Ayatollah Khamenei’s Sucker Punch

How Iran's Supreme Leader has secured the death of the nuke deal -- and gotten the bomb within his grasp.

President Barack Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and other senior level officials of the Obama administration have tried to assure the American people that the nuclear deal they negotiated with Iran, known more formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), is rock-solid. According to Kerry, the JCPOA “shuts off all of Iran’s pathways towards fissile material for a nuclear weapon and resolves the international community’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.”

In the ivory tower where Obama, Kerry and their fellow naïve negotiators operate, they think they have devised an agreement with clear, unambiguous terms to which Iran has fully subscribed. They also have convinced themselves that the deal is built on a strong foundation of international inspection mechanisms and carrot and stick incentives to ensure that Iran will comply. They are dreadfully wrong on all counts.

The Obama administration is spinning its own interpretation of the JCPOA to the American people, which is at total variance with the interpretation of its negotiating counterparty, the Iranian theocracy headed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Iran’s Supreme Leader has delivered a sucker punch with his own set of written conditions contained in a letter of guidelines to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. The letter was published on October 21, 2015 - more than three months after the JCPOA was supposedly finalized.

If there is no meeting of the minds at the outset, the JCPOA is not worth the paper it is written on. It is built on a foundation of sand. Then again, the Iranian regime’s word is not worth the paper it is written on, as proven again and again by the regime’s record of serial violations of international law and instances of cheating. Yet the Obama administration presses on, believing that somehow things will be different this time. It is demonstrating the truth of a quote widely attributed to Albert Einstein: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” 

From the Obama administration’s perspective, sanctions relief for Iran is the JCPOA’s carrot, which is dependent on Iran’s full implementation of its commitments. If Iran complies with its commitments to severely limit its nuclear enrichment program and to rebuild a modernized heavy water research reactor in Arak with far less capacity to produce plutonium, the sanctions imposed on Iran for its nuclear-related activities will be suspended. 

“Iran will not receive any new relief until it fulfills all of the key nuclear-related commitments specified in the deal. Should Iran fully comply with the terms of the JCPOA, and should the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] verify this compliance, phased sanctions relief will come into effect,” Treasury Secretary Jack Lew explained. Sanctions imposed on Iran for its terrorist activities and human rights abuses will be unaffected as they are unrelated to the nuclear deal, Treasury Secretary Lew added.

The stick the Obama administration is relying on consists of two elements. There is “unprecedented monitoring and verification,” said U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, who played a key role in the JCPOA negotiations. In the event Iran breaches any of its commitments after the suspension of the nuclear-related sanctions, our negotiators have devised what they regard as an effective enforcement mechanism – the so-called “snap-back” of any suspended nuclear-related sanctions. 

“While our focus is on successfully implementing this deal, we must guard against the possibility that Iran does not uphold its side of the deal. That is why, should Iran violate its commitments once we have suspended sanctions, we have the mechanisms ready to snap them back into place,” Treasury Secretary Lew declared.

This version of what the JCPOA requires is what the Obama administration is telling itself and the American people will ensure that Iran behaves itself. Iran has a radically different view of the deal which will determine how it really acts going forward, not the Obama administration’s self-serving interpretation.  

Ayatollah Khamenei’s letter of guidelines to Iranian President Rouhani outlined his conditions that must be satisfied for Iran to execute and implement the JCPOA. These conditions have the effect of nullifying key provisions of the JCPOA that the administration was counting on to ensure Iran’s compliance. The conditions are analyzed in an insightful article by Yigal Carmon and Ayelet Savyon of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI)

First, Khamenei stated that Iran will not take any steps to implement the JCPOA unless all sanctions are “completely removed.” Mere suspension of nuclear-related sanctions is totally inadequate, according to Khamenei’s guidelines. Moreover, his position – which thus constitutes Iran’s position – is that the imposition of any sanctions at all, or the continuation of any existing sanctions including those imposed on the basis of “fabricated excuses like terrorism and human rights,” will be regarded as a violation of the JCPOA. Khamenei is demanding a written declaration by the European Union and President Obama affirming “the lifting of the sanctions.” Moreover, warned Khamenei in his guidelines, “Any declaration that the structure of the sanctions will remain in force shall imply non-compliance with the JCPOA.”  

Not only does Khamenei reject the concept of “snap-back” of any sanctions as a permissible remedy for the U.S. and its negotiating partners to exercise in the event that Iran violates its obligations. He would consider the re-imposition of sanctions for any reason to be a violation of the JCPOA, which would entitle Iran to cease its own implementation of the JCPOA.       

As the MEMRI authors Carmon and Savyon observed:

 “These conditions constitute a total change of the JCPOA. Khamenei is not allowing any execution of the JCPOA by Iran until this is accepted in writing by the other side, and thus he is nullifying the JCPOA as agreed upon on July 14, 2015.” 

Second, Khamenei is demanding what amounts to a clean bill of health from the IAEA with respect to “past and future issues (including the so-called Possible Military Dimensions or PMD of Iran’s nuclear program)” before Iran will even begin carrying out its obligations to ship out of the country much of its enriched uranium and to repurpose its nuclear reactor at Arak. Iran is further stacking the deck with its insistence that international inspectors will not be given direct access to the military sites where secret nuclear weapons development activities are suspected to have occurred. The IAEA must rely on samples and photos provided by the Iranian regime itself.

Linking this condition on Iran’s commencement of key implementation commitments with Khamenei’s demand that all sanctions must first be removed completely in any case, MEMRI authors Carmon and Savyon explained the implications as follows:

“This demand to change the timetable creates a situation in which Iran will not take  action as stipulated in the JCPOA, and will not meet its obligations, before the sanctions  are eased, also according to the JCPOA, but instead dictates that the sanctions must first be lifted completely and states that only then will Iran meet its obligations. Khamenei here is creating a situation in which the IAEA will not be able to report on Iran’s meeting of its obligations regarding the Arak reactor and regarding the shipping out of its enriched uranium by the target date of December 15, 2015, because Iran is not going to do so by then – thus the execution of the agreement is thwarted from the beginning.”

Third, Khamenei is insisting that by Year 15 Iran be permitted to have 190,000 “separative work units,” or SWUs, of uranium enrichment capacity – nearly eight times the current SWU capacity of Iran’s centrifuge enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordow. SWUs measure uranium enrichment efficiency.

Iran must also be able to “organize research and development in different aspects such that after the end of the eight-year period, there would be no shortage of technology for the level of [uranium] enrichment entailed in the JCPOA,” Khamenei wrote. This means advanced research and development to vastly enhance the speed, sophistication and efficiency of the centrifuges that Iran will put into operation when the uranium enrichment limitations sunset. Khamenei’s notion of the level of uranium enrichment “entailed in the JCPOA” does not appear to correspond with the Obama administration’s notion. 

In short, according to MEMRI authors Carmon and Savyon, this condition “nullifies the declared goal of the JCPOA, which is to reduce Iran’s nuclear enrichment capabilities.”

To say there is a fundamental disconnect between the Obama administration and Ayatollah Khamenei over the terms of the JCPOA is a vast understatement. Khamenei’s new conditions would nullify the essence of the deal the Obama administration thought it had negotiated, although you would not know it from the deafening silence of the Obama administration in the face of Khamenei’s post-deal demands. Khamenei knows he is dealing with a weak U.S. president. He knows that Obama is desperate for anything he can call a deal. And he is exploiting Obama’s weakness and desperation to the hilt.

Adding insult to injury, Iran just recently tested an intercontinental ballistic missile reportedly designed with the capability to deliver a nuclear weapon. Iran’s action violates the current international embargo on its missile program, as even the Obama administration has conceded. Indeed, UN Ambassador Samantha Power said, “We can confirm that Iran launched on Oct. 10 a medium-range ballistic missile inherently capable of delivering a nuclear weapon.” 

However, the Obama administration incredibly is validating Iran’s argument that the missile test is entirely separate from the nuclear deal itself. Administration officials say this with a straight face, even though Iran itself had linked the two during the nuclear deal negotiations. Iran insisted on a last minute concession that would limit unconditionally the duration of the current international missile embargo to 8 years, and the duration of the conventional arms embargo to 5 years. Iran is not even complying with the terms of this last-minute concession, which had made the finalization of the nuclear deal possible. Yet true to form, the Obama administration is running to the UN Security Council to seek some unspecified action rather than confronting the Iranian regime directly with its own conditions that it is prepared to follow through with. Instead of warning Iran that the nuclear deal under which the regime expects to obtain sanctions relief will be dead on arrival unless Iran foregoes any more testing or development work on nuclear-capable ballistic missiles, the Obama administration is preparing to administer at most a slap on the wrist.

As Iranian political analyst and former presidential adviser Mohammad Sadeq Al-Hosseini predicted nearly two years ago: “when you conduct political negotiations with Iran, you lose even when you think you have won.” (Source: MEMRI)

With the tough economic sanctions against Iran in his pocket, President Obama had a strong winning hand going into the nuclear deal negotiations. He threw it all away, capitulating to Iran’s demands which Khamenei continues to compound. The response from the White House to Khamenei’s further demands and to Iran’s violation of the missile embargo is little more than a whimper.