The Decertification of Iran Speech: Refuting Trump

Iran’s hardliners were right. They recited a long history of agreements in which Iranian compliance was repaid with American betrayal. Like a Persian chorus of Cassandras, they called their warnings into the wind, and the world called them crazy. Well, the mad mullahs were right. Despite the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) declaring each time it has reported – most recently in August 2017 – that Iran is in total compliance with its agreements in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Donald Trump has now carried through on his threat to decertify Iran.

And the United Nations body is not alone. Trump’s own military and intelligence community has clearly told him the same thing. US Strategic Command Chief General John Hyten has recently insisted that Iran is in full compliance and that any concerns the US may have with Iran are independent of the nuclear agreement. General Joseph Dunford, the Chairman of the Joints Chiefs, has also recently told a senate hearing that Iran is complying with the JCPOA.

Contrary to Trump’s claim that the JCPOA is no longer beneficial to the safety and security of the American people, that it does not "contribute to ‘regional and international peace and security,’" that too is sharply inconsistent with the message of both the American and the international military and intelligence communities. Secretary of Defense James Mattis told the senate armed services committee recently that the JCPOA is in the national security interest. European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherinis said that "We cannot afford as the international community to dismantle a nuclear agreement that is working."

Trump’s speech was not only disconnected with the reality of Iran’s compliance with the agreement and with the effectiveness of the agreement, it also contained an unbelievably long list of false charges against Iran and of historical falsehoods, prompting Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to suggest that Trump read his history books.

Trump opened his speech with the declaration that the Iranian regime "seized power in 1979 and forced a proud people to submit to its extremist rule." There are two problems with Trump’s account of history: the first is that it begins at a convenient place and the other is that it is wrong. It begins in a convenient place because Trump starts with the Islamic Republic taking power and not with the installation of the dictatorial Shah of Iran from whom they took power. In 1953, the United States and Britain took out the democratically elected and extremely popular leader of Iran, Mohammad Mosaddeq, in a coup that returned the Shah to power so he could resume the savage and repressive US backed dictatorship that would repress opposition media, political parties, unions and other groups. The Shah would utilize SAVAK, his murderous secret police. After the revolution of 1979, Iranians would find CIA offices in SAVAK headquarters and learn that the CIA had been involved in the training of SAVAK officers. That America took out Iran’s democracy and installed a brutal US puppet dictatorship gets edited out of Trump’s version of history. But it was from that US backed dictatorship that the Iranian regime "seized power."

It is also false for Trump to claim that the people of Iran were forced to submit to the extremist rule of the new government. Iran experts Flynt Levertt and Hillary Mann Leverett say that "at every step along the way – from an initial referendum on the establishment of an Islamic republic, through elections for a constituent assembly to draft its constitution, to the ratification of that constitution – Khomeini would ask for and receive the Iranian public’s overwhelming support." They go on to show just how great support for the new government was in 1979: "less than two months after the revolution’s triumph, a referendum was held to decide whether a postrevolutionary Iranian state should be, as Khomeini had pledged, an Islamic republic. Well over 90 percent of eligible voters turned out: 98.2% of them voted yes."

Trump moves from the revolution to the American hostage crisis. Here, too, Trump leaves out the historical context. As the Americans had thwarted their first attempt in 1953 to remove the Shah, so Iranians saw the US providing sanctuary to the Shah in 1979 as another American attempt to midwife the same fate again. As professor Vali Nasr of Tufts University has said, “In the popular mind, the hostage crisis was seen as justified by what happened in 1953”.

Trump then moves on to accuse Iran of terrorism for supporting the 1983 Hezbollah bombing of the American barracks in Beirut that killed 241 members of the American military. But the charge of terrorism is highly questionable when the Lebanese attack is on a military base in Beirut belonging to a foreign country that is actively and currently bombing Lebanon.

He also convicts Iran for "directing" the 1996 bombing of an American military housing in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 Americans. The Khobar Towers was a housing complex for U.S. military personnel in Saudi Arabia. But the case against Iran rests largely on information provided by their enemy, Saudi Arabia. Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett say that Michael Scheuer, director of the Bin Laden unit, says that “a substantial body of evidence” pointed, not to Iran, but to al-Qaeda. They say that by 1998, even the Saudis were admitting that the bombing “was executed by Saudi hands. No foreign party was involved”. Then Secretary of State Warren Christopher would also declare that “there was never any adequate proof” that Iran was involved. The Leveretts also cite Clinton’s defense secretary, William Perry, as saying “al-Qaeda rather than Iran was behind” the bombing.

Trump’s next claim is amongst his most audacious. He bluntly states that Iran works with al-Qaeda and the Taliban, including aiding in the 9/11 attacks and, subsequently, harbouring "high-level terrorists in the wake of the 9/11 attacks." But Iran has always regarded al-Qaeda and the Taliban as existential enemies of Iran. Far from harboring 9/11 terrorists, Iran arrested hundreds of the al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters who escaped into her borders. Iran documented the identity of more than two hundred al-Qaeda and Taliban escapees to the United Nations and sent many of them back to their homelands. For many others who couldn’t be sent back to their own countries, Iran offered to try them in Iran. Iran also followed up on an American request to search for, arrest and deport several more al-Qaeda operatives that the US identified.

Contrary to Trump’s claim, after 9/11, Iran backed the US, cooperating with them against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The Northern Alliance, who provided many of the anti-Taliban fighters once the Americans and her allies invaded Afghanistan, was, at least in part, put together by Iran, who placed it in the hands of the Americans. Iran offered its air bases to the US and permitted the US to carry out search and rescue missions for downed US planes. The Iranians also supplied the US with intelligence on Taliban and al-Qaeda targets. Iranian diplomats were secretly meeting with US officials as early as October 2001 to plan the removal of the Taliban and the creation of a new government in Afghanistan. Iran expert Trita Parsi says at the Bonn Conference of December 2001, Iran was absolutely crucial in setting up Afghanistan’s post-Taliban government.

In defense of his terrorism case, Trump charges Iran with launching cyberattacks. This charge is Trump’s most hypocritical, since the US has launched cyberattacks on Iran large enough and serious enough to constitute acts of war.

The US has admitted direct responsibility for a barrage of cyberattacks against Iran. The now best known is Stuxnet, the computer virus that infected Iran’s centrifuges and sent them spinning wildly out of control and before playing back previously recorded tapes of normal operations which plant operators watched unsuspectingly while the centrifuges literally tore themselves apart. Stuxnet seems to have wiped out about 20% of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges. And Stuxnet, it turns out, was only the beginning. The New York Times has revealed that the U.S. ordered sophisticated attacks on the computers that run Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities. A virus much larger than Stuxnet, known as Flame, has attacked Iranian computers. This virus maps and monitors the system of Iranian computers and sends back intelligence that is used to prepare for cyber war campaigns like the one undertaken by Stuxnet. Officials have now confirmed that Flame is one part of a joint project of America’s CIA and NSA and Israel’s secret military unit 8200. A NATO study said that Stuxnet qualified as an "illegal act of force."

Trump moves on from terrorism to the claim that Iran "has fueled vicious civil wars in Yemen and Syria." Both claims are ludicrous. Iran is on the same side as the US in the civil war in Syria. Iran has been a crucial leader in the fight against al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Syria. Iran has even been seen by Iraqis – another place Trump says Iran is "fueling sectarian violence," as eclipsing the States as their greatest ally in the fight against the terror threat of the Islamic State. John Kerry called Iran’s role in Iraq "helpful."

In Yemen, the US built its case that Iran was supplying weapons to the Houthis on an "assessment" that Iran was using fishing boats to smuggle weapons into Yemen. However, according to Gareth Porter, the US was never able to produce any evidence for the link between Iran and the Houthis because the boats were stateless, and their destination was Somalia, not Yemen. An earlier ship was, indeed, Iranian but was not really carrying any weapons. Because the Houthis allied with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and because Saleh and his son, the former commander of the Republican Guard, maintained control over the army through their allies in the upper ranks, the Houthis could get all the weapons they wanted from local arms markets and from corrupt Yemeni military commanders. The Houthi-Saleh-army alliance also strengthened the Houthis, making it possible for them to advance and take over military facilities from which they acquired American supplied weapons.

Just as Iran does not substantially arm the Houthis, so it does not control them. In fact, it seems they cannot control them. In 2014, the Iranians specifically discouraged the Houthis from capturing the Yemeni capital, Sanaa. Despite Iran’s position, the Houthis captured the city, effectively demonstrating Iran’s lack of control. In 2015, National Security Council spokesperson Bernadette Meehan says that “It remains our assessment that Iran does not exert command and control over the Houthis in Yemen.” US intelligence agreed: “It is wrong to think of the Houthis as a proxy force for Iran,” a US intelligence official told The Huffington Post. Yemen specialist Gabriele vom Bruck has called Iran’s influence over the Houthis “trivial.” She says that the Houthis want to be independent, not controlled by Iran: “I don’t think the Iranians have influence in their decision-making.” To the extent that Iran is involved in Yemen at all, that involvement was an invitation from the already started Saudi war and not a cause of it.

Trump insists, not only that Iran fuels the Syrian civil war, but that Iran "condoned Assad’s use of chemical weapons against helpless civilians, including many, many children." Iran did not condone Syria’s chemical weapons. On the contrary, Iran played a role when Russia negotiated Syria’s voluntary elimination of its chemical weapons. Trump also omits that the evidence is very strong that the Syrian regime never did use chemical weapons against its own people.

Trump also ignored the evidence when he recycled the "Death to Israel" myth. First of all, that myth applies to Ahmadinejad. He is no longer the President and hasn’t been for a while. Rouhani is. And Rouhani set a new and very different tone. On the Jewish New Year, Rouhani tweeted, "As the sun is about to set here in #Tehran I wish all Jews, especially Iranian Jews, a blessed Rosh Hashanah." He and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad-Zarif have both also condemned the holocaust. Zarif recognized the holocaust as a historical fact and condemned the killing of Jews by the Nazis, according to Hossein Mousavian, the former head of Iran’s nuclear negotiating team. He tweeted that “Iran never denied it. The man who was perceived to be denying it is now gone”.

And despite the stubbornly persistent clinging to the claim, former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad never did threaten "to wipe Israel off the map". The mistranslation has been irresponsibly repeated despite the constant authoritative corrections. Amongst the translation errors, Iranian expert Trita Parsi states that "Ahmadinejad’s statement has generally been mistranslated to read, ‘Wipe Israel off the map.’ Ahmadinejad never used the word ‘Israel’ but rather the ‘occupying regime of Jerusalem,’ which is a reference to the Israeli regime and not necessarily to the country". Not only is the "Israel" part mistranslated, but so is the "wiped off the map" part. The line, according to Flint Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, is properly translated as, "this regime occupying Jerusalem must disappear from the page of time". This statement is a reference to a wish for a future time when the Israeli government no longer occupies Palestinian territory. This wish is not for the end of the state of Israel or her people, but for the end of the occupation, and is not, therefore, a threat of aggression, but a wish no different from the official wish of the United States and others. Jonathan Steele adds that Ahmadinejad went on to make an analogy between the elimination of the regime occupying Jerusalem and the fall of the Shah of Iran, clearly showing that he is wishing for a regime change and not the elimination of a nation and her people, unless he is wishing for the elimination of himself and his own country. Dan Meridor, Israeli minister of intelligence and atomic energy and the deputy prime minister at the time, admitted to his Al Jazeera interviewer that "They didn’t say ‘we’ll wipe it out’. You are right".

Israeli intelligence and military leaders have long disagreed with the warnings about Iran. Tamir Pardo, the head of Mossad, scoffs at the idea of Iran as an existential threat. He says "The term ‘existential threat’ is used too freely." Parsi says that the two Mossad heads before Pardo held the same position. One of them, Efraim Halevy, said that Iran was "far from posing an existential threat to Israel."

Iran is also a signatory to the 2002 Saudi Peace Initiative that would recognize the State of Israel: an initiative that was reaffirmed in 2009. And, even earlier, former President Khatami expressed a willingness to accept a two state solution if that’s what the Palestinians wanted. In expressing that willingness, the President of Iran implicitly expressed the willingness to recognize the state of Israel.

Trump’s version of Iran’s past history then yielded to his version of the present history of the nuclear negotiations. In Trump’s version, sanctions were working, and Obama foolishly and inexplicably "lifted these sanctions, just before what would have been the total collapse of the Iranian regime. . . ." Trump’s assessment of the efficacy of the sanctions is a fantasy. There is no evidence that the Iranian regime was on the brink of collapse. On the contrary, the sanction strategy had reached its limit and Iran was now winning the sanctions versus nuclear program enlargement battle. Trita Parsi says that, though "US intelligence services had predicted that mass demonstrations and riots would occur within months after the imposition of sanctions. . . . the government in Tehran never lost control." Enrichment of uranium for peaceful civilian purposes is legal under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and Iran’s right to exercise the same rights as every other country became a point of profound national pride for Iranians who stood by the Rouhani administration.

Sanctions actually had an effect opposite to the desired one. Iran escalated its building of centrifuges and grew its stockpile of low- and medium-enriched uranium to prove to the US that pressuring them through sanctions wouldn’t work. Witnessing this pattern, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper disenchanted the Senate with the assessment that "sanctions as opposed so far have not caused [Iran] to change their behavior or policy." He added that "Iran’s economic difficulties probably will not jeopardize the regime."

The problem for the US was that there was only so many targets they could sanction. But Iran could keep building centrifuges and keep enriching uranium. So, while the US strategy had an endpoint, the Iranian response did not: the US ran out of things to sanction; Iran kept enriching. Sanctions wasn’t going to work. They were leading to a dilemma: accept Iran’s nuclear program or go to war. That led Obama to the negotiation option.

Contrary to Trump’s version of history, sanctions were not bringing about the inevitable collapse of the Islamic Republic, were not producing the desired change, and their failure led Obama quite rationally to the JCPOA negotiating table.

Trump then criticized the JCPOA because "in just a few years, as key restrictions disappear, Iran can sprint towards a rapid nuclear weapons breakout. In other words, we got weak inspections in exchange for no more than a purely short-term and temporary delay in Iran’s path to nuclear weapons."

More fantasy. First of all, the inspections are not "weak." Following Trump’s decertification of the deal, IAEA chief Amano Yukiya defended the inspections as the world’s "most robust nuclear verification regime."

And it is far from true that "in a few years. . . key restrictions disappear." Most non-proliferation agreements have the same fifteen year term this one has. Restrictions only motivate change if there is the promise that at least some of them can be removed if you comply. And many of the restrictions last much more than fifteen years. The text of the agreement specifies that Iran agreed to allow the IAEA to monitor its entire uranium supply chain for twenty-five years and all centrifuge production facilities for twenty. More importantly, though, Parsi says that "the most important restrictions and inspections instruments are permanent, according to the Additional Protocol to the Nonproliferation Treaty." Iran commits in the JCPOA to a schedule for ratifying the Additional Protocol. The frequent sunset clause objection is a chimera.

So is Trump’s echoing of the objection "that all of the money was paid upfront, which is unheard of, rather than at the end of the deal when they have shown they’ve played by the rules." It’s not true. Before any sanctions were lifted, the IAEA had to positively confirm that Iran had dismantled or disabled two-thirds of its centrifuges and exported over 90% of its enriched uranium. Trump is simply misrepresenting the facts: the money did come at the end when Iran had shown they were playing by the rules.

Trump limpingly claimed that the "Iranian regime has committed multiple violations of the agreement" and offers as evidence the two occasions when Iran "exceeded the limit of 130 metric tons of heavy water." He leaves out three important details, though. The first is that Iran had too much heavy water because the States, who was supposed to purchase Iran’s excess heavy water refused to do so. The second is that, in both instances, according to Paul Pillar, "Iran promptly did exactly what it is supposed to do under the agreement, which is to sell or otherwise dispose of the excess." The third is that the excess of heavy water was harmless, since Iran, in compliance with the agreement, had already rendered the Arak heavy-water research reactor incapable of producing weapons grade uranium. The unintentional surplus of heavy water was benign.

His only other example of Iran’s "multiple violations" is that "the Iranian regime has also failed to meet our expectations in its operation of advanced centrifuges." Trump seems to pull that one out of his hat: it is not at all clear to what he is referring. The IAEA has repeatedly and consistently verified that Iran’s centrifuges are in compliance with the agreement.

Trump continues to misrepresent the JCPOA as the only way to criticize Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA. He charges that Iran has "intimidated international inspectors into not using the full inspection authorities that the agreement calls for" by not allowing them access to military sites. This accusation is a bold misrepresentation of the agreement. The JCPOA clearly states that inspectors can only get access to military sites if the IAEA has credible evidence that suspicious activity is occurring on the site. The IAEA says that there is no credible evidence of suspicious activity and that "Washington has not provided such indications to back up its pressure on the IAEA to make such a request."

Trump then promises to introduce a new Iran strategy and reassures his audience that the new strategy has been arrived at "after extensive consultation with our allies". It is a mystery, though, who those allies are. It isn’t any of the other signatories to the agreement. It can’t be the European signatories, Germany, France and the UK. The leaders of those three countries, Theresa May, Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron, penned a joint declaration saying,

"We, the Leaders of France, Germany and the United Kingdom take note of President Trump’s decision not to recertify Iran’s compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to Congress and are concerned by the possible implications.

"We stand committed to the JCPoA and its full implementation by all sides. Preserving the JCPoA is in our shared national security interest."

It’s not the rest of Europe. European Union Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini complained after Trump’s decertification that “We cannot afford as the international community to dismantle a nuclear agreement that is working." It’s also not Russia or China, the other two signatories to the JCPOA. Russia’s foreign ministry said that Trump’s decertification of the agreement "ran counter to its spirit". Russia added that "there could be no return to imposing United Nations sanctions on Iran." In anticipation of Trump’s decertification, China said "it hopes the Iran nuclear deal will stay intact, playing an important role in keeping the peace." A Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson added that "We hope that the comprehensive Iran nuclear agreement can continue to be earnestly implemented."

Trump ended his decertification speech with an appeal to the people of Iran that Trita Parsi called "The most insulting of Trump’s lies". Trump promised in decertifying Iran to "stand in total solidarity" with the people of Iran. But those are the same people who Trump’s sanctions and proposed sanctions are crushing. Their the same people whom Trump is banning from entering the United States. And they are the same people who deeply do not want Trump to decertify Iran. The nuclear agreement was a matter of intense national pride for Iranians. They stood by Rouhani through negotiations and sanctions. And they expressed their approval of his deal by giving him a landslide reelection in May.

Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.