Ben Cobley is a Senior Digital Strategist at GPS Impact in Des Moines. He studied international relations at the University of Iowa and served as part of the First Infantry Division of the U.S. Army. -promoted by desmoinesdem
Before I go too far down the rabbit hole that is Middle Eastern foreign policy, let me explain how this post started.
A recent interaction on Twitter reminded me that when it comes to the public’s understanding of foreign policy decisions, simplicity isn’t always best. Such is the case with many of our media’s attempts at discussing the intricacies of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, commonly referred to as “The Iran Deal.”
I don’t blame the media for this oversimplification. Their job isn’t to teach - it’s to inform. And while many outlets try to toe that line to give an unbiased report on political findings, they also have to deal with countless variables that push them towards oversimplifying topics to keep a reader engaged.
I don’t have to face quite as many variables, and thus this post will be longer and more detail oriented. I’ll do my best to limit myself when needed.
Still with me? Okay - let’s talk about Iran and President Trump.
First, we need to be on the same page about what the Iran Deal is, what it does and doesn’t do, and who is all involved. This explanation will help better explain the implications of our withdrawal from the deal and that way we can be on the same baseline when taking a stand against President Trump’s actions on it.
The Iran Deal - or at least the most important parts
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was put in place in 2015 and was the culmination of negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 (US, France, Russia, China, Germany, and the UK). Under this historic deal, this group of countries agreed to unfreeze certain Iranian funds currently held under economic sanctions in exchange for Iran putting significant restraints in place on its nuclear program.
The details of this deal are quite long, and for the sake of clarity, these are just the few I will discuss:
1) In exchange for lifting some of the sanctions, Iran agreed not to use 75 percent of their centrifuges. That brings their total number down from roughly 20,000 operational centrifuges to just 5,000. Furthermore, the remaining 5,000 centrifuges must be the older and less effective machines.
What does this mean?
Well, it first starts with a basic understanding on the process of uranium enrichment and how centrifuges work.
In the process of creating nuclear power, the primary task is enriching the isotope Uranium 235 or U-235. This isotope is what is used to make a bomb or power a nuclear plant. But for these isotopes to be active forms of fuel, they must be enriched or concentrated to a certain level (from 1 percent to 20 percent for most nuclear power and more than 90 percent for nuclear weapons).
The process is much more complicated, but to enrich the U-235 to levels needed for fuel, centrifuges are used to spin the uranium oxide gas multiple times, extremely fast to separate the U-235 from its twin isotope, U-238. These centrifuges must be lightweight enough to spin at the velocity needed, but strong enough to handle the pressure.
The point of cutting Iran’s centrifuge operations down significantly was to limit Iran’s ability to effectively enrich uranium to the 90 percent enrichment levels needed to create a nuclear bomb while still allowing them to advance their nuclear energy power options at lower levels. Dropping the number of available centrifuges does this very effectively.
2) Iran gave up roughly 97 percent of their already enriched uranium supplies. At the time, Iran had an almost 22,000 lbs stockpile at its disposal. They were only allowed to keep about 600 lbs of their lowest-grade uranium. This concession, along with the 5,000 centrifuges that were kept, allowed Iran to continue its nuclear power program but significantly hindered their ability to create a weapon. The uranium they were allowed to keep, which currently sits at something like 3.67 percent, is well below the 90 percent enriched required to be weapons-grade.
These two limitations put in place by the Iran Deal were a significant step in hindering any nuclear weapons development option Iran might have. Iran's agreement to these stipulations was historic due to their history in dealing with the west. But as we know, the deal got done.
Next, we will discuss the economic sanctions that were lifted to give the Iranian economy a boost.
Economic sanctions were lifted once independent inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency were allowed to review and inspect that Iran kept up their side of the deal.
Experts estimated the number of sanctions lifted to be roughly $100 billion. But that figure is extremely misleading because Iran cannot access that full amount. Due to other sanctions levied against them for human rights violations, terrorism, and ballistic missile testing, the amount significantly diminishes. Further complicating these funds is the fact that Iran has a struggling economy with outstanding debts to other countries involved in these sanctions such as China. So the actual amount available to Iran because of the unfreezing of these funds is more likely in the range of $35-$60 billion.
Don’t get me wrong, $35-60 billion is not chump change by any stretch of the imagination but not also not the engorged $150 billion estimate that I’ve seen Republicans float around the internet.
Common Misconceptions - What the Iran Deal doesn’t do?
There are a lot of misconceptions on what the Iran deal does and doesn’t do. Now that we have covered some of what the Iran Deal is let's go through two of the common misconceptions that Congressional Republicans including Senator Joni Ernst, Trump, and others are currently using as fodder to explain and justify their withdrawal from the deal.
The Iran Deal does not prevent the Iranians from testing ballistic missiles. This topic is an area where the waters are still quite murky though. While the JCPOA does not formally restrict Iran from testing ballistic missiles, a point conservatives actively fought against, the “spirit” of the bill would seem to argue against it. Also, that same group of countries who signed the Iran Deal passed UN Security Council Resolution 2231 in the same year. That resolution endorsed the JCPOA and also used the following terminology.
“Iran is called upon not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons…”
So while the direct language banning missile testing didn’t get approved in the JCPOA, it quite possibly could have been a soft diplomatic work-around by the P5+1 to add the UN Security Council Resolution pushing back anyway.
A lot of conservatives, Senator Ernst included, point to ballistic missile testing as a strong enough reason to justify withdrawal from the agreement. I think given the scope of the deal and the end result that benefits the US and our allies much more than the Iranian government, it is a hard pill to swallow that we withdraw based on that reason alone.
So what does this all mean? - Did Iran break the Iran Deal when they tested ballistic missiles a few years ago? Yes and no. Iran did not violate the literal letter of the Iran Deal when they began testing ballistic missiles, but the good faith behind the deal was ignored.
The second major point that President Trump sees as a deal-breaker is the continued funding of terrorist organizations by Iran - and there is no beating around the bush on this, it is a problem.
Iran’s ability to fund, coordinate and influence terrorist activities around the world is a significant threat to the safety of our allies in the Middle East and our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Coastguardsmen and Marines deployed around the globe.
According to the State Department’s website, Iran has been designated as a state sponsor of terrorism since 1984 providing weapons, training, money and logistical support to terrorist actors across the Middle East, and ranging even as far as Africa and Latin America.
As a combat veteran who served in the Middle East and has friends who remain there today, I know first-hand the dangers Iran’s influence has on the stability of the region. I don’t believe anyone with even a basic knowledge of foreign policy would argue that Iran’s influence is the primary problem that isn’t addressed in the Iran Deal.
But as far as it being left out of the deal, I again can only speculate because I wasn’t in the room. For the sake of argument though, let’s take a second, and think about how the US would stop Iran or any country from funding terrorist actors around the globe. I am not a criminal mastermind, nor am I some kind of financial genius that can delve into the finer details of government “black” budgets, but it seems to me that stopping this from happening would be a significantly difficult task from outside the sponsor's government.
I have the utmost confidence in our military and our intelligence community, unlike President Trump, and imagine that while it would be a nice addition to the Iran Deal, that piece was more than likely scrapped to push toward the end goal of a nuclear weapon free Iran.
Overall the justification of these two points doesn’t give me reason enough to support withdrawing from the Iran Deal. Conservatives and liberals can argue back and forth on this all day but in the end, it comes down to a simple idea.
Does one or two cookies destroy your diet? No. Should it be watched and ensure that it isn’t happening consistently? Absolutely. Does it mean you need to burn the gym down? No.
(I'm going to take flak for making that comparison, I'm sure. Use any analogy you wish, I don't believe these small actions justify a complete withdrawal)
So what does it all mean?
Now that we have covered just a few of the finer details of the deal, we can bring it full circle and discuss why the withdrawal of the deal is bad, why Senator Joni Ernst’s support of the withdrawal is questionable and why Iowans should be concerned.
According to all apparent sources, Iran has done fairly well at holding up their end of the deal. The roughly 130-180 IAEA inspectors assigned to Iran and the program have noted that Iran has not been in breach of the contract to their knowledge. Arguments against this point, while understandable based on Iran’s long history of illicit behavior, are unwarranted as far as I'm concerned. The analysts and inspectors at the IAEA have no reason to lie. Our allies in the P5+1 all have much more to lose based on their geographical proximity to Iran than we do, and I imagine that should any secret facilities exist, clandestine operations or otherwise remain, our intelligence community would know about it.
For President Trump to withdraw from yet another international agreement diminishes our credibility and standing in the world. It further defines our country in the age of Trump as an international “avalanche” and begs the question: Is nuclear proliferation possible in the age of Trump?
This withdrawal makes the Iran Deal just another casualty of Trump’s “America First” diplomatic agenda and adds it to the long list of agreements tossed by the wayside or otherwise credibly diminished including the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris Agreement, and now the Iran Deal.
Not that it ever looked like President Trump was some sort of diplomatic savant but with the departure of Rex Tillerson at the State Department and the addition of John Bolton as National Security Advisor, we seem to on a direct path toward what global political risk analyst, Ian Bremmer calls a “G-Zero” world - a world where western power has diminished and world leaders are focused primarily on domestic affairs rather than their international standing.
What makes this situation even more problematic is Senator Ernst’s comments and vocal support for the withdrawal.
You would think that as a veteran she would support any diplomatic response in the Middle East that brings any level of stability to the region. Her campaign rhetoric claims she has seen combat first-hand in the Middle East, so it is not a stretch to believe that she understands what is at stake here. Senator Ernst needs to be less partisan when discussing topics like these and take a long, hard look the real-world implications here. Just days after the announcement of our withdrawal, tensions are high in the Middle East, our allies are positioning themselves to attempt to pick up the pieces, other global leaders like China and Russia are using it to posture their countries as reliable world leaders and the region continues in a downward spiral.
I didn’t serve in the Middle East and work toward a stronger and more secure future just to be undone by President Trump’s refusal to learn diplomacy or his personal quest to undo anything President Obama worked on. Senator Ernst should feel the same way. To be honest, I’m confused as to why she is not.
Regardless of partisan lines, I think coming at the Iran deal from a foreign policy standpoint, it's hard to argue that this deal didn't bring some level of stability to the region. That stability protects our troops and investments in the region, which are massive.
Overall, this deal did more good than bad. It placed significant blocks on Iran’s nuclear program, was a combined effort supported by significant world leaders, and brought some sense of stability to the middle-east. For President Trump to scrap the deal with no other plan in place is not only wrong, but it is also dangerous, and further feeds into the g-zero world.
Top image: Ben Cobley (far left) with teammates on September 11, 2011 in Southern Kandahar Province, Afghanistan. Use of rank/photo does not imply endorsement by the U.S. Army or the Department of Defense.