Pence Calls on Europeans to Leave JCPOA
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence explicitly called on “our European partners to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal” in remarks at the Feb. 13-14 Warsaw summit on peace and security in the Middle East and at the Munich Security Conference Feb. 16. Pence’s criticism of the Iran deal did not appear to gain any traction with the major European powers, some of whom put forward a robust defense of their Iran policy and the nuclear agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
In separate remarks at the Munich conference, German Minister of Foreign Affairs Heiko Maas and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini strongly defended Europe’s continued support for the JCPOA. Mogherini said the deal is crucial to European security and a “fundamental pillar for the nuclear-nonproliferation architecture globally.” Maas stated that without the deal, Europe would be a “step closer to open confrontation” with Iran.
Pence also took aim at the newly-launched European financial mechanism to facilitate trade with Iran, describing it as an “an effort to break American sanctions” and an “ill-advised step that will only strengthen Iran, weaken the EU, and create still more distance between Europe and the United States” (See below for details.)
Neither Maas nor Mogherini attended the Warsaw summit, which the United States originally billed as focusing on Iran. The Warsaw meeting agenda was later broadened in a reported effort to get more participation from European countries that were critical of the Iran-centric agenda and there was no specific reference to Iran in the co-chairs statement released after the meeting. Pence, however, emphasized that at the summit “leaders from across the region agreed that the greatest threat to peace and security in the Middle East” is Iran.
Iran was not invited to attend the Warsaw summit and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif described it as a “meeting of ‘the unwilling’ and ‘the openly-coerced’” when speaking at the Munich Security Conference Feb. 17. He said the United States is “the single biggest source of destabilization” in the Middle East.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did attend the Warsaw meeting and took an even more bellicose approach to Iran. In remarks posted by his press office, Netanyahu said the countries were gathered to advance their “common interest of war with Iran.” The official English translation was later revised to say “common interest in combating Iran.”—KELSEY DAVENPORT, director for nonproliferation policy, and ALICIA SANDERS-ZAKRE, research assistant
E3 Announces Mechanism for Trade with Iran
France, Germany, and the United Kingdom announced Jan. 31 that the long-awaited mechanism to facilitate trade with Iran, originally known as the Special Purpose Vehicle, was set up and registered. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said in September that the parties to the JCPOA would pursue a trade vehicle to bypass U.S. sanctions reimposed after the United States withdrew from the nuclear deal and to preserve legitimate trade with Iran, including oil sales.
However, the mechanism announced Jan. 31, now known as the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX), will initially be limited to trade exempt from U.S. sanctions. In the Jan. 31 joint statement announcing that INSTEX was set up, the French, German and British foreign ministers said that the mechanism would focus “initially on the sectors most essential to the Iranian population – such as pharmaceutical, medical devices, and agri-food goods.” The three countries are all shareholders in INSTEX and have representatives that sit on its advisory board.
INSTEX will operate like a barter system to coordinate payments for imports and exports. For instance, a European entity exporting goods to Iran will register the transaction with INSTEX and then receive payment from a European entity importing goods from Iran. Because the funds do not originate from Iran, the entity will bypass U.S. sanctions on Iranian banks and financial messaging services. For INSTEX to become operational, Iran will need to set up a similar institution to coordinate payments in Tehran.
While Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qassami said Feb. 1 that Tehran welcomed the creation of INSTEX, he also said that the mechanism comes “too late” and Iran has “not seen tangible results” from the EU’s actions to preserve the nuclear deal. He called for the EU to accelerate its efforts so that Iran can “reap the economic benefits” of the nuclear deal.
Zarif said Feb. 16 that “INSTEX falls short of the commitments by the E3 to ‘save’ the JCPOA.”
U.S. messaging on INSTEX has been mixed. At the Munich conference Pence called on Europe to “stop undermining U.S. sanctions on Iran” and to join the United States “as we bring the economic and diplomatic pressure necessary to give the Iranian people, the region, and the world the peace, security, and freedom they deserve.”
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, however, said Feb. 14 if INSTEX remains focused on humanitarian aid, it will “have nearly no impact” on the U.S. sanctions regime and U.S. goals to counter Iran.
U.S. Intelligence Assessments Find Iran in Compliance with JCPOA
The 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. intelligence community, released Jan. 29, concluded that “Iran is not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activities we judge necessary to produce a nuclear device." The report’s findings contradict a Feb. 11 statement from National Security Advisor John Bolton that Iran “continues to seek nuclear weapons.”
The report also notes that "Iran’s continued implementation of the JCPOA has extended the amount of time Iran would need to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon from a few months to about one year."
The report stated that Iran has threatened to reverse some of its commitments under the deal if it does not gain “tangible trade and investment benefits it expected from the deal.” The U.S. intelligence community expressed concern in the report about Iran’s ballistic missile program and reiterated concerns it announced at the 2018 Chemical Weapons Convention Review Conference about Iran’s compliance with its obligations under that treaty.
A 2019 report from the Israeli military intelligence also assessed that Iran has not violated the nuclear deal, according to a Feb. 13 piece in Haaretz, and if Iran were to do so, it would take at least a year to produce enough fissile material for a bomb and another year to construct it. The Israeli assessment, which is not public, added that sanctions on Iran are putting intense pressure on the regime, according to the Haaretz coverage.
Amano Warns Against Pressuring IAEA
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Yukiya Amano warned against attempts to influence the agency’s application of safeguards in Jan. 30 remarks. Amano said, “if attempts are made to micro-manage or put pressure on the Agency in nuclear verification, that is counter-productive and extremely harmful.” He said that “independent, impartial and factual safeguards implementation is essential to maintain that credibility.”
Amano did not reference any specific countries in his warning, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called last year for the IAEA to inspect a specific site in Iran “immediately” that Israel identified as storing documents and materials related to the country’s past nuclear weapons program.
Netanyahu also urged the IAEA to follow up on archives of Tehran's nuclear weapons program that Israel removed from Iran in 2018 and shared with the agency. Reportedly, U.S. officials also told the Israeli government in late 2018 that the Trump administration would be more aggressive in pushing the IAEA to act on the information provided by Israel.
Amano also reiterated in his Jan. 30 remarks that Iran is “implementing its nuclear-related commitments under the JCPOA.”
Democratic National Committee Endorses U.S. JCPOA Re-Entry
The Democratic National Committee (DNC) adopted a resolution Feb. 16 which called on the United States to re-enter the JCPOA. DNC Committeewoman Yasmine Taeb introduced the resolution.
Several Democratic senators exploring presidential bids have also expressed support for the United States to re-enter the accord. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who announced Feb. 9 that she would run for president, endorsed the United States re-entering the JCPOA in comments to a December Senate Armed Services Committee hearing and in a Feb. 23 tweet from her campaign account.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who announced her intention to run for president in February, stated in a Feb. 11 interview with MSNBC that the United States should not “balk” on the Iran nuclear deal. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), another Democratic presidential candidate has also been outspoken in his support for the deal and returning the United States to compliance with the JCPOA.
Salehi Discusses Nuclear Cooperation
Ali Akhbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said Feb. 4 that Iran was willing to work with other countries to build nuclear research reactors and that Tehran is exporting radioisotopes for medical purposes to more than 10 countries. He said in February that Iran plans to expand its nuclear program in the future by investing in additional plants to process uranium ore and that additional surveying is being done to assess Iran’s natural uranium reserves. Iran’s mining and milling of uranium is subject to continuous monitoring under the JCPOA, but there are no stockpile limits on this type of uranium.
Salehi also referenced nuclear cooperation taking place under the JCPOA. Annex III of the JCPOA lists a number of possible areas for collaboration on nuclear safety, security, and technical cooperation. Salehi said that European countries have invested $20 million in Iranian nuclear facilities, including training courses.
While Salehi described the European efforts as “very good nuclear cooperation,” he raised concerns about China’s role in converting the Arak reactor. The JCPOA requires Iran to convert the Arak reactor from its original design to one that produces far less weapons-grade plutonium on an annual basis. China is working with Iran on the design and will assist in the conversion, but Salehi said Jan. 30 that Beijing’s fear of U.S. sanctions was interfering with the pace of the work.
Iran Attempts Second Satellite Launch
Satellite images of the Imam Khomeini Space Center analyzed by the Middlebury Institute of International Studies suggest that Iran attempted to launch a satellite around Feb. 5. After Iran’s Jan. 15 satellite launch failed to deliver the satellite into orbit, Iranian officials said another attempt would be made soon.
Given that Iran has not referenced the second launch, it likely ended in failure. The U.S. State Department issued a statement Feb. 7 condemning the “reported second failed space launch” and reiterated that the attempted launch “furthers Iran’s ability to eventually build” ballistic missiles that threaten our allies. While satellite launches do provide Iran with data relevant to ballistic missile development there are significant technical differences between satellite launch vehicles and missiles.
Iran is not prohibited from launching satellites either by the JCPOA or UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which calls upon Iran to refrain from activities related to ballistic missiles designed to be nuclear capable.
The failed launch comes amid reports from The New York Times that the Trump administration has accelerated efforts to sabotage Iran’s missile and rocket programs. Experts, however, caution against crediting the U.S. program with the launch failures, noting that a number of malfunctions could be responsible.
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