Home/Daniel Larison/The Nuclear Deal Saboteurs Aren’t Finished Yet

The Nuclear Deal Saboteurs Aren’t Finished Yet

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.). Michael Vadon / Wikimedia Commons

CNN reports that Trump may decide to cancel more sanctions waivers, and this time they affect ongoing work to implement provisions of the nuclear deal:

President Donald Trump and his advisers are considering revoking sanctions waivers that have allowed several countries to collaborate with Iran on civil nuclear projects, including those intended to restrict Iran’s nuclear production capabilities, two sources familiar with the matter said.
Trump administration officials have held several meetings in recent weeks to discuss eliminating some or all of the nuclear sanctions waivers, but a decision has not yet been reached, an administration official and source familiar with the discussions told CNN. National security adviser John Bolton, a longtime Iran hawk, has been among those pushing for the US to take this next step and eliminate the waivers, the sources said.

The most hard-line opponents of the nuclear deal have been agitating for Trump to do this for months, and they have a natural ally in Bolton, who has never seen an arms control or nonproliferation deal that he didn’t want to destroy. The Trump administration had previously been willing to grant these sanctions waivers that allow some nonproliferation work to go ahead at Fordow and Arak:

The Trump administration granted waivers allowing “nonproliferation projects at Arak, Bushehr, and Fordow,” three Iranian nuclear sites, to continue in November 2018 at the same time it announced it would reinstate all sanctions waived as part of the 2015 nuclear deal. The State Department made clear it was issuing the waiver to allow “certain ongoing projects that impede Iran’s ability to reconstitute its weapons program and that lock in the nuclear status quo” to move forward.

The waivers currently allow modifications that ensure Iran’s Arak reactor produces less plutonium and the conversion of the Fordow nuclear site into a research facility.

This has been a case of the administration wanting to have its cake and eat it, since it takes for granted that Iran is complying with the agreement and tacitly acknowledges that the agreement is worth having. Iran hawks in the Senate, including Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton, and Marco Rubio, have been leading the charge to cancel these waivers because they object to Iran’s nuclear program itself no matter what it is being used for. They don’t distinguish between legitimate civilian nuclear projects and illicit military ones, and they deliberately try to confuse them to mislead the public about what Iran is doing.

The hawkish extremists have always wanted Iran’s nuclear program to be abolished, and if they can’t have that they want to create a pretext for conflict that allows for military action against Iran. Canceling these waivers would be the next step on the path to forcing Iran to abandon the nuclear deal and provide them with that pretext. European governments warned earlier this month that refusing to extend these waivers could prompt Iran to leave the deal. There is a very real danger that Iran may finally decide that enough is enough. Revoking the waivers certainly makes no sense for U.S. interests, as any credible arms control expert would tell you:

Kelsey Davenport, the director of nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association, argued it would be a “dangerous and irresponsible decision not to renew the waivers.”

“Failing to renew the waivers would be a huge own goal for the United States. It’s in US national security interests to ensure that Iranian nuclear facilities cannot be quickly reconverted for nuclear weapons purposes,” Davenport said. “If the United States stops the remaining states party to the agreement from fulfilling those projects, it puts them in violation for the deal which just gives Iran future justification for abandoning the agreement.”

Bloomberg also reported on this earlier this month:

“It’s insane from a nonproliferation perspective,” said Jarrett Blanc, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former State Department coordinator for Iran nuclear implementation. “Deciding to throw that away because you need the next drumbeat of antagonism toward Iran is nuts.”

That isn’t going to discourage Bolton, since driving Iran out of the deal before next year’s presidential election is exactly what he has been working towards for the last year:

But National Security Advisor John Bolton opposes an extension, claiming it would lend legitimacy to continued Iranian nuclear activity and to an agreement dismissed as fatally flawed by the president, two sources familiar with the deliberations said.

Bolton has won every internal debate over Iran policy thus far, and there is no reason to think that Trump won’t follow his advice this time. Iran’s government may not play into Bolton’s hands, but they are understandably losing patience with an arrangement in which they do everything they are obliged to do and have virtually nothing to show for it.

Ariane Tabatabai and Eric Brewer warned last year against revoking these waivers:

Similarly, some critics have called on the administration to pressure remaining parties to the nuclear deal into stopping the redesign of the Arak heavy-water research reactor—a project aimed at significantly reducing the amount of plutonium produced by the reactor—and the underground Fordow complex, which was once used for uranium enrichment but is being repurposed to pose less of a proliferation concern. Goldberg and Nagle have similarly argued for the necessity for the Trump administration of using “all its legal authorities to cut off international support to Iran’s nuclear weapons infrastructure.” But it is precisely the international support that is key to making these facilities less useful for nuclear weapons. If global partners withdraw from these projects and leave them incomplete, Iran would have more of an incentive, not less, to convert the facilities back to their pre-agreement designs, increasing the proliferation risk [bold mine-DL].

A sane administration interested in supporting nonproliferation efforts would never even consider revoking these waivers, but then a sane administration wouldn’t have reneged on the deal and reimposed sanctions in the first place. The Trump administration violated a successful nonproliferation agreement because they wanted it to fail. It would be all too predictable for Trump to take another destructive step in that effort to blow up the the nuclear deal.

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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