On July 25, Assistant Secretary for International Security and Nonproliferation Dr. Christopher Ford said the United States is fully invested in achieving a “comprehensive new deal” with Iran that would address issues beyond its nuclear program. “Normal nations do not engage in prolonged proxy wars against their neighbors, continue destabilizing behavior with persistent ballistic missile testing and proliferation, and posture themselves for illegal nuclear weaponization breakout,” he said. The following is a transcript of his remarks at DACOR Bacon House, an organization of foreign affairs professionals.
Dr. Christopher Ashley Ford
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation
It’s a pleasure to help offer some insight into the Administration’s views on where we go from here with Iran.
We have been very clear about the multitude of problems that were left unsolved, exacerbated, or even created by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal with Iran – problems which led the President to withdraw the United States from participation. It’s useful to recap them, however – and with a special focus upon nuclear proliferation risks – because understanding these problems points not just to why this administration took the decision it did, but also to the need for a more comprehensive and enduring solution.
So let me start by highlighting the degree to which the JCPOA – and the concessions it embodied in providing legitimacy to and facilitating Iran’s provocative nuclear program – not only did not lead to improvements in Iran’s regional behavior, but in fact led to this behavior worsening. The lifting of sanctions and Iran’s degree of re-integration into the global economy that the deal permitted both enriched and emboldened Iran, making it a more dangerous regional actor than before.
Iran’s defense budget has risen significantly since 2015, and its malign activities in destabilizing the Middle East have only increased. Iran’s sinister Qods Force became even more deeply involved in the Syrian civil war and now serves as what is essentially an occupying force in parts of Syria. Its development of a huge arsenal of ever more sophisticated ballistic missiles continues, and it has been proliferating missiles and missile production technology to terrorist clients such as Lebanese Hizbollah and the Houthis in Yemen. Its support for international terrorism has continued, and even accelerated, and its human rights abuses at home remain unabated.
Since 2012, Iran has spent in excess of $16 billion propping up the Assad regime in Syria, and is supporting its other destabilizing regional partners and proxies in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Lebanese Hizbollah receives perhaps $700 million from Iran every year, and that’s not counting something on the order of $100 million a year to Palestinian groups such as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Despite the earnest expectations of the Obama Administration – as expressed in the preface of the nuclear deal itself – that “full implementation of this JCPOA will positively contribute to regional and international peace and security,” Iran was only empowered and emboldened in its malign activities.
Worse still, the JCPOA actually got in the way of international efforts to push back against all of Iran’s destabilizing provocations, by limiting the degree to which sanctions that had been lifted by the JCPOA could be reimposed against Iranian entities in response to these malign activities. Even where sanctions pressures were not formally ruled out by JCPOA commitments to lift them, any suggestion of serious sanctions pushback against Iran for its behavior invariably engendered resistance from partners who feared that efforts to punish Iran for non-nuclear provocations would lead Tehran to pull out of the nuclear deal.
The JCPOA, in other words, both facilitated Iranian misbehavior and made it more difficult for us to respond to these problems. As I have pointed out repeatedly, the JCPOA became – to some extent – an altar on which were sacrificed other critical aspects of U.S. Iran strategy. The nuclear tail, as it were, was very much wagging the Iran policy dog.
Nor, ironically, did the JCPOA even really do the one thing that its defenders advanced as its major selling point. It conspicuously failed to permanently address Iranian nuclear proliferation threats.
The Iranian regime began secretly trying to develop nuclear weapons at least as early as the mid-1980s, embarking upon a weapons effort that included two prongs: (1) work specifically on nuclear weaponization; and (2) work to produce the fissile materials that would be needed to actually construct a weapon. According to the U.S. intelligence community, Iran suspended its weaponization work in 2003 – at a time when our moves against Iraq seemed to send a clear signal that engaging in such weapons of mass destruction work might be, one might say, exceedingly unwise. Iran did not, however, stop its effort to produce fissile materials.
Indeed, despite public revelations of its previously secret fissile material production effort, Iran doubled down. After its work was exposed, Iran simply declared to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) the uranium enrichment program that it had been caught illegally pursuing, pretended that this made everything alright, and proceeded full speed ahead.
The international community tried to persuade Iran to stop, but it could never put sufficient pressures on the regime in Tehran. The world did not exactly fail to respond, mind you, but it always responded too late, and with too little. Indeed, U.S. officials had openly assessed as early as 1991 that Iran was seeking to develop nuclear weapons, but even after Iran’s hitherto secret enrichment program was publicly revealed in August of 2002, and Iran admitted the existence of this effort, the first United Nations sanctions were not imposed until late 2006 – by which point the unlawful enrichment plant at Natanz had gone from being just a big hole in the ground to being a facility stocked with spinning centrifuges enriching uranium.
It was not until 2015 that the JCPOA purported to offer a solution to this problem, and it wasn’t much of an answer. Indeed, the nuclear deal accepted and legitimized the fissile material production program that Iran had illegally undertaken in flagrant violation of its IAEA safeguards obligations, Article II of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and multiple legally binding U.N. Security Council resolutions adopted under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter. And the JCPOA only temporarily constrained the size and scope of this dangerous program, expressly phasing out all of restrictions on Iran’s enrichment capacity, enrichment purity, and uranium stockpiles over periods ranging from 10-15 years. This was the so-called “sunset clause” problem.
The main accomplishment of the JCPOA, in other words, was merely to kick the proliferation can a bit further down the road – just by coincidence (I hope), to a point in time just beyond that at which President Obama’s anticipated successor Hillary Clinton would have been finishing a presumed second term. After that, Iran would be free to build up the massive enrichment capacity that Supreme Leader Ali Khameini has repeatedly identified as his objective, thus positioning Iran dangerously close to extraordinarily rapid weaponization were it to resume the work suspended in 2003. (Iran even proclaimed itself interested in developing a nuclear-powered submarine, apparently hoping to take advantage of a provision in traditional nuclear safeguards agreements that allows nuclear material to be removed from safeguards while it is being used for naval propulsion.)
So this was the JCPOA’s answer to the Iran nuclear problem. We in the current administration, however, did not see this as much of a solution – especially as it became clear that the deal facilitated Iranian misbehavior in non-nuclear arenas and impeded efforts to punish Iran for such malign acts.
Accordingly, we tried very hard to achieve a better answer. We reached out to partners on Capitol Hill, working closely with them in an effort to develop legislation that would mandate the reimposition of full sanctions if Iran expanded its nuclear capabilities beyond those to which the JCPOA currently restricts it. And we worked with our European partners for months in an effort to find a similar diplomatic understanding.
In neither case, however, would our interlocutors commit to taking steps to penalize Iran for expanding its nuclear capacities and shortening the assessed “breakout time” in which the regime in Tehran would be able to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon. Neither Congress nor our British, French, and German partners would commit to placing any additional restriction upon the future size and scope of the Iranian nuclear program absent agreement by Iran to do so.
And then came the public revelation that Israel had acquired a massive collection of documents from Iran’s past nuclear weapons work, a development that highlighted the dangers inherent in the JCPOA’s “sunsetting” of restrictions on the size of Iran’s enrichment capacity and stocks of fissile material. Rather than putting its past nuclear weapons program emphatically and demonstrably behind it, it turns out that Iran had been carefully preserving documentation and research on nuclear weapons designs.
The regime in Tehran had promised in the JCPOA that “under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons.” If it had meant this, one might perhaps have expected that Iran would have admitted its past weapons work – much of which had, in any event, already been extensively documented by the IAEA – and destroyed or turned over all this documentation. Instead, however, Iran seems, as it were, to have hidden its weapons research away for a rainy day – perhaps in anticipation of a potential future decision to reconstitute full-scope weapons development once the “sunset” of JCPOA restrictions had allowed it to amass a large enough stockpile of enriched uranium and advanced centrifuges to permit a rapid sprint to weaponization. Almost nothing could better highlight the problem of the JCPOA “sunset clause.”
As a result of all this, we left the JCPOA in order to start over. We now aim to use the reimposition of full sanctions in a new “maximum pressure”-style campaign against Iran as a catalyst for bringing international partners – and eventually Iran itself – back to the table to negotiate a permanent solution to these problems. We need these pressures to help provide incentives to find a negotiated answer that puts enduring limits on Iran’s nuclear capacities, rather than temporary ones, and which thus permanently denies Iran a pathway to nuclear weapons. We also need to address Iran’s missile development and proliferation threats, its support for terrorism and its destabilization of its neighbors.
Secretary Pompeo spelled out the full range of our negotiating objectives in his remarks at the Heritage Foundation on May 21. Notably, however, our approach is not just about sanctions pressures. As Secretary Pompeo also made clear, if Iran agrees to a new and better deal that comprehensively addresses our concerns, we would support Iran’s full reintegration, politically and economically, into the community of nations. This would include the establishment of diplomatic relations, lifting all our sanctions against Iran – not just some of them, as the JCPOA did – and supporting Iran’s reintegration into the global economy and community of nations.
Normal nations do not engage in prolonged proxy wars against their neighbors, continue destabilizing behavior with persistent ballistic missile testing and proliferation, and posture themselves for illegal nuclear weaponization breakout. If Iran abandons such behaviors and thus comes to act like a normal nation, U.S. officials have indicated that they would be willing to treat it as a normal nation in every way. That is our hope, and that is our negotiating objective.
This is a huge project, but we are fully invested and ready to put in the sustained and serious effort required to get an outcome that provides lasting security for the region and the world. And we’re also prepared to lean hard on our partners and the international community to get it done.
We are not naive enough to think that achieving a comprehensive new deal will be easy. It won’t. But we are confident that friends and allies will eventually join us in demanding that Iranian behavior and conduct be normalized and made non-threatening, so that Iran can in turn enjoy truly normalized relations and commerce with the international community – benefitting, in the end, the Iranian people themselves perhaps most of all.
So that, then, is what I would offer for discussion regarding our path forward. We obviously face great challenges with Iran, but these problems demand from us an approach that seeks to re-shape the security environment and starts anew toward a comprehensive and lasting solution. If we are realistic, creative, and diligent, I believe that such an answer is indeed possible – and I promise you we will be working very hard to achieve it.
Thank you for your time this afternoon. I look forward to your questions.