Trump’s JCPOA Language Game: The Strategic Logic to JCPOA Withdrawal

Most commentary on the US withdrawal from the JCPOA, at least from the sane end of the spectrum, has made the point, firstly, that it is not based on a firm strategy, that it more reflects the warped impulses of the President, and secondly that it augurs ill for the developing peace process in Korea. I address each in turn, but with the second I seek to make a point about what impact the North Korean experience might have on the strategy of Iran. That is I reverse the order of analysis.

I would certainly agree that the withdrawal does reflect upon the worst aspects of Trump, in particular his tendency to dismiss anything associated with the Obama presidency. This appears less motivated by ideological considerations and more by a sort of psychopathic rage against the person of Barack Obama. I should say that this rage isn’t unique to Trump. It seems to be a feature of the Republican Party more broadly, which increasingly resembles a frat house populated by well dressed maniacs, pimps and Johns. Literally. Hopefully, the rage directed Obama’s way isn’t directed toward the species as a whole but we cannot be so certain of that.

Though it is doubtless true that Trump’s withdrawal reflects this animus toward Obama and the major policies associated with him, nonetheless I would argue that there is an additional strategic consideration at work as well.

The pronounced claim, that the JCPOA is a bad nuclear nonproliferation agreement, is easily refuted. The JCPOA is a robust nonproliferation agreement, so good in fact that the main criticism, on the so called sunset clauses, is based on the very supposition that it is robust so robust all its features should extend into perpetuity.

Under the JCPOA Iran’s declared nuclear activities are subject to permanent safeguards, and that under a strict comprehensive safeguards agreement with the IAEA that includes adherence to the Additional Protocol and wider obligations than usual under what’s called Code 3.1 subsidiary arrangements which sets the parameters of Iran’s relationship with the IAEA (oh, do I remember Code 3.1 in a previous incarnation of this blog). The Additional Protocol, plus other stipulations associated with the Code 3.1 agreement, provide a strict regime that deters Iranian breakout scenarios. They are permanent.

Iran’s gas centrifuge activities, under the JCPOA, are mostly devoted to 5,060, relatively less advanced, IR-1 (based on the Pakistani P-1) gas centrifuges at Natanz for the first 10 years of the agreement. The IR-1 is not as suitable for nuclear weapons programme as more advanced generations of gas centrifuge. Iran has pledged to limit its work, with regard to quantity and type, on advanced centrifuges over the same 10 year time span. Pakistan and North Korea both use more advanced centrifuges than the IR-1 in their weapons programme. Under the JCPOA Iran has agreed to IAEA monitoring of its work on bellow and rotor technology, key gas centrifuge components, for 20 years.

The greatest concern, borne both by strategic considerations and technical considerations regarding uranium enrichment by means of gas centrifuges, is that Iran might develop a parallel, military, nuclear fuel cycle alongside the civil one and so present the international community with a fait accompli. That has always been the main concern with Iran, despite all the attention given to break our scenarios from declared facilities. The Additional Protocol, which does not sunset, as with Code 3.1 measures, are designed to preclude this. Furthermore, under the JCPOA Iran permanently scuttles its heavy water moderated, natural uranium fuelled, Arak 40MWt research reactor, excellent for producing weapon grade plutonium, and restricts plutonium reprocessing for 15 years.

On top of that Iranian uranium mining, milling, and processing is subject to IAEA inspections for 25 years, which is highly unusual. Indeed, the uranium that is taken to Iran’s uranium conversion facility is subject to IAEA containment and surveillance. Subjecting uranium mining and fabrication to IAEA inspection, the initial stages of the nuclear fuel cycle, is another measure meant to safeguard against a parallel nuclear fuel cycle.

Under the JCPOA Iran permanently agrees to verifiably refrain from scientific and technological work that could be used in a nuclear weapons programme. That means developing three dimensional computer models of nuclear explosions, design work on nuclear warheads for missile reentry vehicles, highly symmetrical and simultaneous multipoint detonator experiments, diagnostic work suitable for monitoring implosion shockwaves focused through explosive lenses, and work on neutron triggers that could be used to generate fast neutrons for initiating nuclear fission. These are permanent, that is not subject to sunset clauses. Washington’s withdrawal is not motivated by nuclear weapons concerns, because the JCPOA, having the above features, is a good, indeed fantastic, nonproliferation agreement. So good in fact it is often touted as the next wave of nuclear safeguards.

My own view, that there is a strategy to Washington’s withdrawal, is based on the idea that the US is seeking to create instability in order to create stability. When parsing US foreign policy one must imagine oneself to be a philosopher of language. There’s a certain “language game” to US foreign policy discourse. The word “stability” is a classic example of this. There’s a technical sense to the word stability, which we associate with a patterned and firm state of order. However, in US foreign policy discourse there’s an operative definition to the word stability, which is continued support for US preferences, understood in terms of securing corporate and investor interests, and US hegemony both regional and global. A good example of this was of Slobodan Milosevic at the Dayton peace talks that ended the war in Bosnia. Few know of an interesting tale at Dayton involving Milosevic and then US Secretary of State Warren Christopher, but it captures how stability works. The episode is known in the former Yugoslavia, but not elsewhere. Milosevic asked Christopher to issue him a list of orders, all of which he would follow so as to improve relations. Christopher rejected this. He stated that Washington will issue orders at the right time and whatever they are and whenever they are made they are to be followed. That’s stability.

Should a region not exhibit stability in the operative sense, but nonetheless does so in the technical sense, it can and has been subject to instability to restore, or create, a state of stability understood in the operative sense of course. The classic example of this was Washington’s support for the overthrow of the Allende government in Chile.

This is not to suggest that the Middle East is stable, although a key underlying source of the instability, I refer here to the technical sense, was of course the US invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003. The Sunni-Shia conflict currently racking the region is not of Tehran’s making. Iran pursues an independent foreign policy, it does not subject itself to US regional preferences and power to the same degree as other more obedient states, so anything it does is a source of instability. The JCPOA does a good job of dealing with Iran’s nuclear activities, but it doesn’t address US concerns about stability, in the operative sense, and the hardliners in the Trump administration and the Republican Party want to make the region more “stable,” through increased instability, by attacking what is perceived to be the main source of “instability,” namely Iran.

That strategy is implicit, indeed explicit I would say, in Mike Pompeo’s remarks over the weekend. He stated that, “I’m hopeful in the days and weeks ahead we can come up with a deal that really works, that really protects the world from Iranian bad behaviour, not just their nuclear programme, but their missiles and their malign behaviour as well.” How far the hawks are prepared to go to restore stability, perhaps reversing the Iranian revolution through regime change, is hard to discern.

The second point concerns North Korea, but from the opposite direction to the usual. Iran’s military strategy, including its missile programme, reflects a strategy of deterrence. The idea is to develop military capabilities to deter an aggressor, and if deterrence fails to hold the front for a week or so to enable outside diplomatic intervention before the front collapses. In this way Iran’s military strategy is like that of socialist Yugoslavia’s. Under Yugoslav military doctrine the operational forces of the JNA were designed to hold a Warsaw Pact thrust for a week or so to enable external diplomatic intervention. The Yugoslav doctrine had the added element of irregular warfare should the front collapse rapidly, but Iran’s strategy is nonetheless quite similar.

It is remarkable to think how Iran’s previous, halted, nuclear weapons programme fits into this strategy. We know this now thanks to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It has been pointed out by analysts, correctly, that Netanyahu’s recent address on Iran’s, previous it must be said, nuclear activities contained nothing new except the revelation that Iran’s nuclear weapons programme, now halted, was essentially a South African bomb in the basement style programme. The idea was to develop a small number of bombs with relatively low yield and keep them, literally, in a basement whilst appearing to remain committed to the NPT. Should the worse come to worse Iran would seek to hold an attack by maintaining the integrity of the front for a week using its conventional forces, and also at the same time reveal the bomb in the basement to the world to further encourage diplomatic intervention by manipulating external fears of escalation.

Now the thing is it appears that North Korea did not aspire to acquire an ICBM capability with respect to the United States from the get go, as many surmise. It appears that North Korea decided to develop an ICBM capability around 2011-2013. Certainly, North Korean statements make this claim, for instance it was made at the last Plenum of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea. I do recall writing at about that time, that is 2011, that US policy could lead Pyongyang to lose all confidence in the US as a reliable security interlocutor. North Korean behaviour has hardly been ideal, but we forget, to easily, in the West that Washington has on more than one occasion scuttled promising diplomatic avenues and actual agreements.

Should Iran go nuclear it too, likely, would be based on the same assessment. The withdrawal from the JCPOA demonstrates that the US is not a serious interlocutor, and that security is best reached through strategic nuclear deterrence. Iran has indicated, along with the other parties to the JCPOA that it shall remain a party to the agreement, however relying upon Europe to underwrite one’s security in the Middle East is fraught with danger, since the Suez Crisis this is US turf and everybody knows it, and the employment of secondary sanctions, especially financial sanctions, on the European financial services industry, as well as the Iranian of course, gives the US powerful leverage to dour European, and Iranian, enthusiasm for the JCPOA.

Of course, such a scenario would lead to instability but that would be precisely the point.

There is more to be said about gas centrifuges and military options, but suffice to say a bombed gas centrifuge plant can be reconstituted elsewhere. Think of North Korea here. Iran’s, pre JCPOA, clandestine uranium enrichment programme was discovered twice. North Korea’s modern, that is advanced gas centrifuge based, and sufficiently large, that is for a bomb programme, uranium enrichment plant was built under our noses right at the core of Pyongyang’s nuclear programme namely the Yongbyon nuclear research centre.

The situation might soon approach that of 2011-2012 with North Korea. Iran might make the same choice as Pyongyang for much the same reason. In 2012, under the rubric of “strategic patience,” we went down the wrong road. We seem determined to go down that road again. It was Marx who said that history repeats itself, first as tragedy and second as farce. We might find that Marx was right, only with the farce this time coming first and the tragedy second.