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Back the JCPOA, but Strengthen Deterrence Against Iran | Commentary

By Howard Berman I have been carefully reviewing and considering the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action over the past six weeks. It is not the document that I envisioned when, as a member of Congress, I was a principal co-sponsor of the very first Iran sanctions law to pass Congress in 1996, nor when, as chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee in 2010, I authored the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act, which imposed financial sanctions that are widely credited with being one of the primary reasons Iran finally agreed to negotiate seriously.  

This agreement falls short in a number of ways: It is time-limited rather than permanent, and it allows Iran to continue its nuclear-fuel-production program, although not for weapons-production. On the other hand, it requires Iran to reduce its current stockpile of low-enriched uranium by 98 percent to less than one bomb’s worth. And, thanks to a highly intrusive inspection system, it virtually guarantees there will be no Iranian bomb for the next 15 years and for several years beyond that. Moreover, it commits Iran to a pledge never to pursue nuclear arms — a pledge that, if violated and detected, would surely form the basis for use of force to bring Iran into line.  

Therefore, I agree with the administration’s claim — now apparently backed up by a sufficient number of senators to ensure a presidential veto of congressional opposition would be sustained — that the agreement is our best alternative at this time. Were Congress to tear up the agreement, it is highly unlikely that Iran, or even our P5+1 partners, would return to the table to negotiate more restrictions. More likely, the deal would move forward without us, the international sanctions regime having crumbled and the U.S. having no ability to pursue or even demand implementation of restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program. Perhaps less likely, but even more worrisome, Iran would simply renounce the agreement and resume its pursuit of nuclear arms.  

Powerful U.S. extra-territorial sanctions, such as those that forced foreign companies to decide between doing business with the U.S. or doing business with Iran? Those work only if the administration is dedicated to enforcing them. And, although the administration is mum on the matter, I harbor no illusions that it would vigorously implement sanctions that undermine the very agreement the administration itself negotiated — nor would any future administration, Democrat or Republican. Why am I so sure? We’ve been down this road before. For 14 years from the time the first sanctions bill was passed in 1996, our extra-territorial sanctions went unimplemented by certifiably pro-Israel, anti-Iranian administrations that were concerned how valuable friends and allies in Europe and elsewhere would react to having their companies sanctioned by the U.S. That consideration won’t change.  

Yet, there is much more that the Obama administration can, and should, do to deter Iran from violating its JCPOA-embedded pledge never to “seek, develop or acquire” nuclear arms — and to call Iran to account for its regional aggression.  

First of all, the president should elicit a joint statement from the P5+1 that it is our common expectation and insistence that Iran, as pledged, will never pursue nuclear arms and that — even after JCPOA restrictions lapse — any Iranian nuclear activity that is inconsistent with “peaceful use,” such as a program to produce highly-enriched, i.e., weapons-grade, uranium, is unacceptable. It would be unrealistic to expect the P5+1 to endorse a “use of force” threat, but such a statement would serve as a helpful justification should the U.S. find it necessary to use force.  

Second, the president should make clear that the U.S. will indeed employ force should Iran pursue nuclear activities inconsistent with “peaceful use.” He should also call on future presidents to reiterate this warning as a cornerstone of U.S. policy toward Iran.  

Third, Obama should pledge to increase U.S. operations to interdict Iranian imports of ballistic-missile-related materials and imports and exports of conventional arms, at least for eight and five years, respectively, the periods during which those imports and exports are expressly prohibited by the UN Security Council and the JCPOA. In addition, he should make clear that the U.S. will intensify efforts to prevent Iran from ever shipping arms to terrorist groups and regional proxies, such as Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Houthis.  

Despite UN Security Council bans, Iranian arms have continued to pour into Hezbollah’s arsenal, for example. According to an Israeli intelligence official recently quoted in the Times of Israel, Hezbollah has an estimated 100,000 short-range rockets capable of striking northern Israel, several thousand missiles that can reach Tel Aviv and central Israel, and hundreds more that can strike anywhere in Israel. Moreover, Hezbollah — again thanks to Iranian support — has emerged as Bashar Assad’s shock troops in Syria’s civil war. So it is clear that the UN prohibition on arms exports to Hezbollah by Iran and others has been a joke, and this must stop.  

Fourth, the U.S. should pledge to provide Israel with all relevant intelligence regarding Iran’s compliance or non-compliance with the JCPOA. We should further pledge to discuss with Israel any potential response to Iranian infractions prior to taking action. Beyond pledges, we should immediately set up JCPOA compliance review working groups with both Israel and with friendly Arab states.  

Fifth, the U.S. should make clear, as Richard Haass suggested, that it “will also provide its [regional] friends and allies with the quantity and quality of military assistance they need to meet threats posed directly or indirectly by Iran.”  

These measures will strengthen our deterrence beyond the requirements of the JCPOA and at least partly assure both opponents and shaky supporters of the agreement that Iran cannot break out in unchained pursuit of nuclear arms after fifteen years.  

It is in our vital interest to stop Iran from getting the bomb. That is our longstanding policy and must remain so.  

Howard Berman is a former Democratic Member of Congress who represented California in the House of Representatives for 30 years and served as chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.  

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