By Mohammad Mazhari

‘Compliance-for-compliance’ approach needed to reinstate JCPOA: Harvard researcher

January 18, 2021 - 11:48

TEHRAN – Stephen Herzog, a research fellow at the Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard University, predicts that Iran and the U.S. will follow a “compliance-for-compliance” approach to revive the nuclear deal, officially called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

“Biden—with the support of the E3—and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani intend to pursue a “compliance-for-compliance” approach to reinstating the deal,” Herzog tells the Tehran Times.

“This will likely need to involve a phased timeline of de-escalation measures by both sides,” Herzog adds.

On January 4th, Iran resumed enriching 20 percent uranium at the Fordow nuclear facility in response to Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the reimposition of illegal economic sanctions, failure by the Europeans to protect Iran from sanctions as well as the assassination of nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, which Iran holds Israel responsible for through collusion with the Trump administration.

However, the Harvard researcher believes the Islamic Republic is not going to develop nuclear weapons. 

“The president (Trump), having been soundly defeated in an election and presiding over a legacy of failures, is like a wounded animal.”Contrary to claims by the U.S. and Israel, Iran has never been seeking to develop nuclear weapons. The Leader of the Islamic Revolution has declared production, stockpiling, and use of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) as haram- religiously banned.
“Increases in uranium enrichment levels are intended to show the United States and the E3 the high costs of not abiding by JCPOA,” according to Herzog.
The following is the text of the interview:

Q: What message is Iran sending to the United States and the E3 (Britain, France, Germany) by announcing it has begun 20% enrichment of uranium?

A. To start off, I do not believe the Islamic Republic is developing nuclear weapons. The evidence indicates that military nuclear research in Iran stopped in 2003. My reading is that increases in uranium enrichment levels are intended to show the United States and the E3 the high costs of not abiding by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), known as the Iran Nuclear Deal. Iran is also exceeding the agreement’s limits on the number of gas centrifuges and quantity of enriched uranium. To date, these actions are reversible. Majid Takht-Ravanchi, the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations, reiterated this last week.

While I understand the logic of the Iranian strategy, it appears to be backfiring by escalating tensions. That is, the message leaders in Tehran may be intending to send isn’t the message that is being received. Now, many hawks who seek confrontation are using these moves to claim proof of Iranian intent to proliferate nuclear arms. There is no credible evidence to support these allegations. Yet, the move by Tehran still seems ill-advised. 

Going from the 3.67% low-enriched uranium permitted under the JCPOA for fueling reactors to 20% highly-enriched uranium is a lot of effort. It is much harder to do this than to increase the U-235 concentration from 20% to 90% needed to build a bomb. So, intentionally or not, what we are seeing is a dramatic reduction in the breakout time to develop nuclear weapons. This risk jeopardizing nuclear diplomacy and empowering those who might seek to attack Iran.

Q. To what extent can Iran’s move press the United States and the E3 to fulfill their commitments under the JCPOA?

A. In a perfect world, diplomacy would be direct and unambiguous. But this is, unfortunately, not the world we live in. The nuclear diplomacy of Iran, the United States, and the E3 is also a function of the domestic politics of each country. Such politics allowed outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump to falsely denigrate the Iran Nuclear Deal and withdraw even though Iran was verifiably complying. This is to say, political actors seeking to prevent the revitalization of the JCPOA will not just go away because Joe Biden takes office.

I believe that, rather than making it easier for the Americans and the Europeans to adhere to the deal, any escalation will create difficulties for pro-JCPOA politicians. It will be politically untenable for these leaders to reverse all sanctions so long as the Islamic Republic isn’t in compliance. Each step Iran takes to exceed the JCPOA’s limits will need to be reversed before its interlocutors will fully embrace their commitments.

For this reason, my understanding is Biden—with the support of the E3—and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani intends to pursue a “compliance-for-compliance” approach to reinstating the deal. This will likely need to involve a phased timeline of de-escalation measures by both sides. For instance, the United States could take steps to better allow Iran to sell oil and natural gas on international markets while Iran simultaneously reduces the number of centrifuges at the Natanz and Fordow facilities. Then, the sides could pursue another series of such measures. It is likely only through this sort of graduated timeline that Iran, the United States, and the E3 will be able to build confidence in each other’s intentions. But I think it is doable.

Q. Iran says that the United States must return to the JCPOA and that it will not negotiate over its missiles, which form the cornerstone of its strategic deterrence. Do you predict Iran and Biden’s administration can reach an understanding in this regard?

A. Regarding the JCPOA, yes. As we discussed, I absolutely think that the Biden and Rouhani administrations will be able to do the hard work of diplomacy to begin the path toward fully restoring the deal. Hopefully, the winner of the 2021 Iranian presidential election will also be committed to working with other partners in the deal. Biden has been a supporter of the JCPOA from the start as vice president under Barack Obama. And many officials from the Obama administration who worked on developing the framework for cooperation will return to the White House and State Department. I expect them to roll back the failed Trump policy of “maximum pressure,” which has only resulted in Iran increasing its nuclear capacity.

Regarding Iran’s large and growing inventory of ballistic and cruise missiles, I think the answer is more complicated. I understand many Iranians look to the legacy of Saddam Hussein’s abhorrent missile attacks on Iranian civilians as a justification for their own missiles—viewing it as a defensive program for deterrence. But Iran’s missile attacks across Iraq and Syria in recent years, and new missiles with ranges capable of reaching Europe, raise concerns about the defensive nature of the program. I think the Iranian government should consider publishing a “white paper” about its missile strategy to avoid misperception and inadvertent escalation. 

This view of Iranian missiles as offensive and threatening capabilities is prevalent among U.S. and E3 policymakers. For this reason, Biden’s incoming National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan has noted the administration wants missile diplomacy with Iran after the sides have reinstated the JCPOA. Many in Tehran will surely be resistant. 
It is difficult for politicians in Washington to support much broader engagement with Iran so long as U.S. allies feel threatened by Iranian missiles. And deals come with economic benefits for the Islamic Republic and greater prospects for peace in the Middle East (West Asia). 

Q. Don’t you expect Trump to take a step towards war in West Asia before his term ends as president? Is he authorized to take such a decision?
A. On one hand, I see how conflict may seem like a possibility with U.S. B-52 bombers flying missions in the Persian Gulf and continued deployment of the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier in the region. But on the other hand, Trump’s time in office is quickly coming to an end. He appears to be very busy dealing with the fallout from the failed insurrection to keep him in power, complaining about his permanent ban from Twitter, and pardoning his loyalists for the crimes they committed. What I am trying to articulate is that Trump is very busy at home.

Yet, I think Iran is taking a lot of unnecessary risks with 20% uranium enrichment, the unveiling of its new underground missile base, and other actions that may provoke Trump and his advisors. Trump still maintains control over the U.S. military and has sole authority to launch nuclear strikes until Biden is inaugurated as president on January 20. And since his defeat in the presidential election in November, Trump has appeared to be particularly volatile. I also don’t believe that efforts to remove him from office through impeachment will be successful, nor do I think Vice President Mike Pence and the cabinet will remove him by invoking the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Still, I don’t see Trump ordering attacks because he is too preoccupied with domestic political issues. Even so, U.S. military commanders will reject any illegal orders that are not proportional, are directed at civilian targets, or are otherwise not permitted by law. 
Over the next few days, it is in the best interests of all countries to avoid actions that could draw the ire of Trump. The president, having been soundly defeated in an election and presiding over a legacy of failures, is like a wounded animal. While he will be gone from office shortly, he still can leverage the power of his office to do grave damage in the realms of diplomacy, economics, and military affairs.


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