Our Allies and Iran

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at a news conference in Washington, D.C., October 21, 2020.
(Nicholas Kamm/Reuters)

It is not Donald Trump, but Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel, and Boris Johnson who bear responsibility not only for the havoc Iran wreaks around the Middle East, but for its burgeoning nuclear program.

Despite the prodigious efforts of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the United Nations arms embargo on the Islamic Republic of Iran was lifted on Sunday. Though the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) contained snapback-sanction clauses meant to deter the Iranians from breaking its terms, no signee save for the United States has proven willing to enforce them.

And make no mistake: Iran is not adhering to the 2015 agreement. U.N. secretary-general António Guterres admitted as much in 2017, when he presented the U.N. Security Council with a report showing that Iran was violating Security Council Resolution 2231 — the mechanism by which the JCPOA is implemented at the U.N. — by continuing to develop its ballistic-missile program and sending those missiles to Houthi rebels in Yemen who have used them to prosecute a bloody and destabilizing civil war.

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Moreover, in May 2019, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani — mistaken as a moderate by some observers despite his virulent anti-Semitism, complicity in crimes against humanity, and belief that the “beautiful cry of ‘Death to America’” inspires and “unites” his country — announced that his country would no longer abide by the terms of the JCPOA. At the Council on Foreign Relations, Zachary Laub and Kali Robinson have confirmed that Rouhani followed through on his promise, and that by July 2019 Iran was exceeding “the agreed-upon limits to its stockpile of low-enriched uranium” and even “began enriching uranium to the higher concentration used in medical isotopes.” Last fall, “Iran further weakened its commitments by starting to develop new centrifuges to speed up uranium enrichment” and “resumed heavy water production at its Arak facility.”

In January, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom (known together as the E3) responded to these flagrant violations by triggering the JCPOA’s dispute-resolution mechanism. Iran turned the tables in July, accusing the E3 of not implementing the deal. Iran failed to specify how they had done so, but it is believed that Iran’s accusation was meant as a rebuke for the E3 vote to support the request of officials at the International Atomic Energy who wanted access to Iranian sites used for storing nuclear material.

And yet, given the opportunity to enforce the JCPOA and enact the snapback sanctions designed exactly for this situation, the Europeans balked, declining to extend the arms embargo on Iran. Because of their inaction, Iran will now be able not only to purchase fighter jets, tanks, and other pieces of military equipment, but also to sell its own equipment to proxies such as the Houthis and the Lebanese-based terror group Hezbollah with greater ease.

In a statement, Pompeo declared that “the United States is prepared to use its domestic authorities to sanction any individual or entity that materially contributes to the supply, sale, or transfer of conventional arms to or from Iran, as well as those who provide technical training, financial support and services, and other assistance related to these arms.” He also warned that “any country that now challenges this prohibition will be very clearly choosing to fuel conflict and tension over promoting peace and security.”

Dmitry Polyansky, Russian deputy ambassador to the U.N., whose country would love to sell arms to Iran, responded eloquently on Twitter:

Everyone expects the US, Mr. Secretary of State,to contribute to peceful ME by stopping to provoke #Iran and to pump region with arms. And please change words “sanctions” and“punishment”in your vocabulary to “dialogue”and “engagement”. That would help a lot! Make US respected again!

For all of the talk about how the Trump administration is more sympathetic to Vladimir Putin’s interests than those of our allies in London, Paris, and Berlin, it is those very allies who side with the Russians on vital issues such as Iran. And that raises the question: With friends like these, who needs enemies?

It’s a question that backers of Joe Biden, and especially those who argue that he will restore confidence in America among our allies, should be made to answer. Obviously, it is preferable that America be on good terms with its traditional allies. But what is the point of multilateral agreements such as the JCPOA if those who enter into them beside us are utterly useless when other parties don’t abide by them? There are of course valid critiques of Trump’s posture toward Iran. It may have been a tactical error to leave the Iran deal, as it would have been easier to keep the arms embargo in place if the U.S. had remained. But again, that is at worst a tactical error, not a failure of the administration’s overall approach. The far more damaging error was that of the Obama administration, which believed that Iran would remain faithful to the already irreparably flawed JCPOA, and that even if it didn’t, our allies would at least have the backbone to hold up their end of the bargain.

If elected, Biden promises to “heal” the U.S.’s relationships with our Western European allies. In practice, that doesn’t mean a strengthened multilateral front, but that the U.S. would join France, Germany, and the U.K. in their cowardly reluctance to hold the Iranian regime accountable for its flagrant violations of the JCPOA. Contra what Joe Biden says, it is not Donald Trump, but Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel, and Boris Johnson who bear responsibility not only for the havoc Iran wreaks around the Middle East, but for its burgeoning nuclear program.

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