Iran Gives Incentive to Scrap Deal
In his desperation to ensure that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) remained in effect after the end of the Obama presidency, Secretary of State John Kerry designed the agreement to front-load rewards on Iran. Rather than calibrate the unfreezing of assets to Iranian compliance throughout the life of the agreement, Kerry moved to release cash up front. Furthermore, Iran not only won huge investment on the part of Russians, Chinese, and Europeans, but Kerry also guaranteed that any snap-back mechanism could not impact such investment, thereby providing additional incentive to rush investment into Iran.
This was the diplomatic equivalent of serving dessert first and only afterward demanding a toddler eat kale, but it was also meant to keep any future administration from walking away from the agreement despite its lack of treaty status. After all, if Iran had already gotten all its rewards, then why scrap the agreement since all that would do would be to end early the limited monitoring and restrictions to which Tehran agreed?
Personal ambition is corrosive in negotiations. The Iranians played hardball and, at almost every step, Kerry and his top advisors telegraphed desperation. On the rare occasions Kerry threatened to walk away, he never once described what the best alternative to a negotiated agreement might be, and, therefore, the Iranian negotiating team rightly concluded that they could call his bluff. They understood that, having lost the presidency, Kerry wished to win a Nobel Prize to validate his own self-image. His immediate advisors were equally ambitious. Be it with the PLO (Dennis Ross), Libya (William Burns), or North Korea (Christopher Hill, Robert Gallucci), careers are made by reaching agreements with rogues, not by walking away. Seldom do those agreements stand the test of time and advance U.S. security.
It was against this backdrop that Kerry and his negotiators agreed to dilute language on the Iranian ballistic missile program from what already had been enshrined in UN Security Council resolutions. Whereas previous resolutions declared that Iran “shall not” develop ballistic missiles, the post-JCPOA Security Council resolution simply “called upon” Iran to not develop ballistic missiles. In testimony before Congress, Kerry repeatedly dismissed the difference, but it is this change in wording that both Iran and Russia say allows Iran to test ballistic missiles without violating the JCPOA. This in itself is worthy of Congressional hearings because, if Kerry and his team didn’t realize the difference between the two, then it is an indictment of the competence of the entire non-proliferation and legal teams at the State Department. Kerry and his team likewise allowed Iran to alter the agreement’s wording to make illegal only those ballistic missiles designed to carry nuclear warheads rather than those merely capable of carrying nuclear warheads. If Kerry and his team did recognize the difference in both instances but then assured Senator Corker that the changes were cosmetic and not substantive, he essentially lied to Congress.
The Iranian government, for its part, is standing firm on its ballistic missile program. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has endorsed the launches in a series of tweets, no matter the slogans painted on the missiles declaring their goal to be the destruction of Israel. Senior Iranian leaders across the political spectrum have likewise doubled down on the development of Iran’s ballistic missiles. Brig.-Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ aerospace division, likewise doubled down on the missile program, declaring that Iran would not bow to sanctions or international pressure. During Friday prayers on March 18, official sermons delivered on behalf of the Supreme Leader and the regime each defended Iran’s ballistic missile ambitions and condemned both America and Israel.
Toward the end of negotiations, both Kerry and President Obama became so obsessed with criticism in Congress that they did not recognize the real threat to reconciliation and normalization came from within Iran. Kerry was too clever by half in front-loading Iranian rewards to create a disincentive for the next administration to walk away from the agreement. The JCPOA disproportionately aided Iran’s military; little if any money had trickled down outside Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps circles, the insistence of Vice President Biden’s aide Colin Kahl notwithstanding.
But, by bolstering its missile programs and reiterating a desire to commit genocide against Israel, the Iranian leadership is shifting the cost-benefit analysis in Washington from sticking with the agreement to walking away. To abide by the nuclear agreement is to trade a weak inspections mechanism (that falls short of permanent compliance with the Additional Protocol) with a well-resourced program to allow Iran to develop missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads to targets near and far. Whereas the White House trumpeted the JCPOA as a multilateral triumph, unilateral action now provides the best opportunity to stop that breakout. In short, Kerry’s flexibility in the face of Zarif’s brinkmanship did not enable the JCPOA as Kerry and his enablers may believe; it may have provided the fatal flaw that will abort the JCPOA and initiate a far more severe conflict in the near future.