Home/Daniel Larison/Discerning the ‘Spirit’ of the Nuclear Deal

Discerning the ‘Spirit’ of the Nuclear Deal

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks during a meeting for the Global Coalition on the Defeat of ISIS at the State Department in Washington, D.C., March 22, 2017. (DOD photo by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Jette Carr)

Rex Tillerson reiterated the administration’s complaint that Iran is violating the “spirit” of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA):

The administration contends that Iran is violating the “spirit” of the deal, because in its preface it is stated that the nations negotiating it “anticipate that full implementation of this JCPOA will positively contribute to regional and international peace and security.”

Tillerson said that sentence explains, in a nutshell, why sanctions were lifted.

“But since the nuclear deal has been concluded, what we have witnessed is Iran has stepped up its destabilizing activities in Yemen, it stepped up its destabilizing activities in Syria, and exports arms to Hezbollah and other terrorist groups, and it continues to conduct a very active ballistic missile program,” Tillerson said. “None of that, I believe, is consistent with that preamble commitment.”

It is important to remember that the preface ((which Tillerson erroneously calls the preamble) to the JCPOA is the least important, most boilerplate part of the agreement. More important, Tillerson doesn’t seem to understand what the preface says. The full first paragraph of the text reads as follows:

The E3/EU+3 (China, France, Germany, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the United States, with the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy) and the Islamic Republic of Iran welcome this historic Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which will ensure that Iran’s nuclear programme will be exclusively peaceful, and mark a fundamental shift in their approach to this issue. They anticipate that full implementation of this JCPOA will positively contribute to regional and international peace and security. Iran reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons.

One of the many problems with Tillerson’s complaint is that it has nothing to do with anything mentioned in the preface. The preface focuses solely on Iran’s nuclear program and the P5+1 and Iran’s expectation that restricting that program “will positively contribute to regional and international peace and security.” That is an expression of the hopes of the parties to the agreement. The assumption behind that statement is the shared belief that a successful nonproliferation agreement does contribute to the security of all parties, and I doubt that anyone except a fanatical Iran disagrees with that. Nothing that Iran has done contradicts anything in the text, and the only way Iran could be violating the spirit of the deal is if it were attempting to skirt the restrictions imposed on its nuclear program. Iran isn’t trying to do that, and that is why Tillerson is reduced to misleading the public and trying to change the subject.

Iran could also object to post-JCPOA U.S. foreign policy in similar terms, but no one in the administration would accept that the deal obliges the U.S. to adopt a less anti-Iranian set of policies in the region. In the last two and a half years, the U.S. has “stepped up” support for Iran’s regional rivals, it has enabled an atrocious war on Yemen that Washington’s clients dishonestly claim is intended to combat Iranian influence, and it has launched attacks on Iranian allies in Syria. Does any of that mean that the U.S. is violating the “spirit” of the deal? No. While those policies may be bad (and in some cases they are indefensible), they have nothing to do with whether or not the U.S. is keeping up its end of the bargain. So it is frankly ridiculous to use other Iranian behavior to claim that it is somehow violating the “spirit” of the deal when it is fulfilling its actual obligations on the nuclear issue. The officials falsely claiming that Iran is violating the deal’s “spirit” are doing so in a transparent attempt to undermine the deal. Since they can’t fault Iran for cheating on the deal, as they hoped they could, they are desperate to find anything else they can use to justify their desire to scrap a deal that has been working.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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