Why Decertify? Iran’s Nuke Program Looks Like It’s Hiding In N. Korea
President Trump is expected on Thursday to announce the “decertification” of the Iran nuclear deal, formally the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA.
He is expected to do so on the basis that the agreement, generally effective October 2015, is not in the national security interests of the United States.
Senator Tom Cotton is said to have provided the rationale for the decertification. “Even if they were complying with it, even if they were—if it was fully verifiable they were complying with it, which it’s not and which they aren’t—it is still not in our vital national security interests because it does not block Iran’s path to a bomb; it puts them on the path to a bomb, now in barely a decade,” said Cotton, the Arkansas Republican, referring to the Iranians in an October 3 event at the Council on Foreign Relations. “So there’s no need to quibble over Iran’s technical compliance with the deal.”
Cotton, reported to have given the same advice to Trump in a July 17 phone call, is as wrong as he could be. There is an absolute need to quibble.
The Trump administration, I believe, should not certify compliance, not because the deal is not in American interests but because there is insufficient evidence to show that Iran is in fact adhering to the terms of the pact.
According to the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015, better known as Corker-Cardin, the president must make these four certifications no less frequently than every 90 days: Iran is “transparently, verifiably, and fully implementing” the JCPOA and related agreements; Iran has not allowed any material breach of the JCPOA to remain uncured; Iran “has not taken any action, including covert activities, that could significantly advance its nuclear weapons program”; and the suspension of sanctions is “vital to the national security interests of the United States.”
Failure of the president to certify does not automatically abrogate the JCPOA, but it triggers a 60-day period for the re-imposition of American sanctions. Such sanctions could, as a practical matter, lead to an end of the agreement.
Decertification is exceedingly controversial, and the controversy could wreck the Atlantic Alliance. Britain, France, and Germany are also parties to the JCPOA and have made it clear they want to keep the deal in place.
Wanting to keep the deal in place, London, Paris, and Berlin are not going to be persuaded to go along with Trump merely because he believes it is not in Washington’s interest.
Moreover, the Washington Post’s David Ignatius makes a crucial point when he wrote Tuesday that “a great country keeps its word.”
Yet great countries should also have the courage to require others to comply with their commitments, and there are indications that Iran is violating the JCPOA in material respects.
The JCPOA contains this critical provision: “Iran reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop, or acquire any nuclear weapons.”
Since the agreement went into effect, Iran has been caught with possessing too many advanced centrifuges and producing too much heavy water. The Islamic Republic has tried to stiff international inspectors. None of these breaches could have been accidental, but none has been considered material.
There is one breach, however, that would be both material and uncured. That would be Iran’s not ending its nuclear weapons cooperation with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
That cooperation has been extensive and continuous, since at least the middle of last decade. There was, for example, a technical cooperation agreement, announced September 2012, between the two rogue states, and some believe that starting the following month Iran stationed personnel in North Korea, at a military facility close to China. The Iranians, from the Ministry of Defense and associated firms, were working on missile and nuclear programs, according to an unnamed “Western diplomatic source,” speaking to Kyodo News.
During the North’s first three detonations of nuclear devices—all before the effective date of the JCPOA—Iranians, including the shadowy Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the chief of Tehran’s nuclear program, were present at the Punggye-ri test site.
Iran appears to have a history of basing elements of its nuclear weapons program abroad. The reactor Israel destroyed in the September 2007 airstrike, despite its location in the Syrian desert, did not look to be part of an incipient Syrian effort. The Assad regime had neither the resources nor the determination to pursue nukes. Like today, Syria then was an Iranian client, and the facility was designed and staffed by an Iranian supplier, North Korea. North Korean technicians were reportedly killed in the Israeli raid.
So it is not hard to imagine that, after the signing of the JCPOA, the Iranians had continued to base some of their weapons efforts in North Korea.
Bruce Bechtol, the author of North Korea and Regional Security in the Kim Jong-un Era, pointed out in comments to me that there are no published reports of Iranians in North Korea for the post-JCPOA tests.
Bechtol, a leading North Korea analyst, is correct.
Yet there are persistent rumors. Various sources—one with a security clearance at the time—tell me that Iranians were on site for the two North Korean detonations last year, in other words, after the effective date of the JCPOA. Such presence would be, by itself, an unambiguous, material, and uncured breach of the pact.
Of course, technical interchange does not require physical presence and, as Henry Sokolski of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center told me in e-mail comments Saturday, there is “more than ample opportunity” for illicit collaboration “given the number of Iranians and North Koreans who have cooperated with one another on military matters in both countries over the last 30 years.”
The duration of that collaboration means that there was effectively a joint venture between them. Some observers think the two states have continued their cooperation. “The strategic partnership between Tehran and Pyongyang is extensive and ongoing,” Ilan Berman of the Washington, D.C.-based American Foreign Policy Council said to me Friday. He believes the pair’s cooperation continues to include work on nuclear weapons.
If the American intelligence community has evidence that Iran’s nuke program is in North Korea, it should openly share the information, as it did in the months preceding the Iraq war. Due to the importance of the issue, there needs to be public debate, in America and elsewhere.
We should remember that Trump does not need, for decertification, proof that the Iran-North Korea collaboration continues. All he needs to show is that there is insufficient proof it has ended. The burden of proof in Corker-Cardin is on Iran, that Iran is in compliance.
In any event, the administration, if it decertifies, has an obligation to convince the world that it is doing so on factual grounds, not on a whim or policy change. Ignatius is right when he suggests that America’s word is the source of its strength and the glue that holds the international system together.
“There’s a final, crucial reason Trump should certify that Iran is complying with the nuclear deal: because it’s true.” Ignatius also wrote that sentence.
Is Ignatius correct? He seems far too definite because the evidence of compliance, at best, is ambiguous.
Unfortunately, we do not know if the Islamic Republic has ended its ties with Pyongyang, and until we are sure the only safe course is to assume that Tehran’s nuclear weapons program remains in North Korea.