FPI Analysis: What They Said Then, What We Know Now about the Iran Nuclear Deal

June 30, 2016

Nearly one year ago, the United States and its international partners reached a landmark agreement with Iran that would curtail Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for robust sanctions relief. In multiple speeches, interviews, and congressional hearings that followed, U.S. officials defended the accord, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), by hailing its intrusive inspections regime, pledging to continue sanctioning Iran for non-nuclear misbehavior, and asserting that the deal may spur the regime to moderate its policies. This FPI Analysis evaluates these claims by compiling the administration’s own statements in defense of the agreement, and comparing them with subsequent developments.


CONTENTS

I. Iran's Nuclear Ambitions

II. Sanctions and Enforcement

III. Iranian Politics and Foreign Policy



I. Iran’s Nuclear Ambitions

‘Unprecedented’ Transparency and Verification

What They Said Then

July 14, 2015: “Because of this deal,” says President Obama in a statement announcing the nuclear agreement, “we will, for the first time, be in a position to verify all of [Iran’s] commitments. That means this deal is not built on trust; it is built on verification.” In a press conference the next day, President Obama says the accord offers “unprecedented, around-the-clock monitoring of Iran’s key nuclear facilities and the most comprehensive and intrusive inspection and verification regime ever negotiated.”

July 24, 2015: “We will have far better insight on the — certainly the industrial aspects of the Iranian nuclear program with this deal than what we have today,” Director of National Intelligence James Clapper tells the Aspen Security Forum.

What We Know Now

February 26, 2016, and May 27, 2016: In its first and second quarterly reports on Iran’s implementation of the nuclear deal, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) provides less information on the regime’s nuclear activities than IAEA reports that preceded the agreement. The documents — among other omissions — fail to specify the size, forms, and location of Iran’s stockpile of 3.67 percent low-enriched uranium, and Iran’s inventory of near-20 percent low-enriched uranium. On May 31, the Institute for Science and International Security observes that the omissions raise “questions about the adequacy of the IAEA’s JCPOA verification effort,” and concludes that the reports lack “the transparency that was promised by U.S. officials.”

March 7, 2016: IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano justifies the omissions in the February report by explaining that the U.N. Security Council resolution tied to the nuclear deal requires less data. “In the previous reports, the bases were the previous U.N. Security Council resolutions and Board of Governors,” he says. “But now they are terminated. They are gone.” Although U.S. Ambassador to the IAEA Henry S. Ensher disputes Amano’s claim the next day, the May IAEA report fails to correct the earlier edition’s shortcomings.
 

The JCPOA’s Confidential Side Deals

What They Said Then

July 28, 2015: Secretary of State John Kerry says during a House hearing that the confidential agreements reached between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency constitute “the normal process of the [IAEA], where they negotiate a confidential agreement, as they do with all countries, between them and the country.” During a Senate hearing the next day, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz says that the confidential agreement amounts to “standard practice of the IAEA.”

What We Know Now

August 20, 2015: The Associated Press reports that one of the confidential side deals between Tehran and the IAEA, in an unprecedented arrangement, would allow Iran to self-inspect the Parchin military complex. “Olli Heinonen, who was in charge of the Iran probe as deputy IAEA director general from 2005 to 2010, said he could think of no similar concession with any other country,” the AP reports. David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, tells CNN: “It’s really not normal, and you have to worry that this would set a bad precedent. … I think the IAEA is probably getting a little desperate to settle this.”
 

Possible Military Dimensions (PMD) of Iran’s Nuclear Program

What They Said Then

July 14, 2015: “The IAEA has also reached an agreement with Iran to get access that it needs to complete its investigation into the possible military dimensions of Iran’s past nuclear research,” says President Obama in a statement announcing the deal.

July 28, 2015: Secretary of State John Kerry says during a House hearing that if Iran fails to provide access to its military sites, “they will be in material breach of this agreement and the sanctions will snap back.” He then states that Iranian leaders, who claim that inspectors will lack such access, are simply “taking care of a domestic constituency.”

What We Know Now

December 2, 2015: In its final report on the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program, the IAEA indicates that Tehran provided only partial access to the Parchin military complex, and continued to deny full access to other key sites. Pursuant to the confidential side deal, the IAEA also allows Iran to collect its own environmental samples at Parchin. “The results identified two particles that appear to be chemically man-modified particles of natural uranium,” states the agency, but adds that this information is “not sufficient” to facilitate a conclusive determination regarding Iran’s nuclear weapons pursuit. Nevertheless, on December 15, the United States joins its partners on the 35-nation IAEA Board of Governors in a unanimous vote to remove the item from its agenda.

June 20, 2016: The Wall Street Journal reports that the Obama administration has concluded that uranium particles found by inspectors during its earlier visit to Parchin were likely connected to its covert nuclear weapons program. “Normally, the IAEA requires additional samples to be taken when there are irregularities found in their tests, such as the presence of man-made uranium, according to former agency officials and other nuclear experts,” states the Journal. “But under last year’s nuclear agreement, Tehran was only required to allow the IAEA’s inspectors to visit the Parchin facility once.”
 

Access to ‘Any Suspicious Location’

What They Said Then

July 14, 2015: “Because of this deal, inspectors will also be able to access any suspicious location,” says President Obama in a statement announcing the nuclear deal. “Put simply, the organization responsible for the inspections, the IAEA, will have access where necessary, when necessary. That arrangement is permanent.”

What We Know Now

February 26, 2016: In its first quarterly report on Iran’s implementation of the JCPOA, the IAEA fails to specify whether the IAEA received access to suspicious sites under the enhanced verification measures known as the Additional Protocol. In a March 4 analysis, Olli Heinonen, a former IAEA deputy director general, writes that this omission and other gaps in the report “hamper efforts to reach a ‘broader conclusion’ that all nuclear material and activities are accounted for and for peaceful use.”

May 27, 2016: In its second quarterly report on Iran’s implementation of the JCPOA, the IAEA states that it received access to suspicious sites under the Additional Protocol, but fails to specify the sites it actually visited. In a May 31 analysis, the Institute for Science and International Security writes that this omission and other gaps in the report make “impossible any independent determination of Iran’s compliance with the terms of the JCPOA.”
 

The U.N. Prohibition on Ballistic Missile Activity

What They Said Then

July 23, 2015: During a Senate hearing, Secretary of State John Kerry says that U.N. Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2231, which followed the JCPOA, contains “the exact same language” prohibiting Iranian ballistic missile development as UNSCR 1929 (2010). The text of the resolutions, however, appears to suggest otherwise. In UNSCR 2231, Iran is non-bindingly “called upon” to refrain from developing ballistic missiles “designed to be capable of” delivering nuclear warheads. By contrast, UNSCR 1929 bindingly states that Iran “shall not” develop ballistic missiles “capable of” delivering nuclear warheads.

What We Know Now

March 15, 2016: Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif explains how he negotiated a loophole into UNSCR 2231 that would enable the regime to continue developing nuclear-capable ballistic missiles. The new resolution, he says, “doesn’t call upon Iran not to test ballistic missiles, or ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads ... it calls upon Iran not to test ballistic missiles that were ‘designed’ to be capable.” He adds: “That word took me about seven months to negotiate, so everybody knew what it meant.” As such, Iran could develop a ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, but then claim it was not “designed” for that specific purpose.

March 30, 2016: Reuters reports that the United States and its European allies issued a joint letter stating that Iran’s recent ballistic missile tests were “inconsistent with” rather than a violation of UNSCR 2231. The letter’s phrasing constitutes an admission that the “called upon” language in UNSCR 2231 fails to legally prohibit Iran’s ballistic missile tests. Ultimately, the U.N. fails to impose new sanctions.

April 7, 2016: In a tacit acknowledgement that UNSCR 2231 fails to prohibit Iran’s ballistic missile development, Secretary of State John Kerry calls for a “new arrangement” with Tehran on the issue. Tehran must “make it clear to everybody that they are prepared to cease these kinds of activities that raise questions about credibility and questions about intentions,” he says. Two days later, Iran’s defense minister, Gen. Hossein Dehghan, rejects the proposal, calling it “nonsense.”
 

The Procurement Working Group

What They Said Then

July 2015: The Iran Nuclear Deal: What You Need to Know about the JCPOA, a White House publication defending the agreement, states that a Procurement Working Group (PWG) established by the accord “will further enable the close monitoring and approval of materials so as to minimize the chances of any diversion to a secret program.” According to the JCPOA (Annex IV, Section 6), the PWG, which consists of the P5+1 and Tehran, will review proposals by individual states to transfer nuclear or dual-use technologies to Iran that could facilitate its nuclear program.

What We Know Now

April 21, 2016: A report by the Institute for Science and International Security indicates systemic problems in the PWG that may undermine its efficacy. For example, in response to a request from Russia and China, which are responsible for refurbishing the Fordow enrichment plant and the Arak heavy water reactor, the PWG has exempted items transferred to both locations from its purview. Fordow and Arak constitute key sites of Iran’s nuclear program, and lie at the heart of the regime’s efforts to develop a uranium bomb and a plutonium bomb, respectively.
 

Iran’s Heavy Water Stockpile

What They Said Then

July 14, 2015: During a press availability, Secretary of State John Kerry asserts that the plutonium path to a nuclear weapon “will be closed off.” The Iran Nuclear Deal: What You Need to Know about the JCPOA, a White House publication released later that month, explains that the accord will achieve this goal in part by not allowing Tehran “to accumulate excess heavy water.” The text of the JCPOA specifies a 130 ton limit on heavy water for the accord’s initial years (Annex I, Section C).

What We Know Now

February 26, 2016: In its first quarterly report on Iran’s implementation of the JCPOA, the IAEA indicates that Iran briefly violated the agreement by accumulating 130.9 tons of heavy water, thereby violating the accord’s limit of 130 tons. The agency states that Tehran subsequently shipped 20 tons out of the country, thereby placing the regime into compliance.

April 22, 2016: The Obama administration agrees to buy 32 tons of heavy water from Iran, reports The Wall Street Journal, thereby helping the regime preserve a key capability necessary for the development of a plutonium bomb. While the accord permits such purchases, it in no way requires them; should Tehran prove unable to find a buyer, it would need to dilute the heavy water on its own. Thus, the U.S. move effectively enables Tehran to continue producing heavy water within the stockpile limits of the JCPOA so long as it sells any excess. In so doing, the regime can maintain its heavy water industry for the lifetime of the agreement.

February 26, 2016, and May 27, 2016: The first and second quarterly reports of the IAEA on Iran’s implementation of the JCPOA fail to specify the ownership status of excess heavy water shipped from Iran to Oman.

“[I]t remains unclear who owns this exported material,” states the Institute for Science and International Security in a May 31 analysis of the second report. “Iran seems to think it has control over this material, which implies ownership. Atomic Energy Organization of Iran chief Ali Akbar Salehi implied ownership over the material in a recent press report. If this is the case, why is it not counting toward the cap like any ‘out-of-country’ material would under normal safeguards? Can this material be easily returned to Iran? If so, under what conditions?”
 

Iran’s Breakout Time under the Deal

What They Said Then

July 15, 2015: “Is it possible,” says President Obama during a press conference, “that Iran decides to try to cheat despite having this entire inspection verification mechanism? It’s possible. But if it does, first of all, we’ve built in a one-year breakout time, which gives us a year to respond forcefully.”

What We Know Now

August 18, 2015: The Institute for Science and International Security assesses that the actual breakout time for the deal’s first 10 years may total only seven months, since Iran would retain the ability to deploy IR-2m centrifuges rapidly.

February 26, 2016: In its first quarterly report on Iran’s implementation of the JCPOA, the IAEA omits key data that would make it possible to determine Iran’s current breakout time. The report “does not provide information about the numbers and types of centrifuge rotors and bellows in Iran’s inventory,” writes Olli Heinonen, a former IAEA deputy director general, in a March 4 analysis of the report. “These components are essential in assessing breakout times, and reinstallation of previously removed advanced centrifuges or installation of new ones can directly affect the one-year breakout time that proponents of the JCPOA maintain it enforces.” The IAEA’s second quarterly report, released on May 27, 2016, also omits this information.
 

Iran-North Korea Cooperation

What They Said Then

July 28, 2015: Asked by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) what would happen if North Korea provided a bomb to Iran, Secretary of State John Kerry says: “Well, they can’t do that, and both Iran and North Korea would be in gross violation of the Nonproliferation Treaty, and we would take action.” Kerry adds: “And Iran would be in violation of this agreement.”

What We Know Now

January 27, 2016: A report by Ali Alfoneh and Scott Modell of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies cites longstanding evidence unaddressed in the JCPOA that Tehran has imported nuclear technology from Pyongyang; that the two countries have cooperated on ballistic missile development; and that North Korea helped Iran evade nuclear-related sanctions in order to acquire nuclear components.
 



II. Sanctions and Enforcement

U.S. Policy on Non-Nuclear Sanctions

What They Said Then

August 19, 2015: In a letter to Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), President Obama writes that the United States “will maintain powerful sanctions targeting Iran’s support for groups such as Hizballah, its destabilizing role in Yemen, its backing of the Assad regime, its missile program, and its human rights abuses at home. Critically, I made sure that the United States reserved its right to maintain and enforce existing sanctions and even to deploy new sanctions to address those continuing concerns, which we fully intend to do when circumstances warrant.”

What We Know Now

July 2015-June 2016: In the year following the JCPOA’s finalization, the Treasury Department adds only nine Iranian individuals and nine Iranian entities to its list of sanctions, including 12 new ballistic missile-related designations and six new designations on facilitators of Mahan Air. Treasury also updates the entries for one entity and one individual supporting the missile program.

April 13, 2016: After the White House refuses to express support for any of the numerous sanctions bills introduced in Congress since the JCPOA, Acting Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Affairs Adam Szubin indicates the administration’s opposition to new non-nuclear sanctions legislation. “Along these lines, new mandatory non-nuclear sanctions legislation would needlessly risk undermining our unity with international partners,” Szubin tells the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

May 2016: Secretary of State John Kerry visits Europe to urge wary banks and business to resume business with Iran, a move unrequired by the JCPOA. An increase in European business with Iran would dramatically undermine the impact of U.S. sanctions. Kerry’s actions prompt Stuart Levey, chief legal officer of HSBC Holdings and former undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence at the Treasury Department, to write in The Wall Street Journal on May 13: “No one has claimed that Iran has ceased to engage in much of the same conduct for which it was sanctioned, including actively supporting terrorism and building and testing ballistic missiles. But now Washington is pushing non-U.S. banks to do what it is still illegal for American banks to do. This is a very odd position for the U.S. government to be taking.”

June 24, 2016: The Financial Action Taskforce, a global standard-setting body that seeks to combat money laundering and terror financing, suspends counter-measures on Iran for one year. “We supported this decision,” says State Department spokesman Mark Toner.
 

Ballistic Missile Sanctions

What They Said Then

July 23, 2015: In Senate testimony, Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew states that strong sanctions “will remain in place to counter a range of malign Iranian activity outside of the nuclear sphere – most notably its active support for terrorism, its ballistic missiles program, destabilizing regional activities, and human rights abuses. The Administration will continue to wield these measures in a strategic and aggressive manner and will work with our allies in the region to coordinate and intensify the impact of these tools.”

What We Know Now

January 2016-May 2016: On January 17, in response to Iran’s illicit ballistic missile tests in October 2015 and November 2015, the United States belatedly adds seven individuals and three entities to its sanctions list, and updates the entry for one individual. On March 24, after Tehran tests more ballistic missiles, this time with the words “Israel must be wiped out” emblazoned on them in Hebrew, the Treasury Department adds two more entities and updates the entry for one entity. However, as Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies notes in May 24, 2016, Senate testimony concerning both rounds of sanctions, “Tehran can easily reconstitute these networks, and therefore the designations do not impose the kind of economic costs needed to change Tehran’s calculus.” Treasury’s actions also fail to target the wide variety of industries that supply the regime’s ballistic missile program.

April 19, 2016: Iran test-launches a space vehicle known as the Simorgh rocket that could also function as an intercontinental ballistic missile. “Iran has successfully orbited satellites and announced plans to orbit a larger satellite using a space launch vehicle (the Simorgh) that could be capable of intercontinental ballistic missile ranges if configured as such,” says Vice Adm. James Syring, director of the Missile Defense Agency, in April 14 House testimony. The United States takes no known action in response to the exercise.

May 25, 2016: In a House hearing, Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation Thomas Countryman suggests that the United States is powerless to stop Iran’s ballistic missile program. “I don’t believe Iran has ever hidden its intent to continue developing ballistic missiles nor has it slowed down doing so no matter what administration took what steps,” he says.
 

Human Rights Sanctions

What They Said Then

July 20, 2015: “We will never, ever stop … standing up for [the Iranian] people’s rights,” Secretary of State John Kerry tells Setareh Derakhshesh of Voice of America Persian.

July 28, 2015: “We are going to continue to prosecute our unilateral sanctions on things like terrorism, on things like regional destabilization and human rights,” says Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew during a Senate hearing.

What We Know Now

May 25, 2016: “There has not been a specific sanction on human rights cases since the signing” of the nuclear deal, says Stephen Mull, the State Department’s lead coordinator for Iran nuclear implementation, during a morning House hearing. During a Senate hearing in the afternoon, Mull repeats the admission. “There have not been any sanctions imposed for human rights grounds since July of last year,” he says. The Obama administration’s inaction comes despite a dramatic increase in Iranian human rights abuses over the previous 10 months.
 

Iran’s Frozen Assets in Foreign Banks

What They Said Then

July 24, 2015: In a forum at the Council on Foreign Relations, Secretary of State John Kerry discusses the amount of frozen assets Iran can access after the JCPOA’s Implementation Day. “It’s not $115 billion that they get,” he says. “It’s certainly not the $150 you hear some people throwing around. It’s not even $100. They will get, in real money that they can actually access, somewhere in the vicinity of $50-plus billion dollars. That’s what they get.”

What We Know Now

February 1, 2016: Tehran announced that it has gained access to more than $100 billion in frozen assets, reports Iran’s state-run Press TV. “These assets have fully been released and we can use them,” says Mohammad-Baqer Nobakht, an Iranian government spokesman.

May 18, 2016: A Congressional Research Service report states, based on interviews with Treasury Department officials in July 2015, that Iran’s hard currency reserves in foreign banks total about $115 billion, all of which became accessible following the JCPOA’s implementation in January 2016.
 

Impact of Sanctions Relief on Iran’s Support for Terror

What They Said Then

July 28, 2015: The “shape” of Iran’s support for terrorism will not change as the result of sanctions relief, Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew claims during a House hearing. “Though there will be some more resources available,” he says, “it will [be] on the margin, and it will be along the lines of what they are already doing, which puts the burden on us and our allies in the region to shut down the flow of money and the flow of matériel to malign forces.”

What We Know Now

May 18, 2016: Iran’s Guardian Council approves a 90 percent increase in military spending for the 2016-2017 budget compared to the previous year. “The budget allows $19 billion to go to the military establishment – the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), regular military, and Defense Ministry,” reports Saeed Ghasseminejad of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and gives the regime “greater resources to escalate its involvement in proxy wars in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, and to accelerate the pace of its ballistic missiles program.”
 

Impact of $1.7 Billion U.S. Payment to Iran

What They Said Then

January 19, 2016: White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest calls America’s payment of $1.7 billion to Iran to settle a decades-old financial dispute “exhibit A in the administration pursuing tough, principled diplomacy in a way that actually ends up making the American people safer and advancing the interests of the United States more effectively than military actions.” The dispute stems from a U.S. decision, in the aftermath of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, to freeze a $400 million trust fund previously used by Iran to buy military equipment from America. The $1.7 billion payment includes the $400 million plus $1.3 billion in interest.

What We Know Now

June 9, 2016: Iran has transferred the $1.7 billion to its military, reports Saeed Ghasseminejad of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “Article 22 of the budget for 2017 says the Central Bank is required to give the money from the legal settlement of Iran’s pre- and post-revolutionary arms sales of up to $1.7 billion to the defense budget,” Ghasseminejad tells Bloomberg View’s Eli Lake.
 

Iran’s Compliance with the Five-Year Arms Embargo

What They Said Then

July 23, 2015: During a Senate hearing, Secretary of State John Kerry says the five-year arms embargo on Iran included in U.N. Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2231, which followed the JCPOA, constitutes a “victory,” since Tehran believed that an arms embargo of any duration “didn’t belong in the first place.” “In fact,” Kerry says, “the Iranians bitterly objected to it, felt it was being rammed at them in the context of a nuclear agreement and it had no business being part of a nuclear agreement. It’s conventional arms, and they thought they had every right in the world to do it.”

What We Know Now

August 22, 2015: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani indicates that Tehran has no intention of adhering to the arms embargo. “We will buy, sell and develop any weapons we need and we will not ask for permission or abide by any resolution for that,” he says at an unveiling ceremony for a new surface-to-surface missile known as the Fateh-313. During a press conference the next day, he doubles down on this position. “With regards to our defensive capability, we did not and will not accept any limitations,” he says. “We will do whatever we need to do to defend our country, whether with missiles or other methods.”

February 10, 2016: Iran’s defense minister, Gen. Hossein Dehghan, announces plans to purchase Sukhoi-30 (Su-30) fighter jets and other military hardware from Russia, which would directly violate UNSCR 2231’s five-year arms embargo. The Su-30 is an analogue to the latest versions of the F-15 and F-18.

April 6, 2016: Russia rejects a U.S. threat to veto the Su-30 sale, claiming that UNSCR 2231 actually fails to prohibit the transaction. However, the text of UNSCR 2231 appears to support the U.S. interpretation: The resolution prohibits “the supply, sale or transfer” of “any … combat aircraft” to Iran without U.N. Security Council approval (Annex B, Paragraph 5). Nevertheless, Iranian media subsequently report that the deal will be signed by the end of 2016.
 

Unilateral U.S. Sanctions on Iranian Arms Purchases

What They Said Then

July 23, 2015: During a Senate hearing, Secretary of State John Kerry says that the United States still intends to use unilateral measures to combat Iranian arms purchases and ballistic missile activity. “We have all the options available to us in the world to strengthen or find other means or deal with those very issues,” Kerry says. He adds: “We have additional capacities to be able to deal with missiles. … We have the Iran-Iraq Arms Nonproliferation Act. We have — those are unilateral tools, by the way. … So, you know, there are many things we will continue to do.”

What We Know Now

April 11, 2016: Tehran announces that Moscow has delivered the first part of the S-300 air defense system to Iran, a direct violation of the Iran-Iraq Arms Nonproliferation Act, which Congress passed as part of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1993 (P.L. 102-484). The highly mobile and truck-mounted S-300 serves both defensive and offensive purposes. It can shoot down planes or cruise missiles up to 90 miles away, thereby shielding Iran’s nuclear facilities from potential attack. Alternatively, by transferring the S-300 to the Assad regime, Hezbollah, or Houthi rebels, Iran can use the system to deter Saudi air strikes in Yemen or Israeli air strikes in Lebanon and Syria. As of June 2016, the Obama administration has not announced any new sanctions in response to the transfer.
 

Resolving PMD as a Precondition for Sanctions Relief

What They Said Then

July 24, 2015: “PMD has to be resolved before they get one ounce of sanctions relief,” Secretary of State John Kerry tells the Council on Foreign Relations, referring to the possible military dimensions (PMD) of Iran’s nuclear program.

What We Know Now

December 2, 2015: The IAEA releases a report indicating that Iran has failed to provide a full declaration of its past nuclear weaponization efforts. According to the document, the agency could draw partial conclusions only on two of the 12 alleged elements of the Iranian nuclear program’s PMD — and denied, refused to discuss, or cited conventional military justifications for the remaining 10. Two weeks later, the IAEA Board of Governors votes unanimously to remove PMD from its agenda, paving the way for the nuclear deal’s implementation in January 2016 and its accompanying sanctions relief.
 

U.S. Policy on Snapback Sanctions

What They Said Then

July 15, 2015: “With this deal, if Iran violates its commitments, there will be real consequences,” says President Obama during a press conference. “Nuclear-related sanctions that have helped to cripple the Iranian economy will snap back into place.”

What We Know Now

July 2015-May 2016: In nine separate hearings in the House and Senate, Obama administration officials refuse to provide direct answers to questions concerning whether the White House supports the renewal of the Iran Sanctions Act. In the most recent hearing, the State Department’s lead coordinator for Iran nuclear implementation, Stephen Mull, tells Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN): “The administration is ready to work with the Congress on that question.” The response prompts Sen. Corker to retort: “You seem very wishy washy on this.” The legislation, which expires at the end of 2016, would authorize the president to impose sanctions on Iran should a snapback become necessary.
 

Iran’s Access to the U.S. Financial System

What They Said Then

July 23, 2015: “Iranian banks will not be able to clear U.S. dollars through New York, hold correspondent account relationships with U.S. financial institutions, or enter into financing arrangements with U.S. banks,” says Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew during a Senate hearing. “Iran, in other words, will continue to be denied access to the world’s largest financial and commercial market.”

What We Know Now

March 22, 2016: Asked by Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) during a House hearing whether the Obama administration intends to provide Iran access to the U.S. financial system, Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew refuses to provide a direct answer. “We are continuing to look at how we comply with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to make sure that Iran gets relief under the nuclear portions while we keep pressure on Iran on these other issues,” Lew says.

April 5, 2016: Secretary of State John Kerry appears to suggest that the administration is reassessing its policy of denying Iran access to the U.S. financial system. Asked by MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell whether Iran deserves access to dollars, Kerry says, “They have in terms of the nuclear agreement, absolutely. Iran deserves the benefits of the agreement they struck, and President Obama has said it, I’ve said it, Secretary Lew has said it.” During a Senate hearing hours later, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Shannon denies that Kerry intended any change in U.S. policy.

April 22, 2016: The Obama administration declines to state how it intends to pay for its purchase of heavy water from Iran. “Regardless of whether or not this is in U.S. dollars, this licensed transaction is limited in scope,” a Treasury Department official tells Reuters.

May 2016: The Obama administration continues to send mixed signals concerning its policy. Treasury Secretary Jacob. J. Lew and other U.S. officials deny that Iran will receive access to the U.S. financial system. During a May 25 House hearing, though, Acting Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Adam Szubin indicates that offshore dollar clearing lies outside U.S. jurisdiction — a policy that favors Iran, according to Eric Lorber of the Financial Integrity Network and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

June 2016: According to reports, the Obama administration is internally divided over whether to grant Iran some form of access to the U.S. dollar. While Treasury denies that Washington will provide any form of direct or indirect access, other officials still seek “a process for giving Iran limited access to the U.S. dollar,” The Wall Street Journal reports.
 



III. Iranian Politics and Foreign Policy

An Evolution in Iranian Behavior

What They Said Then

July 14, 2015: Because of the deal, President Obama says, the Iranians “have the ability now to take some decisive steps to move toward a more constructive relationship with the world community. ... And the truth of the matter is that Iran will be and should be a regional power.” The president’s assertion echoes a June 29 statement by Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes that the deal may lead to “an evolution in Iranian behavior” in which Iran is “more engaged with the international community and less dependent upon the types of [destabilizing] activities that they’ve been engaged in.”

What We Know Now

July 2015-June 2016: Iran’s aggressive behavior intensifies. Among other provocations, the regime:

  • repeatedly threatens the United States and Israel with destruction;
  • launches cyberattacks against the United States;
  • uses American hostages, including Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, U.S. Marine veteran Amir Hekmati, and Idaho pastor Saeed Abedini, as bargaining chips to secure the release of seven sanctions violators and the pardon of 14 others;
  • detains, among others, innocent Iranian-American nationals Baquer and Siamak Namazi, British-Iranian national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, and Canadian-Iranian national Homa Hoodfar;
  • fails to provide information about the fate of missing CIA agent Robert Levinson;
  • test-fires rockets near an American aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf, nearly triggering an international crisis;
  • captures U.S. Navy sailors in the Gulf and broadcasts their surrender on Iranian television;
  • accuses the United States of being behind the November 2015 terror attacks in Paris;
  • tweets an image of President Obama holding a gun to his own head;
  • conducts multiple illicit ballistic missile tests;
  • continues to abuse the human rights of its own people;
  • increases support for Syria’s Assad regime, Hezbollah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad;
  • strengthens its joint military cooperation with Russia;
  • recruits thousands of Afghans, many by force, to fight in Syria;
  • ships arms to Houthis rebels in Yemen;
  • supports the Taliban and hosts its leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, who was killed by an American drone strike in May 2016;
  • backs terrorist proxies in Bahrain;
  • trains and directs Shiite militias in Iraq; and
  • sues the United States at the International Court of Justice in response to an American Supreme Court ruling that allows victims of Iranian terrorism to access some $2 billion in frozen Iranian assets.
     

The Nature of Iran’s ‘Hard-Liners’

What They Said Then

August 5, 2015: “Just because Iranian hard-liners chant ‘Death to America’ does not mean that that’s what all Iranians believe,” says President Obama in a speech at American University. “It’s those hard-liners chanting ‘Death to America’ who have been most opposed to the deal. They’re making common cause with the Republican caucus.”

What We Know Now

February 4, 2016: In a forum at Duke University, Wendy Sherman, the chief U.S. negotiator during the nuclear talks, dismisses any meaningful distinction between so-called “moderates” and “hard-liners” within the Iranian regime. “There are hard-liners in Iran, and then there are hard-hard-liners in Iran. Rouhani is not a moderate, he is a hard-liner,” she says, referring to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who supports the nuclear deal.

May 5, 2016: David Samuels reports in The New York Times that Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes acknowledged that the Obama administration, as part of its campaign to sell the deal, manufactured the notion of an emerging split within the Iranian regime. “The idea that there was a new reality in Iran,” Samuels writes, “was politically useful to the Obama administration. By obtaining broad public currency for the thought that there was a significant split in the regime, and that the administration was reaching out to moderate-minded Iranians who wanted peaceful relations with their neighbors and with America, Obama was able to evade what might have otherwise been a divisive but clarifying debate over the actual policy choices that his administration was making.”
 

The Strength of Iranian Moderates

What They Said Then

April 7, 2015: “I think there are hard-liners inside of Iran that think it is the right thing to do to oppose us, to seek to destroy Israel, to cause havoc in places like Syria or Yemen or Lebanon,” President Obama tells NPR. “And then I think there are others inside Iran who think that this is counterproductive. It is possible that if we sign this nuclear deal, we strengthen the hand of those more moderate forces inside of Iran.”

What We Know Now

January 2016: The Iranian regime formally disqualifies thousands of reformist candidates seeking greater political freedom from running in forthcoming parliamentary elections. The move ultimately results in the empowerment of regime supporters who share its worldview.

May 5, 2016: David Samuels of The New York Times reports that former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta denied the possibility that the JCPOA would strengthen the hands of moderates. “There was not much question that the Quds Force and the supreme leader ran that country with a strong arm, and there was not much question that this kind of opposing view could somehow gain any traction,” Panetta says.

May 24, 2016: Iran’s Assembly of Experts, a body tasked with selecting the country’s next supreme leader, appoints Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, a noted anti-Western hard-liner, as its next chairman. In response to the 2009 mass protests in Iran known as the Green Revolution, he called on the regime to “slay” its critics. Since 2004, Jannati has also served as the head of Iran’s Guardian Council, which vets candidates for higher office and routinely disqualifies moderates, including reformists who sought to run in the 2016 parliamentary election.

May 31, 2016: Iran’s parliament reelects Ali Larijani, a loyalist of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as its speaker. A former nuclear negotiator and IRGC commander, Larijani has described the United States as a “threat to the entire world,” and once said that halting uranium enrichment in return for economic benefits from Europe would be like exchanging a “pearl for a candy bar.”
 

The Iranian People's Relationship with the Regime

What They Said Then

August 5, 2015: In a speech at American University, President Obama suggests that the nuclear deal incentivizes the Iranian people to challenge the Islamist regime’s hostile policies. “The majority of the Iranian people have powerful incentives to urge their government to move in a different, less provocative direction — incentives that are strengthened by this deal,” he says. “We should offer them that chance. We should give them that opportunity. It’s not guaranteed to succeed. But if they take it, that would be good for Iran, it would be good for the United States. It would be good for a region that has known too much conflict. It would be good for the world.”

What We Know Now

November 2015: In what the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran calls the “largest crackdown” on human rights since the 2009 Green Revolution, Tehran arrests some 170 people described by Iranian state media as “managers of a number of mobile social networking groups” who acted against “moral security in the Iranian society.”

March 3, 2016: Ahmed Shaheed, the U.N. special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, releases a report indicating that Iran’s repression of its people has continued unabated. The document cites at least 900 executions in 2015 alone, a record number; restrictions on speech, assembly, and due process; the use of torture; and the suppression of woman and religious minorities. During a press conference a week later, Shaheed says that the regime has generated “no meaningful change on the ground.”

May 25, 2016: Asked by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) during a Senate hearing whether “Iran’s human rights record has miraculously changed in the last year,” Stephen Mull, the State Department’s lead coordinator for Iran nuclear implementation, replies, “No, sir.”

 

Iran’s Rhetoric toward Israel

What They Said Then

August 10, 2015: “It is possible that as a consequence of” the nuclear deal, President Obama tells NPR, Iran “tones down the rhetoric in terms of its virulent opposition to Israel.”

What We Know Now

August 2015-May 2016: In a series of speeches, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei continues his virulent rhetoric against Israel. “By Allah’s favor and grace, nothing called the ‘Zionist regime’ will exist by 25 years from now,” he says during one emblematic address on September 9, 2015. Until then, he adds, “revolutionary, epic, jihadi and Islamic spirit will not let [Israel] feel comfort even for one single moment!” Similarly, in a speech on June 3, 2016, he says: “The vile and cancerous Zionist regime … [is one of] our main enemies.”

March 8, 2016: Iran test-fires two ballistic missiles with the words “Israel must be wiped out” emblazoned on them in Hebrew.
 

Iran’s Relations with Sunni States

What They Said Then

August 10, 2015: “It is possible that as a consequence of” the nuclear deal, President Obama tells NPR, a “convergence of interests begins to lead to conversations between, for example, Saudi Arabia and Iran,” and “Iran starts making different decisions that are less offensive to its neighbors.” The statement echoes his April 2015 assertion that the nuclear deal may lead to an “equilibrium in the region, and Sunni and Shia, Saudi and Iran start saying, ‘Maybe we should lower tensions and focus on the extremists like [ISIS] that would burn down this entire region if they could.’”

What We Know Now

January 2016: After Iranian protestors set fire to the Saudi embassy in Tehran in response to Riyadh’s execution of a pro-Iran Shiite cleric, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Sudan, Djibouti, and Somalia sever diplomatic relations with Iran; the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Kuwait recall their ambassadors. The Gulf Cooperation Council and the Arab League release statements condemning Tehran. “In the end, we want an Iran that works to solve problems in a way that allows people to live in peace,” writes Saudi Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir in The New York Times. “But that will require major changes in Iran’s policy and behavior. We have yet to see that.”

March 2016: The Gulf Cooperation Council and the Arab League designate the Iran-backed Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. In response to the GCC statement, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossein Jaberi Ansari says the GCC states “are knowingly or unknowingly undermining the interests of the Muslim nations.”

April 3, 2016: “Sadly, behind all the talk of change, the Iran we have long known—hostile, expansionist, violent—is alive and well, and as dangerous as ever,” writes Yousef Al Otaiba, ambassador of the United Arab Emirates to the United States, in The Wall Street Journal. He adds that Tehran “has only doubled down on its posturing and provocations” since the nuclear deal.
 

The Conflict in Syria

What They Said Then

August 9, 2015: President Obama tells CNN that the nuclear deal holds out “the possibility that, having begun conversations around this narrow issue that you start getting some broader discussions about Syria, for example, and the ability of all the parties involved to try to arrive at a political transition that keeps the country intact and does not further fuel the growth of ISIL and other terrorist organizations.”

What We Know Now

September 2015-June 2016: Tehran’s military support for Damascus dramatically increases, helping the Assad regime preserve its grip on power and prolonging Syria’s bloody war. In conjunction with Russia, thousands of troops from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the Iran-backed terrorist group Hezbollah rescue a weakened Syrian regime from likely collapse due to advances by the Islamic State and rebel forces.
 

Iran’s Support for Houthi Rebels in Yemen

What They Said Then

July 20, 2015: “Iran is not allowed to send weapons to the Houthi in Yemen,” Secretary of State John Kerry tells NPR’s Steve Inskeep. “There’s another U.N. resolution about that. It has to be enforced. So we are going to engage with others in making sure that we hold Iran accountable to standards that it must be expected to live up to.”

What We Know Now

September 2015-March 2016: The U.S. Navy or allied forces intercept four weapons-laden Iranian ships bound for Yemen.

April 4, 2016: “We obviously are concerned about this development because offering up support to the rebels in Yemen is something that is not at all consistent with U.N. Security Council resolutions,” says White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest in response to the latest interception. “And I’m confident that the United States and our other partners on the Security Council will take a close look at this incident, consider the available evidence, and if and when it’s appropriate, raise this for other members of the Security Council.” As of June 2016, however, the U.N. Security Council has yet to address the issue.
 

The Role of Russia

What They Said Then

July 14, 2015: “Russia was a help on this. I’ll be honest with you,” says President Obama in an interview with Thomas L. Friedman of The New York Times. He adds: “We would have not achieved this agreement had it not been for Russia’s willingness to stick with us and the other P5-Plus members in insisting on a strong deal.” Likewise, he notes, “I was encouraged by the fact that Mr. Putin called me a couple of weeks ago and initiated the call to talk about Syria. I think they get a sense that the Assad regime is losing a grip over greater and greater swaths of territory inside of Syria... That offers us an opportunity to have a serious conversation with them.”

What We Know Now

July 24, 2015, and April 14, 2016: In violation of a U.N. travel ban, Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force, makes two trips to Moscow for talks concerning Russian intervention in Syria and the sale of the S-300 air defense system. The highly mobile and truck-mounted S-300 serves both defensive and offensive purposes. It can shoot down planes or cruise missiles up to 90 miles away, thereby shielding Iran’s nuclear facilities from potential attack. Alternatively, by transferring the S-300 to the Assad regime, Hezbollah, or Houthi rebels, Iran can use the system to deter Saudi air strikes in Yemen or Israeli air strikes in Lebanon and Syria.

September 30, 2015: In conjunction with Iran, Russia begins military operations in Syria, targeting not only the Islamic State but also rebel forces. The move inaugurates a bloody new phase in the conflict, helping the Assad regime preserve its grip on power, undermining moderate rebels, and providing cover for Iranian troops.

November 18, 2015: Russia and Iran reach an agreement on expanding research on dual-use space technology that Tehran could use to develop ballistic missiles.

February 10, 2016: Tehran announces that it will sign a contract with Moscow to purchase Sukhoi-30 fighter jets. If completed, the transaction would violate the five-year arms embargo in U.N. Security Council 2231, which followed the nuclear deal.

March 8, 2016: The Associated Press reports that Moscow, along with Beijing, disagrees with Washington’s position that the February 2016 IAEA report on Iran’s implementation of the JCPOA fails to provide sufficient details on Tehran’s nuclear activities.

April 11, 2016: Tehran announces that Moscow has completed delivering the first part of the S-300 air defense system.

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The author wishes to thank Annie Fixler for her valuable feedback on this publication. Any errors are the author's alone.

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