Over the last few days, we have been treated to the spectacle of watching leading opponents of the nuclear deal demand that Iran adhere to the limits set by the deal they have vehemently denounced and undermined for years. On the one hand, the opponents insist that the deal is the worst ever negotiated, but they are still acting as if they are furious that Iran is breaching it. We should understand that this is mostly or entirely an act for public consumption. Iran hawks want the deal to fall apart. They have been working to bring about the deal’s collapse for years. They are belatedly wrapping themselves in the JCPOA now because they hope it may give them an opportunity to inflict more punishment on Iran. In so doing, they hope to force Iran out of the deal so that they have their pretext for a conflict.
This newfound admiration for the nuclear deal’s restrictions has been accompanied by the lie that the only reason Iran would exceed its stockpile limits and increase enrichment (to 4.5%, far short of what is needed to produce weapons-grade uranium) is to build nuclear weapons. Bolton, Trump, and, Netanyahu have all made statements to this effect in the last week.
Bolton made this statement a week ago:
There is no reason for Iran to increase its enrichment unless it’s part of an effort to reduce the breakout time to produce nuclear weapons.https://t.co/PSk24XJRJt
— John Bolton (@AmbJohnBolton) July 1, 2019
Here is Trump earlier today:
President Trump: “Iran better be careful. Because you enrich for one reason and I won’t tell you what that reason is. But it’s no good. They better be careful.” pic.twitter.com/iaYDSOcGc0
— The Hill (@thehill) July 8, 2019
We can see here from Trump’s phrasing that he is just echoing the line that Bolton fed him. Bolton says there is no other reason for enrichment, and Trump says there is just one reason, and both of them are wrong. They are trying to portray relatively harmless, reversible breaches of the deal they hate as a dangerous prelude to the development of a nuclear weapon. It seems obvious that they are making these claims in bad faith, and they are doing so to create a bigger crisis.
This was Netanyahu’s tweet from yesterday and my response to it:
Iran is responding to relentless economic warfare that began when the U.S. violated all of its commitments. They are not seeking to build nuclear weapons. They want the sanctions relief they were promised. You wanted credit for Trump’s decision to renege, now own the consequences https://t.co/YeCxyOUjwH
— Daniel Larison (@DanielLarison) July 7, 2019
Bolton has been saying something like this for the last five weeks at least. There are, of course, many reasons why a government might enrich uranium at a slightly higher level and there are other reasons why it might retain a larger stockpile of low-enriched uranium. In this case, the obvious explanation is that Iran is attempting to gain leverage and to pressure the other parties to the deal to deliver on the promises that were made as part of the original agreement. It is a limited, calculated reaction to the Trump administration’s relentless economic warfare. Iran hawks cannot admit that there are other, less provocative interpretations of Iranian behavior because that would undermine their fear-mongering about Iran’s non-existent pursuit of nuclear weapons. Spreading the lie that Iran wants nuclear weapons is very important to them, and Bolton just repeated the lie again at the Christians United for Israel (CUFI) conference today:
“Given Iran’s documented history of pursuing a nuclear weapon, thier actions underscore the seriousness of Iran’s ongoing nuclear ambition”
— Jeff Seldin (@jseldin) July 8, 2019
The remarkable thing about this lie from Bolton is that it is such a transparent and stupid fabrication. He knows that enriching uranium to 4.5% doesn’t pose a threat, everyone else can see that there is no immediate proliferation risk, and everyone can also see that Iran went over the enrichment limit set down by the deal because of the “maximum pressure” campaign that Bolton champions. Only an ideologue or a fool would believe Bolton’s claim that this is proof of “ongoing nuclear ambition,” when it is clearly nothing of the kind. Naturally, the CUFI audience went wild for it.
A related lie comes from current and former administration officials, who have been falsely claiming that Iran is not permitted enrichment at any level and that a zero enrichment standard is a “longstanding” one with respect to Iran.
Pompeo echoed the “longstanding standard of no enrichment” nonsense that the White House put out last week:
Iran’s latest expansion of its nuclear program will lead to further isolation and sanctions. Nations should restore the longstanding standard of no enrichment for Iran’s nuclear program. Iran’s regime, armed with nuclear weapons, would pose an even greater danger to the world.
— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) July 7, 2019
Zero enrichment is neither a standard for Iran’s nuclear program, nor is it longstanding. It was the misguided maximalist position that the U.S. insisted on for about a decade until the Obama administration realized that they had to compromise on this point or they would end up with nothing. All members of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) are entitled to some domestic enrichment, and that has been a sticking point for Iran for as long as there have been nuclear talks. This is not a secret or some obscure detail that Pompeo wouldn’t know. It is one of the main reasons why the JCPOA was successfully concluded, and it is one of the things that Iran hawks hate the most about it. Pompeo and the rest of the Trump administration want to go back to demanding zero enrichment because they know in advance that it is a non-starter with Iran. No one interested in serious negotiations with Iran would make such a demand, and by demanding it Pompeo and the administration have proven that they don’t want talks.
As she auditions for the VP slot or perhaps her own future presidential candidacy, Nikki Haley is still toeing the Trump administration line. Nicholas Miller refutes Haley’s whopper below:
The JCPOA, which was endorsed by the UN, explicitly allows Iran to enrich uranium for civilian use.
Saying “enriching uranium was always prohibited” is indisputably false. https://t.co/Io7pm6fSsJ
— Nicholas Miller (@Nick_L_Miller) July 8, 2019
As I said earlier this evening, the Iran hawks’ Strange New Respect for the JCPOA is disingenuous. They hate the deal, but they are happy to use it as a bludgeon while it still exists:
This is right. The assassins that have been stabbing the deal to death now want to praise it, but only so they can demand more punitive measures and make more unreasonable demands https://t.co/O6VZBfvS82
— Daniel Larison (@DanielLarison) July 8, 2019
The deal-killers couldn’t care less about Iran’s compliance. We have seen that for the last three and a half years as they have ignored Iran’s full compliance with the deal and looked for every chance to undermine and break the deal from our side. All that matters to the deal-killers is to destroy the deal so that they can exploit the ensuing uncertainty to stoke tensions and trigger a conflict. When they say something positive about the nuclear deal or when they call on Iran to abide by it, this is akin to an arsonist complimenting the architectural design of the building he just set on fire.
Nicholas Grossman points out something that I have mentioned several times, namely how opponents of the nuclear deal seek to sabotage the agreement and lie frequently about both the deal and their own intentions:
The Iran debate is between people who don’t want Iran to get nukes and design practical strategies to prevent it, and people who say they don’t want Iran to get nukes, but lie a lot and undermine practical strategies to prevent it, suggesting they really want something else.
— Nicholas Grossman (@NGrossman81) July 8, 2019
This is what I have called the boundless bad faith of Iran hawks and nuclear deal opponents, and we are seeing even more of it than usual this month. The constant recourse to making things up, misrepresenting facts, and distorting evidence to suit their ideological agenda shows how weak Iran hawks’ arguments are and how politically radioactive their real agenda is. They know that if they openly advocated for the war and regime change that they really seek, they would be soundly defeated, so instead they pretend to favor negotiations and urge the enforcement of a deal that they want dead. They have to lie about Iranian intentions and what the nuclear deal allows to maintain the illusion that they will succeed where the nuclear deal supposedly “failed,” and they need just enough people in the government to buy into that illusion so they can get their war.