Will new evidence force Biden to admit that the Iran nuclear deal is dead?

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If Iran acquires a nuclear weapon, Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries will do everything possible not to be left behind.

The Biden administration remains unable or unwilling to admit failure in its humiliating pursuit of America rejoining the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Nonetheless, dramatic news coverage may force its hand. The Wall Street Journal reported exclusively last week that:

“Iran secured access to secret United Nations atomic agency reports almost two decades ago and circulated the documents among top officials who prepared cover stories and falsified a record to conceal suspected past work on nuclear weapons…”

The Journal described how it had reviewed copies of these International Atomic Energy Agency (“IAEA”) documents and others seized by Israel in a daring 2018 intelligence raid against a Tehran warehouse. The full extent of Israel’s haul in that dramatic operation is still not public, but everything revealed to date has proven accurate.

The news story emerged simultaneously with Senate testimony by Biden’s special representative for Iran, Robert Malley, so questioning at the hearing was inevitably limited. This latest revelation about Iran’s denial and deception efforts, however, undoubtedly presages more to come. 

Until the ramifications of the Journal’s story are further researched and thoroughly considered, the administration has no warrant to proceed any further in attempting to rejoin the nuclear deal. We still need to ascertain, for example, what else Tehran may have seen, and how long it benefitted from this unprecedented access, perhaps even to the present day.

Despite understandable gaps in the Journal story, the implications are volcanic. Iran has long invested considerable time and effort to deceive IAEA officials and inspectors, conceal or destroy critical information and generally obstruct the agency’s investigations. Thus, having any sensitive internal IAEA information would be of incalculable value to Tehran. As the article made clear, Iran would obviously benefit greatly by having advance notice of the lines of inquiry the IAEA was pursuing and the questions it wished to ask.

Early warning would have provided Iran sufficient, perhaps ample, opportunity to concoct a cover story and specific responses, get all relevant nuclear personnel prepared in line with the denial strategy and orchestrate a determined deception effort against the agency. In particular, Iran has consistently denied it ever had a nuclear-weapons program, and its concealment efforts could be greatly enhanced just knowing what the IAEA suspected. 

The evident success of Iran’s disinformation campaign underscores another critical point: The IAEA is simply not capable of verifying compliance with agreements such as the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty or other arms-control arrangements without full and unqualified cooperation by all parties involved.

Notwithstanding the agency’s inability to fulfill the responsibilities the 2015 nuclear deal entrusts to it, the Biden administration still argues that the IAEA is able to detect Iranian violations. The Journal report proves the precise opposite. The deal’s already weak verification provisions were always doomed to fail, but this new evidence puts the case beyond reasonable doubt. For the White House to continue asserting the contrary borders on perjury.

The IAEA does good and important work, but assigning it tasks it is inherently unable to accomplish gravely impairs its credibility. It is not an intelligence agency. Intelligence flows to the IAEA, not the reverse. Its “breakthroughs” typically come when member governments provide information which the agency uses to confront rogue states. America’s real insurance is not international monitoring of would-be proliferators but its own intelligence capabilities.

Even so, IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi should immediately launch a wide-ranging forensic investigation into what happened, who was responsible, how much damage was done and what the IAEA can do to prevent a re-occurrence. One person with much to account for is Mohammed ElBaradei, Grossi’s predecessor in the early 2000s, when these breaches of IAEA security apparently began. ElBaradei’s tilt toward Iran was fully evident throughout his tenure at the IAEA. Given the stakes involved for America and its closest Middle East allies, Congress should also conduct its own bipartisan investigation. 

Meanwhile, Iran’s dogged pursuit of deliverable nuclear weapons continues. Since his inauguration, Biden has ignored increasingly significant Iranian violations of U.S. sanctions, particularly trading in oil and related products with China and Venezuela. There is no longer a “maximum pressure” campaign, although indeed even that effort couldn’t stop Iran’s program. Weakening sanctions enforcement, however, especially under the guise of alleviating global oil shortages caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, make it harder for other nations to maintain strict compliance.

The White House should reverse course immediately before more damage is done. We must also acknowledge that current U.S. sanctions-enforcement machinery is inadequate. Considerable improvement is required before we can honestly speak of “maximum pressure” campaigns. Having a tough-sounding slogan does not equal an effective policy.

Most importantly, Biden must admit that the Iran nuclear deal is dead and cannot be resurrected. Only by acknowledging reality can we and our European allies begin developing a new policy with some chance of achieving our common goal of stopping Iran’s progress toward nuclear weapons. 

In fact, Tehran’s Islamic revolutionary government will never give up the goal of achieving nuclear weapons, which is one more reason among many why it needs to be replaced, sooner rather than later. Either that, or we and others will have to increase the military actions needed to reduce Iran’s nuclear and related efforts to ashes. Israel, in fact, created a few more ashes last week.

Surveying the rubble of the 2015 deal, and the damage it has inflicted on every nation threatened by Iran and other aspiring proliferators, we have much more to learn and improve. Unless a nation makes a strategic decision to abandon the pursuit of nuclear weapons, no acceptable deal exists.

The Iran nuclear agreement or the prospect of one with North Korea is worth nothing unless Tehran and Pyongyang truly believe they are better off ceasing their nuclear-weapons programs than continuing them. Once that is understood, the U.S. path is clear. As Winston Churchill said in 1934 in an analogous context, “[i]t is the greatest possible mistake to mix up disarmament with peace. When you have peace, you will have disarmament.”

John Bolton was national security adviser to President Trump from 2018 to 2019, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from 2005 to 2006 and held senior State Department posts in 2001-2005 and 1985-1989. His most recent book is “The Room Where It Happened” (2020). He is the founder of John Bolton Super PAC, a political action committee supporting candidates who believe in a strong U.S. foreign policy.

Tags Biden Biden administration IAEA Iran Iran nuclear agreement iran nuclear deal Iran nuclear weapons Robert Malley

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