Ambassador Thomas Pickering Examines Iran Nuclear Deal

By Grace Krauser

The Matthew Ridgway Center recently hosted former U.S. Ambassador Thomas Pickering of the Iran Project to discuss the state of the Iran Nuclear Deal. Ambassador Pickering began his talk encouraging tough questions. “The most intrusive and difficult questions are the ones we should be exploring together,” said Pickering.

No stranger to exploring difficult questions, Ambassador Pickering served over four decades as a U.S. Diplomat, including the last years serving as the Under-secretary of State for Political Affairs, the third highest post in the U.S. State Department.  He also served as ambassador to the United Nations, the Russian Federation, India, Israel, and Jordan and completed military service in the U.S. Navy and Naval reserves. Ambassador Pickering’s lifetime of public service earned him the rank of Career Ambassador as well as a dynamic perspective on the most challenging global issues.

Professor Phil Williams, the Director of the Ridgway Center and proctor of the briefing, prompted the Ambassador to comment on the current state of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) which has been in effect for the past two years. Ambassador Pickering went on to explain the history, development, and context of the Iran Nuclear Deal by posing three pressing and fundamental questions:

Is Iran holding up its end of the deal?
What are the fundamental challenges of the deal?
Will the deal survive?

Is Iran holding up its end of the deal?

The short answer is “yes,” explained Pickering. Ambassador Pickering went on to explain that JPCOA has employed the “most extensive program in verification and inspection that has ever been used in any international agreement.”  In addition to the inspections, there is real time continuous monitoring of the flow of gas in any enrichment program in Iran.  The economic sanctions placed on Iran before JPCOA were detrimental to their economy, and included extreme measures such as not allowing American firms to deal directly with Iran, the prohibition of American currency as a medium of exchange in Iran or by any country dealing with Iran, and terminated all trade between the U.S. and Iran, noted Pickering.  Ambassador Pickering believes the monitoring along with relaxing the economic sanctions provided sufficient incentives to ensure Iran’s complete compliance with JPCOA.

What are the fundamental challenges of the deal?

The fundamental challenges of the Iran Deal are in the sunset clause, which severely limits Iran's nuclear enrichment abilities to 2025, but not thereafter.   In response to his objection to the sunset clause, President Trump withheld certification of the Iran Deal, and has given the U.S. Congress responsibility for determining whether the U.S. should or should not waive sanctions on Iran.  Ambassador Pickering believes that the U.S. Congress is not prepared to take any action that would violate the JCPOA.  If the U.S. Congress fails to waive the sanctions, we violate the agreement.  If we reinstate old sanctions or impose new ones, the United States would be the first member of the JCPOA to violate the agreement. 

Critics have asked, what happens if “Iran does not uphold the ‘spirit of the agreement’” and “how do we know with 100% certainty that the Iranians will not cheat us?”  In response, the Ambassador replied, “There is no ‘spirit’ to any agreement,” and that this argument lacks credibility.  He critiqued the “virtual-T.V. form of government” that Americans have now adopted as credible, citing how dangerous some of the misrepresentations of information are to public perception of American foreign policy.

The Ambassador also noted that while no monitoring system is perfect, the Iranians are aware of the significant capacity for American intelligence agencies to monitor both directly and indirectly through allies in the region.  In addition to the significant monitoring put in place by the JCPOA, the “Iranians know we are watching, and they don’t know what we are capable of watching.  This level of uncertainty thwarts any temptation to cheat.”  In order for Iran to “cheat” without the inspections committee or intelligence community detecting this behavior, Iran would have to develop a completely “new all black program, zero transfers from old program to a new program, all new people and technologies and resources…”  Ambassador Pickering explained that Iran does not currently have the resources or capacity to cheat in this manner; however, even if this were possible, the constant monitoring and surveillance would most likely detect this activity before a nuclear program was launched explained Pickering.

Since the implementation of the Iran Deal, Iran has begun to rebuild its economy,  and has re-elected the current president who entered the Deal - despite the Iranian critics and opposition to JCPOA.  This is important when considering whether the JCPOA has provided sufficient incentives for Iran to cooperate completely (as they have demonstrated through the inspections and evaluations).  If Iran cheats, violates the agreement, or is not providing satisfactory results, any negotiating party can reintroduce the sanctions without approval from other negotiating parties.  This means that Iran would be immediately subjected to the same economic sanctions that pushed Iranian government officials towards the agreement in the first place.  The Ambassador stated that overall, the majority of Iranians are content with the agreement.  He chuckled, “Actually, I think Iranians are much more satisfied with the agreement because President Trump has called it ‘the worst of all deals for America.’”

Will the deal survive?

Ambassador Pickering stated that many experts believe that the U.S. Congress will allow the sanctions to be set aside so that the president has to decide whether to re-certify the Iran Deal.  European negotiators believe that the U.S. Congress will not authorize the United States to be a violating member of the agreement to reinstate sanctions.  However, if the United States does not recertify and violates the JCPOA agreement by putting sanctions on Iran back into place, Iran will be free to resume its former uranium enrichment program, and it obligation to the deal will fall away.

Ambassador Pickering warned that the decision to certify and continue the agreement is a significant one.  Failure to certify would most definitely separate us from friends and important allies.  This move could potentially make the United States less influential and undermine the notion that President Trump has the power to pressure friends and allies to redo the agreement.  Regardless, reinstating sanctions - even on bilateral terms - from the United States may lead to another path to an Iranian nuclear program.  Also, the failure to certify may reduce the effectiveness of the United States’ position to negotiate future proliferation agreements both with Iran and in the international community.

After grappling with the difficult unknowns of what would happen if the United States violates the agreement, Ambassador Pickering opened the floor to questions.  The audience followed suit in exploring the “intrusive and difficult questions” with Ambassador Pickering - from comparisons to U.S. strategies with nuclear capable North Korea to Iran’s ballistic and missile technologies.  Ambassador Pickering’s experience and involvement with the Iran Project make him an ideal expert for tackling some of the public concerns.

The final question shifted gears towards a broader question of diplomacy:

“The military option often sounds better to Americans.  Ambassador Pickering, do you see the value of utilizing military intervention over foreign service/diplomatic approaches? And if so, do you see the value of diplomacy in America?”

Ambassador Pickering paused thoughtfully, and smiled, “Without trying to be disrespectful, the number of waking seconds that Americans think about diplomacy is very small… The real challenge is that diplomacy is long, uncertain, wobbly, and imperfect and cannot be solved by quick action with military.  Diplomacy is something that needs deeper examination… Ultimately, I think that the coordination between the two [military and foreign service] is important to be effective.  We need to utilize the whole government’s capacity to strategize and increase impact… to have a carrot and stick approach to foreign policy,” said Pickering. These thoughtful observations provided a perfect finale to what had been a comprehensive and compelling briefing and discussion. 


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