On July 14, 2015, the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States), the European Union, and Iran reached a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), better known as the Iran Nuclear Deal. In exchange for sanctions relief, the JCPOA forced Iran to accept restrictions on its illegal nuclear program and a new corresponding inspections regime.
Taken together, the terms of the deal have increased Iran’s breakout time using uranium – the amount of time it would take to create enough uranium to build a bomb – from two or three months to twelve months or more. It eliminates Iran’s ability to produce weapons-usable plutonium for at least 15 years. Specifically, Iran is not allowed to stockpile low-enriched uranium at 3.67% above 300 kilograms, well under the 1,050 kilograms of the low-enriched uranium allowed under the deal needed to turn low-enriched uranium into enough weapons-grade uranium, the type used in nuclear weapons, needed for a bomb (25 kilograms of high-enriched uranium). And, it ensures scrutiny to block Iran from engaging in any such activities covertly. Failure to comply with any of the deal's requirements would lead to punitive steps, including but not necessarily limited to the resumption of sanctions. The deal has received strong support from key European allies and more than eighty of the world's leading nuclear nonproliferation experts. Senior members of the president’s own national security team have testified in favor of continued American participation in the deal.
In May 2015, Congress asserted its own authority over the agreement with the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, requiring the president to certify certain aspects of the deal to Congress every 90 days. In July 2015, it was made into international law by U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231 in an unanimous vote.
On May 8th, 2018, President Trump announced his decision to violate the agreement, turning his back on its other signatories by vowing to reinstate nuclear-related sanctions on Iran despite Iranian compliance with the terms of the agreement. Since withdrawing from the deal, America has become isolated from its global allies, who have scrambled to try to save the deal and prevent a new war of choice in the Middle East.
Immediately following Trump’s announcement, the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Frederica Mogherini, said she is “worried by the announcement of new sanctions… the European Union is determined to act in accordance with its security interests and to protect its economic investments.” In other words, our European allies promised to go it alone to support this critical non-proliferation agreement. Soon after, the E.U. began leading efforts to create a non-dollar denominated financial alternative in order to continue trade with Iran and save the deal.
On November 4th, 2018, the Trump administration reinstated the rest of the nuclear-related sanctions on Iran that were once lifted by the deal despite protests from our closest allies. This strategy bears little resemblance to the sanctions levied by the Obama administration. Unlike President Obama, President Trump failed to rally international support to re-sanction Iran or pair those efforts with a viable, credible diplomatic off-ramp to reach an end goal.
In January 2019, as international pressure against the administration continued to mount, President Trump faced further domestic pushback on his Iran strategy. Testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee on the release of an annual threat report, American intelligence chiefs asserted that Iran remained in compliance with the JCPOA.
Days later, international opposition to the Trump administration’s Iran strategy formalized when three European allies –– Britain, France, and Germany –– created a special purpose vehicle (SPV) to circumvent the U.S. dollar and continue certain trade with Iran. The new company, Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (or INSTEX, for short), is designed to enable the legitimate trade of non-sanctionable humanitarian goods and is the first time Europe has created a framework that bypasses U.S. financial markets that could undermine the utility of future American sanctions.
On May 8, 2019, the one-year anniversary of U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA and in the wake of the Trump Administration's announcement that it would no longer issue waivers for countries importing Iranian oil in an effort to drive Iranian oil exports to zero, Iran issued an ultimatum. In 60 days, if sanctions relief guaranteed by the JCPOA was not realized, Iran would begin to break its nuclear-related commitments under the deal. On July 1, 2019, Iran stated that it had breached its stockpile of low-enriched uranium above the 300 kilograms agreed to in the JCPOA and began enriching uranium above the 3.67% purity level that was agreed to. While this does not pose an immediate proliferation risk, it does signal that Iran could decrease its breakout time to under a year.
As Iran ceases to comply with certain aspects of the JCPOA, tensions in the Persian Gulf have escalated with attacks against oil tankers occurring in mid-May and mid-June. While the Trump Administration attributed these attacks to Iran, the international community was not unified in that attribution.
Tensions were heightened even further after the Iranians shot down a U.S. surveillance drone, accusing it of infringing upon Iranian airspace. The United States, however, asserts the drone never crossed into Iranian territory. On the evening of June 20, 2019, President Trump was reportedly minutes away from launching a retaliatory strike against Iranian military targets, but called off the strike. Instead, the next week a new round of sanctions was announced, and rhetoric between the two country's leadership grew more inflammatory. The Trump administration also sanctioned Iran’s top diplomat, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, making diplomatic engagement more difficult and less likely.
On September 5, 2019, Iran announced further breaches of its commitments under the JCPOA, specifically that it would expand its research and development of centrifuge technology beyond what was allowed under the agreement. This step means that Iran will install more advanced centrifuges, which will allot it to enrich uranium more quickly and at higher levels. More enriched uranium could be used for civilian purposes, but can also be used to build a nuclear weapon. While this step still would not pose an immediate proliferation risk, it does allow Iran to potentially reduce its breakout time by being able to produce the amount of weapons-grade uranium need for a bomb. This is yet another calculated step by Iran to increase pressure on the parties to the JCPOA to deliver the benefits promised under the deal.
Attacks on Saudi Arabian oil facilities on September 14, 2019, further heightened tensions. While the Houthi rebels fighting in Yemen’s civil war claimed responsibility for the drone and missile attacks, the United States accused Iran of being directly responsible for the attack. No evidence has been presented to prove from where the attacks were launched, but the weapons used in the attack appear to be of Iranian origin. Since then, Iran has threatened “all out war” if the United States responds to the attack with military force against Iran’s territory, and the United States continues to ramp up sanctions by cutting off the Iranian central bank from the global finance system, which will likely have a severe impact on the flow of humanitarian goods into Iran.
As Iranian compliance with commitments under the JCPOA wavers, and as the Trump Administration escalates its rhetoric and actions, Congress should ensure that President Trump does not stumble into war with Iran by reasserting its constitutional war making authority.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
With the Trump administration inching us closer and closer to war with Iran, we need Congress to step up and prevent the White House from taking unilateral military action. Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) has introduced Senate Bill 3517 to prevent an unconstitutional war against Iran. Representative Anna Eshoo (D-GA) introduced a companion bill in the House of Representatives, which mirrors the Udall bill. Call your senators and representatives at (202) 224-3121 and ask them to support these important bills.
Here are some things you can say:
We don't need another war in the Middle East, and it's unfair to our brave men and women in uniform to ask them to fight because of reckless, erratic decisions by President Trump and John Bolton.
Congress alone has the constitutional power to authorize war. It must act as a check on the executive branch and prevent President Trump from taking the country down this dangerous path.
In July 2019, the House of Representatives also passed the Khanna-Gaetz amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Passed with bipartisan support, this amendment blocks federal funds from being used to support military force against Iran without congressional authorization and makes clear that neither the 2001 nor 2002 AUMF can be used to justify military action against Iran. As Congress negotiates the final text of the 2020 NDAA, urge your representatives to retain the language of the Khanna-Gaetz amendment.
Basics of the Deal – Diplomacy Works
Iran Deal 101, Video Series – J Street
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Iran Deal: Hanging By A Thread – Ploughshares Fund, January 2018
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