President Trump is demanding that US intelligence agencies provide material on which he can base a declaration that Iran is not in compliance with the international agreement to curb its nuclear programme. The material does not exist, so they’ll need to be fake facts.
An impressive array of sources, including from within the US intelligence community, is reporting that President Trump is demanding that they produce data to prove that Iran is in non-compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Programme of Action (JCPOA) under which Iran’s programme, seen to be directed at the development of a nuclear weapons capability, was suspended.
JCPOA, concluded in 2015, was negotiated by Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany and the EU. It caps Iranian enrichment of uranium at five per cent enrichment. Twenty per cent is the level needed for weapons grade fissile material.
A major problem which it has presented to Trump, and many of the more rabid Republicans, is that it represents a success for Obama’s policies; not unlike Obamacare, at home. By that prejudiced definition, it deserves to be destroyed.
Under US law, made at the time JCPOA was ratified by Congress, the President must certify, at three monthly intervals, that he judges that JCPOA is being adhered to by Iran. The next such moment is due in mid-October and Trump has indicated that he is determined to refuse to so certify and, instead, declare Iran to be in non-compliance. He has instructed US intelligence and other relevant agencies to produce the facts to justify his proposed actions and is reportedly applying heavy pressure to that end. This reverses the correct relationship between intelligence and policy judgments based on it. It demands “facts” where they may not exist; fake facts, to justify an a priori policy decision.
JCPOA includes a mechanism under which parties may bring relevant concerns to the attention of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), to which the JCPOA has assigned the responsibilities of inspection and verification of compliance with the Agreement. Any party to the Agreement may report concerns, and the evidence for them, to the attention of other parties and the IAEA. The IAEA can decide to notify the Iranians that it has evidence of ambiguous or suspect activity by Iran and ask for clarification. If that clarification is not accepted by IAEA, Iran would have two weeks in which to negotiate terms of access by Agency inspectors and, if Iran failed to do this, the signatories to JCPOA could vote to seek mandatory access, with which Iran would have three days to comply.
The current state of affairs amongst national intelligence agencies in JCPOA countries, including the US, in the wider international community and at the IAEA, is that there is no important evidence that Iran has violated its obligations.
Trump’s determination to sink JCPOA would shatter the overall process of negotiating measures of non-proliferation of nuclear weapons; if it proceeds and JCPOA collapses, it would trigger a new nuclear arms race in the Middle East, involving such candidates as Saudi Arabia and Turkey; and it would deepen Israel’s contemplation of an attack upon Iran and, never forget, Israel has nuclear weapons.
Trump’s stance rests on pure prejudice, involving what could be called, hopefully without blasphemy, the Nazarene principle – nothing good can come from Obama or Iran. And it has no basis in fact, which is why he is asking for them to be manufactured.
A week ago he sent his Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, to IAEA headquarters in Vienna to meet with the Director General of the Agency, Yukio Amano, to seek answers to US questions, in particular to know if the Agency plans to inspect Iranian military sites to verify Iran’s compliance. Immediately prior to her talks with Amano, Ambassador Haley said: “We have no decision made” about whether to scrap the nuclear deal. “What we are doing is trying to find out as much information as we can.”
The US and the world witnessed a virtually identical phenomenon only 15 years ago, when the information needed to justify the invasion of Iraq was fabricated. The US intelligence community continues to be deeply disturbed by what Cheney and Rumsfeld put them through, on which GW Bush blithely signed-off, with Tony Blair and John Howard lending rapturous support.
The disaster those events authored remain with us today and has spread far beyond Iraq. Given that nuclear weapons are centrally at issue in the Iran case, the possible consequences of the stance of the committedly ignorant and prejudiced current President of the United States could be even more disastrous.
His proposed action could be forestalled: by members of the intelligence community refusing to meet his demand for fake facts and going public about it, or resigning, as some are reputed to be considering; by the other parties to JCPOA sticking to it, without the US; and by interested governments, such as Australia and Japan, making clear in Washington, now, that they place deep importance on JCPOA and adherence by all parties to its terms, including the US.
Any consideration of US policy, under Trump, towards nuclear weapons – whether towards Iran, DPRK, its newly announced wish for a deeper strategic relationship with India, or its abiding shielding of Israel and its nuclear weapons – must not fail to mention Trump’s repeated declaration that he will significantly expand US nuclear weapons capability.
What will Turnbull/Bishop do? On present form, as this is a very difficult issue,they will be tempted to leave it to others, even though we are a member of the Board of Governors of IAEA. We have a role to play.
Richard Butler AC is a former Ambassador to the United Nations, Executive Chairman of the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM), to disarm Iraq.