Omri Ceren: Heading for the exit

Some have speculated that the imminent departure of Rex Tillerson and General McMaster as Secretary of State and as National Security Advisor, respectively, foreshadows our exit from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action putting Iran setting Iran’s timetable to the authorized development of nuclear weapons, among other things. This past Tuesday The Israel Project’s Omri Ceren disseminated this backgrounder on the subject. I thought readers might find his backgrounder of particular interest today. Lightly edited and footnotes omitted, this is it:

On January 12 President Trump started a 120-day clock on the US withdrawing from the Iran deal, unless both Congress and the EU3 – Britain, France, and Germany – fixed the Iran deal by adding new conditions that: 1st eliminate the “sunset” expiration dates, 2nd prohibit ballistic missile development, 3rd secure IAEA access to military facilities. The clock expires on May 12.

A “fix” means building the new condition into the deal. So, for example, the ballistic missile fix says if Iran tests a prohibited missile it’s just like Iran testing a prohibited centrifuge: it would be a formal violation of the deal and so the specific sanctions lifted by the deal would be restored. Generic new pressure in the general area of a condition doesn’t meet what the president called for. So for example, imposing new sanctions outside of the deal in response to ballistic missile development doesn’t count as a fix.

There is a precise policy reason why the fixes have to be that way. In Trump administration shorthand the deal was “too much for too little”: it locked up the West’s most effective sanctions but did not prohibit Iran from engaging in critical nuclear-related and malign activities, leaving the West with no robust non-military options against those activities. The fixes would apply the powerful pre-deal sanctions in response to those activities.

The US negotiating team has had three specific meetings with their EU3 counterparts to secure the fixes. The most recent was a week ago yesterday in Berlin. Public reports and European behavior suggest significant gaps remain. On ballistic missiles, the Europeans are floating a proposal to impose new sanctions outside the deal. On sunsets, the parties are reportedly even farther apart.

Momentum had already shifted toward an exit before the latest talks, and planning is underway for implementing such a “nix.” The AP reported a week ago yesterday that gaps are so significant the administration might withdraw even before the clock expires on May 12. The Washington Post reported this week that plans for an exit are being drawn up inside and outside the administration. Key parts:

(1) Inside the administration — the White House and State Department are working on rollout logistics and the Treasury Department is mapping how sanctions would be restored:

The State Department and the National Security Council have begun developing a diplomatic, economic and strategic communications strategy for pulling out of the deal, reimposing sanctions and dealing with potential responses from Europe, China, Russia and Iran… The Treasury Department is working on the logistics of “snapping back” various sanctions, including restoring Obama-era executive orders that the deal rescinded. A treasury official told me the department will be prepared to implement any decision made by the president…

(2) Outside the administration — FDD held an expert forum and produced a memo on “post-nix” scenarios that the administration is evaluating. The memo concludes European companies will have to comply with the restored sanctions and calls for a range of additional moves:

The Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a think tank that enjoys unique influence with the Trump administration, recently convened a group of about 20 senior Iran and non-proliferation experts to game out scenarios, the results of which were compiled in a memo… The memo the FDD prepared, which has been shared with State, NSC and Treasury… maps out probable responses from the Europeans, Russians and Chinese. The Europeans are likely to go along with new sanctions out of economic pragmatism, the memo argues, but they could opt to join with Iran to resist the sanctions and diplomatically condemn the United States. The memo calls for regional preparation with Gulf allies and Israel, to provide alternatives for Iranian oil and to prepare for increased Iranian mischief around the Middle East.

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