After Warsaw and the IAEA meeting, what's next for Washington on Tehran's nuclear file?

After Warsaw and the IAEA meeting, what's next for Washington on Tehran's nuclear file?
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Europe, not Iran, was the subject of U.S. Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceDozens of graduates walk out in protest of Pence address Trudeau on tariff deal: Canadian and US businesses can get back to 'working constructively together' Congress has a duty to go through with the impeachment and public trial of President Trump MORE’s most memorable comments at the Warsaw summit on Middle East peace. “The time has come for our European partners to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal,” he said, suggesting the Trump administration is wary of  Brussels and Tehran’s intention to keep the nuclear accord on life-support for a future U.S. administration. Not surprisingly, the Europeans rejected Pence’s demand to exit the deal, raising a pivotal question for the White House: What can the Trump administration do on the Iranian nuclear issue, both after Warsaw and the more recent International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors meeting?

Since the U.S. formally left the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) last May, the restoration and enforcement of sanctions has had a significant impact on Iran. In the past nine months, Iran has faced declining oil revenues, a deepening recession, an exodus of foreign firms, and a plunge in the value of its currency, the rial. Fearing Iran will renounce the JCPOA if it’s economy collapses, the E3 (France, Germany, and the U.K.) created a mechanism to continue select transactions with Iran, bypassing the U.S. financial system.

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Taken together, Iran’s strategic patience — which the nuclear deal rewards — in the face of growing sanctions pressure, as well as Europe’s attachment to the JCPOA requires Washington to recalibrate its policy. Asking the E3 to renounce the JCPOA is futile, yet the U.S. should put forward several tough but reasonable requests for European support to restrain Tehran’s nuclear program.

First, Washington should seek a public commitment from the E3 and the EU that in the event of “significant nonperformance” by Iran — the JCPOA’s term for major violations — Europe would restore UN sanctions on Tehran. Defining in advance what constitutes an overt and unambiguous violation by Iran can begin to bridge the trans-Atlantic gap. Otherwise, Europe might be willing to write off “significant nonperformance” by Iran as a response to U.S. pressure, thus excusing a significant expansion of Iran’s nuclear program.

Second, Washington should develop a roadmap with Europe for identifying the likely areas where Iran could “inch out” of the JCPOA. Pinpointing those areas now can lay the predicate for a more unified response in the future. This would also be the time to remind Europe that Tehran’s modus operandi is to pursue the least costly route in defiance of its international obligations. Indeed, Iran has already signaled that it has the option resume 20 percent enrichment, and may have offset the JCPOA’s restrictions on its Arak reactor through procurement of parts such as tubes.

Finally, Washington should leverage an asset that has the potential to revolutionize the debate about Iran: the atomic archives. To begin, the U.S. Treasury should designate Iranian entities and persons which the archive shows were involved in the Iranian nuclear program. So far, EU governments have yet to acknowledge the obvious lesson of the archives’ discovery: Their retention means that Tehran knows it has something worth hiding, be it from Western governments or the IAEA.

Washington’s third request from the E3 and EU should be to help convince the IAEA — which remains the responsible entity for monitoring and verification of Iran’s nuclear activities, regardless of the status of the JCPOA — to investigate all sites, activities, and personnel found in the archives.

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The path toward a new consensus on Iran’s nuclear program necessarily goes through the IAEA Board of Governors, which has just met. Together, the U.S. and the EU should ensure that the IAEA carries out its obligations, even if there is a substantial risk of discovering Iranian non-compliance. By relying on the IAEA, the U.S. can show its partners that it still has a sincere commitment to working through multilateral institutions to prevent nuclear proliferation. At the same time, the Europeans can show the U.S. that it is possible to use an existing international organization to hold Iran accountable and resolve outstanding questions about Iran’s nuclear intentions and capabilities.

Since April of last year, when Israel first revealed the existence of the atomic archives, at least three Board of Governors meetings have taken place. Despite extensive analysis of the Iranian documents by David Albright, Olli Heinonen, and their co-authors, the IAEA still continues to brush off the archives’ significance, and implicitly alleges that it is fighting to defend its independence and credibility from outside interference. Such a charge should not be a pretext to ignore the documents altogether, as the IAEA is the last and perhaps most important leg of any American attempt to develop a new consensus position on Iran’s nuclear program.

Unquestionably, the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA has generated substantial tension between the U.S. and the E3. The E3 won’t turn its back on the nuclear deal, but there is still enough common ground for Washington and its European allies to work together on several measures to restrain the Iranian nuclear program.

On their own, those measures hardly amount to a robust policy, so Washington should continue to escalate its economic pressure on Iran. That means severely limiting or altogether eliminating the exemptions and waivers given to continue projects in Iran or to purchase Iranian oil. It also means cracking down on any channel, such as the new European mechanism, that provides Iran with even the slightest economic relief. Yet maximum pressure on the sanctions front should not entail abandoning all cooperation with Europe and the IAEA on nuclear matters, since a multilateral approach can still restrain Iran in important ways. 

Brigadier General (Res.) Jacob Nagel is the former Acting National Security Advisor of Israel. He is now a visiting professor and member of the aerospace engineering faculty at Technion  Haifa, and a visiting fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Behnam Ben Taleblu is a Senior Fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies where he focuses on Iran.