JHI on the Issues 2016: Did the Obama Administration “Put a Lid” on Iran’s Nuclear Program?

Candidate Statement: During the second presidential debate on October 9, 2016, Secretary Clinton re-stated a claim from the first debate: that the Iran deal “put a lid on Iran’s nuclear program.” She said in the first debate on September 26, 2016, “And we had sanctioned them. I voted for every sanction against Iran when I was in the Senate, but it wasn’t enough. So I spent a year-and-a-half putting together a coalition that included Russia and China to impose the toughest sanctions on Iran. And we did drive them to the negotiating table. And my successor, John Kerry, and President Obama got a deal that put a lid on Iran’s nuclear program without firing a single shot. That’s diplomacy. That’s coalition-building. That’s working with other nations.”

Summary: Secretary Clinton overstates her role in imposing “the toughest sanctions on Iran” as well as the comprehensiveness and efficacy of the Iran deal itself. The Obama administration did not build an international coalition to impose sanctions on Iran, but rather inherited that coalition from the Bush administration, which had already secured five UN Security Council resolutions against Iran’s nuclear and missile activities.  The most powerful sanctions on Iran were imposed by Congress in late 2011, and were opposed by the Obama administration.  The most significant Iran policy change made by the Obama administration was direct bilateral outreach to the Iranians, which contributed to the conclusion of the Iran nuclear deal in July 2015.  That agreement with Iran temporarily limits but does not halt or dismantle Iran’s nuclear program.

Talking Points:

  • The Iran deal did not put a lid on Iran’s nuclear program because it leaves Iran’s nuclear sites and infrastructure in place, allows Iran to continue its advanced centrifuge research, uranium enrichment, and heavy water production.  It also phases out restrictions on Iran’s arms imports and ballistic missile activities.
  • The nuclear agreement with Iran requires Iran only to cap, freeze, or roll back certain aspects of its nuclear program.
  • The Bush administration built the broad coalition that supported sanctions on Iran.  After Obama took office, only one UN sanctions resolution was adopted.
  • The strongest sanctions on Iran were not those passed by the UN, but the oil embargo imposed on Iran by the European Union in 2012, and secondary sanctions imposed on Iran’s central bank by the U.S. Congress in 2011.
  • The congressional sanctions were adopted over the explicit objections of the Obama administration, which argued they would undermine international pressure on Iran.
  • What is most troubling is the deal begins to expire ten years from its implementation, in 2026, meaning that we have at best bought ourselves time in the hope that Iran’s behavior and intentions will change for the better between now and then.
  • On what a future administration should do to face an empowered Iran, read JHI’s chapter on Iran in Choosing to Lead.

Questions the Press should be Asking:

  • How should the U.S. respond to violations of the nuclear deal by Iran?
  • How can you explain Iran’s continuing ballistic missile program knowing that the only feasible payload is a nuclear weapon?
  • Does the Iran nuclear deal make it harder for the United States to counter Iran’s support for terrorism and hostility towards Israel and other U.S. allies?
  • Would each candidate honor the nuclear deal, try to fix it, or walk away from it?
  • How would the candidates address the problem of the Iran nuclear deal’s expiration in 10-15 years?
  • Can you articulate why President Obama might have allowed a $1.7 billion dollar cash payment to Iran to go forward given Iran’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism, and what the implications for both Iran and U.S. policy?

Analysis: In all, the UN Security Council adopted six resolutions targeting Iran.  Five of these—resolutions 1696, 1737, 1747, 1803, and 1835—were passed prior to President Obama and Secretary Clinton taking office in 2009.  One more, resolution 1929, was adopted in 2010.  Of these resolutions, all but two (resolutions 1696 and 1835) levied new sanctions against Iran.  For the most part, these resolutions built incrementally on one another; although the final resolution passed under the Bush Administration (UNSCR 1835) contained no new sanctions.

The United States, the European Union, and other allies used the Security Council resolutions as a foundation on which to build a broader sanctions regime, beginning with a U.S. campaign to isolate Iran’s banking sector from the international financial system in the mid-2000s.  This campaign was supported by Congress, which in the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) levied secondary sanctions against Iran’s central bank, effectively requiring countries to reduce their oil imports from Iran.  The Obama administration openly opposed the 2012 NDAA sanctions, arguing that they would undermine international pressure on Iran. In fact, the opposite happened. Together with an EU oil embargo implemented in 2012, the NDAA sanctions produced the most significant pressure to that point on Iran’s economy.

All of the UN Security Council resolutions called on Iran to suspend its enrichment-, reprocessing-, and heavy water-related activities.  Until late 2008, the U.S. refused to join P5+1 meetings with Iranian officials until Tehran agreed to suspend these activities.  In the face of Iran’s refusal to do so, the Bush administration eventually relented and in August 2008 sent Amb. Bill Burns, then the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, to join a P5+1 meeting with Iranian representatives. 

When President Obama came into office, he reportedly went further, reaching out directly to Iran’s Supreme Leader to request direct, bilateral talks.  Such talks eventually took place, with State Department and NSC officials meeting secretly with Iranian officials in Oman and elsewhere reportedly in 2012, prior to the election of current Iranian President Hasan Rouhani.  This engagement proceeded in parallel with continued P5+1 talks, and produced an interim accord in November 2013 known as the “Joint Plan of Action” (JPOA).  This was followed in April 2015 by the “Lausanne Framework,” establishing parameters for a final deal, the JCPOA, which was concluded in July 2015 and implemented in January 2016. 

The JCPOA represented a departure from past U.S. positions in that it did not require Iran to fully suspend its enrichment-, reprocessing-, and heavy water-related activities, or dismantle its nuclear program as had been required of Libya in 2003.  Instead, the agreement allows Iran to continue operating its Natanz, Fordow, Arak, and other nuclear facilities within temporary constraints.  On enrichment, Iran agreed to limit the amount of uranium it enriches, and the level to which it enriches it, as well as the number of centrifuges it operates and has installed.  It also agreed to limit its heavy water stockpile, and to replace the core of the Arak heavy water reactor with one that will be designed to significantly limit plutonium production.  Iran also agreed to accept significantly enhanced UN inspections, but did not agree to an “anytime-anywhere” challenge of inspections of suspected nuclear facilities.  In exchange, the U.S., EU, and UN lifted most sanctions on Iran, including those limiting Iran’s oil exports and banking activities, and unfroze Iranian assets around the world.

Of significant concern, the agreement allows Iran to continue its research and development of advanced centrifuges.  It does not require Iran to provide nuclear inspectors with timely access to possible undeclared nuclear sites.  It also paves the way for Iran to continue its development of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles.  In addition, most of its restrictions expire in ten to fifteen years, with restrictions on arms exports and ballistic missile aid to Iran expiring in five and eight years, respectively.  All told, these weaknesses raise the prospect that Iran could make meaningful progress on its nuclear weapons capabilities over the life of the agreement and will once again be well-positioned to develop nuclear weapons when the agreement expires.  While some U.S. allies in the Mideast, including Israel, have acknowledged that the deal may defer Iran’s development of nuclear arms, they have expressed grave concerns that it will embolden Iran’s destabilizing regional behavior.