an unfreezing of Tehran's overseas financial assets and a suspension of nuclear-related sanctions on its oil, shipping, manufacturing, and automotive sectors, the U.S. and our negotiating partners received what amounted to a gigantic speed bump in the middle of a nuclear road that Iran was speeding on for years.

We received the most stringent inspection regime of any nuclear program in history, one that International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Yukiya Amano called “a powerful verification tool,” and “a clear and substantive gain for nuclear verification in Iran.” Those tools include a 15-year restriction on how much uranium Iran can enrich, a 15-year restriction on how much enriched uranium Iran can store on its soil, and a 10-year restriction on the type of centrifuges Tehran can spin.

Thanks to the JCPOA, the international community received an exhaustive look into Tehran's entire program for the very first time.

Haley’s exclusive focus on the deal’s weaknesses—which unquestionably exist—led her into some tricky terrain. Haley’s contention that, “[t]here are hundreds of undeclared sites that have suspicious activity that [the IAEA] haven’t looked at” is a disingenuous attempt to inflate the threat and not a clear description of what is actually going on. If she provided some specifics for her claim, the ground she chose to walk on wouldn't be so at risk of collapsing underneath her feet. Regrettably, Haley didn't spend a second backing up that assertion, perhaps because the IAEA itself sees the situation very, very differently.

Nor was Haley accurate when she implied that Iran was preventing IAEA inspectors from accessing certain nuclear facilities during their investigations. While she is correct in remarking that “Iranian leaders have stated publicly that they will refuse to allow IAEA inspections of their military sites,” what the Iranians say is largely irrelevant. What they do is far more important, and thus the record shows that Tehran has yet to refuse access —largely because the IAEA has seen no evidence to date that would warrant a special inspection. And indeed, if there came a point in time when Tehran did block access to a site that inspectors wished to visit, Iranian leaders would run the high risk of materially violating the accord, alienating the European powers that are critical to expanding Iran’s economy, and handing Washington some of the best evidence it would need to convince European governments to snap multilateral economic sanctions back into place.  In the end, Iran would return to the financial stranglehold it was under during the pre-JCPOA era — an economy that was shrinking, an oil industry whose exports were declining exponentially, and a rate of inflation that was raising the price of basic commodities.

However, not all of Ambassador Haley’s address was riddled with unsubstantiated innuendo. She is absolutely spot on when she reminds the audience that Iran hid nuclear development from the international community for years; that Iran violates Security Council resolutions with every ballistic missile it fires into the sky; and that the Iranian government obstructed the IAEA’s fact-finding missions with impunity in the past. Tehran, for instance, made a fundamental decision on multiple occasions not to provide the IAEA with proper notice when it was constructing uranium enrichment facilities. Tehran only declared its Fordow enrichment plant in 2009 when Iranian authorities became aware that the U.S., France, and the U.K. we're going to declassify intelligence about the facility for the entire world to see.

Nor was Haley wrong to point out that Iran was a destructive and destabilizing force in a region that desperately needs less of both.

Lastly, it’s hard not to disagree with her assessment that there are flaws in the nuclear agreement. The most important sunset provisions now capping Iran’s nuclear activity will expire 10 15, and 20 years down the line, freeing Iranian scientists from the burdens of having to keep enrichment processes at a specific level. After the fifteenth year, those scientists will be able to enrich as much uranium and spin as any advanced centrifuge machines as they want. A 10- or 15-year pause is far worse than a permanent cap or no enrichment at all (concessions the Iranians wouldn't think about offering in any case)—but it surely is a better scenario for the U.S. than no pause at all.

In October, President Trump will send a report to Congress for the third time on whether or not Iran is complying with the JCPOA. Whichever side the president lands on, it will be a monumental decision. The decision is so important that to make it contingent on anything but the facts would be a severe dereliction.

Senior national security officials, like Nikki Haley, have a responsibility to provide the president with those unvarnished, undoctored, level-headed, cold-hard facts. Anything less would not only be a breach of the public trust, but an ugly signal to the rest of the world that the U.S. will move the goalposts and renege on diplomacy when the domestic politics change.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

This piece was originally published by The Hill on September 15, 2017. Read more HERE.