It is a sign of the times that when we need to march in defense of facts, of women deserving equal rights, and of science not being a Chinese conspiracy, we also have to defend something as self-evident as the undeniable value of the nuclear deal with Iran from 2015. But in a post-fact era, even diplomatic triumphs that saved the United States from both the threat of nuclear weapons and another endless war in the Middle East face perpetual relitigation.
The latest example is Josh Meyer’s article in the Politico claiming to reveal that the Obama administration gave previously undisclosed concessions to the government in Tehran as part of the nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The article is not news, but comes across as yet another hit piece against the nuclear deal, promoted and celebrated by those in Washington who are unrelenting in their commitment to killing it.
Meyer argues, based largely on interviews with what appears to be disgruntled, mid-level officials at the Department of Justice and Homeland Security, that the Obama administration slow-walked investigations against alleged Iranian smugglers serving Tehran’s nuclear program and dropped charges against other Iranian operatives. And Obama apparently did this all behind the back of his own Justice Department.
“... to the extent any concessions were made, they were made to win the release of Americans held in Iranian jails.”
From the outset, Meyer commits a critical error: He insinuates that any concessions in terms of dropping charges against potential Iranian smugglers were made as part of the nuclear deal. In reality, to the extent any concessions were made, they were made to win the release of Americans held in Iranian jails. The convolution appears intentional, as an article revealing additional concessions to win the release of innocent Americans lingering in Iranian jails would only receive a fraction of the attention of an article claiming those alleged concessions were made to secure the embattled nuclear deal. Few would like to adopt the line that the Obama administration shouldn’t have done what it took to win the release of journalist Jason Rezaian, Marine Corps and Iraq war veteran Amir Hekmati, and the other Americans held in Iran. Spinning the story to create a false link between these alleged concessions and the nuclear deal resolves that problem.
The chronology of events and the mechanisms of the nuclear talks clarifies this. The nuclear negotiations concluded on July 14, 2015. Under the deal, the Iranians agreed to take the first steps to answer remaining questions by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in regard to their nuclear program by October 18. Once this was completed and verified by the IAEA, two simultaneous decisions were made: The Iranians began dismantling parts of their nuclear program, and the EU and the U.S. made a legally binding decision to lift or waive sanctions on Iran once the IAEA confirmed that Iran had fulfilled its commitments.
This is a critical point: After October 18, the U.S. was obliged to lift sanctions as long as Iran implemented the final phase of the JCPOA roadmap. Meaning, having done all it was supposed to do, Iran had no remaining nuclear leverage to press the U.S. to give additional concessions on the prisoner issue. Indeed, even if the U.S. and Iran had not come to an agreement on a prisoner swap, the nuclear deal would have still proceeded as it was solely dependent upon the IAEA certifying Iran’s completion of the roadmap. This was formally done on January 16, 2016 ― Implementation Day ― after which the U.S. began waiving sanctions on Iran.
Meyer writes that “administration representatives weren’t telling the whole story on Jan. 17, 2016, in their highly choreographed rollout of the prisoner swap and simultaneous implementation of the six-party nuclear deal.” In reality, the swap was more chaotic than it was choreographed. Just days before Implementation Day, 10 American sailors accidentally wandered into Iranian waters in the Persian Gulf and were apprehended by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Navy. The incident risked jeopardizing the prisoner swap, but was quickly resolved within just 16 hours.
But contrary to the Politico article’s claim that the Iranians persistently extracted more concessions from the Obama administration, the Iranians released the American sailors without even demanding a single concession from the U.S. side. If the Iranian modus operandi was to link the prisoner swap with the nuclear issue and force Obama to give more and more to Iran since “the deal was sacrosanct [to Obama], and the Iranians knew it from the start,” as former Bush administration deputy national security adviser Juan Zarate told Politico, then why didn’t they use the 10 captured American sailors to bring Obama to his knees?
In fact, as I describe in Losing An Enemy - Obama, Iran and the Triumph of Diplomacy, the prisoner swap was scheduled to take place earlier but ended up getting delayed as the negotiations proved difficult. And it was the Iranians who originally opposed ― for their own domestic political reasons ― having the swap coincide with Implementation Day. Eventually, though, that is what happened.
But this begs a more important question: What if the Obama administration did drop charges against a few alleged Iranian smugglers in order to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapons option? Why would such a trade-off cause a scandal in Washington? After all, for more than two decades, American and Israeli hawks claimed the Iranian nuclear program was an existential threat and that the heavens would fall if it wasn’t stopped. Yet, after the Obama administration put a lid on the Iranian program, the very same hawks now decry the nuclear deal on the (false) basis that as part of neutralizing this supposedly existential threat, charges were dropped against Iranian smugglers that the U.S. had no way of getting extradited anyway.
One critic of the nuclear deal even told Politico that closing the investigations on these alleged smugglers did “significant and lasting damage” to America’s nonproliferation effort. Apparently, keeping hopeless procurement investigations open is more important to America’s credibility than blocking all of Iran’s paths to a nuclear weapon. Even if the nuclear talks were the reason for the closing of the investigations, who wouldn’t trade several likely hopeless procurement investigations for an agreement that cuts off Iran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon and forces Iran’s nuclear procurement into an official channel subject to the approval of the U.S. and other international powers?
“The Politico article... gives a glimpse into the real reason some in Washington obsessively oppose the [Iran deal].”
Still, the Politico article is very valuable. Not because it reveals anything nefarious about the nuclear talks, but because it gives a glimpse into the real reason some in Washington obsessively oppose the JCPOA.
On the one hand, they oppose the very principle on which deal-making is based: That in order to get something, you have to give something. In their purist maximalist world, the United States should not have to offer any concessions to get concessions in return. Particularly not to a mid-size power such as Iran. To paraphrase arch-neoconservative Richard Perle, the only carrot the U.S. should provide is to offer not to bomb countries as long as they comply with American demands.
If one approaches the rest of the world with such a bully-mentality, then closing investigations on alleged Iranian smugglers is unacceptable regardless of what the U.S. would gain in return. By definition, priorities cannot be established, because everything is equally important. Therefore, securing the freedom of American citizens does not take precedence over a procurement investigation ― not even blocking Iran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon would.
Meyer’s investigation claims that “many participants [in counter-intelligence operations] said the way forward is still sufficiently unclear that they can’t, or won’t, proceed.” But who are these participants? Is the off-the-record testimony of mid-level operatives in the Justice Department ― who might only see their own small piece of the picture ― on par with the assessment of senior administration officials with higher security clearances who have the benefit of seeing the larger picture? If you are ideologically opposed to the idea of give-and-take, then yes.
The Politico investigation also sheds light on another point: To large parts of the Washington foreign policy establishment the details of the deal is unimportant. If Iran’s nuclear program truly was the existential threat they had claimed all along, they should be celebrating the nuclear deal ― as parts of Israel’s security establishment does today. Refusing to do so suggests that what these hawks really oppose is the very idea of striking a deal ― any deal ― with the government in Tehran. To them, losing Iran as an enemy is the existential threat ― not Iran’s nuclear program.
So much for the decades old U.S.-Iran enmity solely being an ideological obsession of Iran’s notorious hardliners.
Trita Parsi is the author of Losing an Enemy - Obama, Iran and the Triumph of Diplomacy.