Dr. Christopher Ashley Ford
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation
Center for a New American Security
June 11, 2018
Good evening, everyone. Thank you for that kind introduction, and let me thank you all for the opportunity to speak with you here tonight. It’s a pleasure to be here to help offer some insight into the Administration’s views on where we go from here with Iran. Meeting the challenge posed by Iran has been among my highest priorities, and it is an issue on which I’ve spent a great deal of my time – both in my current role at the State Department and during the previous year, when I had the honor of serving as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for WMD and Counterproliferation at the National Security Council.
First, however, let me point out that while the United States has of course stopped participating in the nuclear deal with Iran – and although the title of our event tonight is “Implications of the Collapse of the JCPOA” – the U.S. absence has not yet actually collapsed it. I don’t want to speak too soon, of course, but the current degree of non-collapse may already suggest a lesson for us as we consider the world in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal.
Before President Trump announced our departure from the deal, it was often hard to open a newspaper without seeing a raft of dire predictions about how any such U.S. move would inevitably lead to a parade of horribles: Iran immediately cutting back access by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA); Iran immediately beginning to produce highly-enriched uranium (HEU); or Iran even leaving the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) entirely. In the early months of this year, in fact, the Iranians were very successful in rattling European sensibilities by raising the specter of such events, using such manipulations in order to make it more difficult for us to reach agreement on the nonproliferation principles articulated by President Trump on January 12 – when he charged us with negotiating a joint way forward with Europe on Iran policy, as a condition that would enable the United States to stay in the JCPOA.
At least so far, however, those threats and predictions have proven somewhat hollow. As part of its campaign to elicit benefits and guarantees from Europe, Iran has blustered about preparing to restart large-scale production of centrifuges and it has said that it is increasing its production of uranium hexafluoride (UF6) centrifuge feedstock.
Nevertheless, to date – and as the IAEA seems to have recognized – Iran has not yet actually done anything contrary to the commitments it made in the JCPOA. Iran may in fact recognize the truth of President Trump’s warning on May 8 that if it continues with its problematic nuclear aspirations, “it will have bigger problems than it has ever had before.” So far, at least, the sky hasn’t fallen, and the regime in Tehran seems to be aware that it still has a powerful interest in negotiation, even on terms that are already clearly less favorable than what it persuaded the international community to accept in 2015.
The lesson from all this may be that while there are obvious reasons for Iran to posture belligerently for domestic and international audiences, there remains a chance that its leaders will prove – as the President and Secretary of State have both called upon them to be – statesmen wise enough to recognize and respond to what Secretary Pompeo described as our “commitment to diplomacy to help solve the greatest challenges, even with our staunchest adversaries.” At present, Tehran seems interested only in negotiating a separate side deal with Europe, as a kind of holding strategy, but we hope to persuade it that the only viable long-term solution is a real deal with the U.S. and the rest of the international community: one that addresses in a more comprehensive and enduring way the myriad challenges that Iran presents.
But now I’m getting ahead of myself.
So let me circle back, to emphasize that ending our participation in the JCPOA was not a decision the Trump Administration took lightly. Despite his having been very, very clear on the campaign trail about his concerns with the JCPOA, this was a decision the President took only after more than a year of policy deliberation. As for the reasons for his decision, I think the Administration has been quite forthright about why we got to where we are today, so I’ll try not to belabor those points tonight.
For present purposes, suffice it to say merely that the JCPOA failed to address the long-term proliferation challenge Iran presented, by allowing key restrictions to expire, in a few more years, so that Iran would then be able to enrich any amount of uranium, at any degree of purity, and with as many centrifuges as it liked. The deal did this, moreover, without addressing any of the Iranian regime’s other regional or missile-related malign behaviors. Indeed, it didn’t just fail to address these other behaviors; it arguably made them worse. The JCPOA both fueled such misbehavior by allowing Iran to profit from re-engagement with the global economy, and thus be better able to fund regional destabilization, and made the kind of firm measures needed in response to Iran’s non-nuclear provocations more difficult, by creating a ready-made excuse for inaction out of concern that firmness might lead Iran to reconsider its commitment to the deal. In a sense, therefore, the international community sacrificed the possibility of a comprehensive and constructive Iran strategy on the altar of preserving the JCPOA. So the President pulled us out, in hope of finding a better long-term answer.
So let’s talk a bit about that search for a better answer. It’s important to remember that for quite a few months we entered into good faith discussions with some of our closest partners and allies, as the President directed us, to build what we hoped would be a lasting framework that would address our concerns and allow us to remain in the deal. And our European partners entered into good faith discussions with us. In the end, of course, it wasn’t possible to get quite where things needed to be. Nevertheless, I can tell you – from having been in our long rounds of negotiation with the European political directors – that we made far more progress than I had expected, and we got surprisingly close.
Notably, we and those negotiating partners all agreed on the key substantive challenges. We agreed on the threat presented by Iran’s missile development, and its proliferation of missiles and missile technology to regional actors. We agreed on the threat presented by Iran’s sponsorship of international terrorism. We agreed on the problems created by Iran’s regional destabilization, as well as the tragedy of its human rights abuses at home. We agreed on the importance of working together to meet these challenges and rein in Iranian provocations.
In the nuclear realm, we even agreed that the so-called “sunset clause” problem of the JCPOA – that is, the fact that it would eventually permit Iran to position itself dangerously close to potential weaponization “breakout” – was a very real problem that needs to be solved. The only disagreement came with regard to how, and when, to solve this “sunset” problem, but this was ultimately a question, you might say, of tactics rather than objective.
I emphasize these points of broad substantive agreement because I do not think that all that good-faith negotiating was wasted. Ultimately, the two sides did not reach a point of agreement in time for the deadline set by the expiration of key U.S. sanctions waivers under the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2012. President Trump thus directed the Departments of State and Treasury to begin re-imposition of the U.S. sanctions on Iran that President Obama lifted or waived in connection with the JCPOA.
The fact that our European negotiations got as close as they did, however, gives me grounds for hope – for I can assure you, as Secretary Pompeo made clear in his remarks at the Heritage Foundation on May 21, that our commitment to resolving these challenges through diplomacy has not waned.
As we look toward a new framework, we need an approach that addresses Iran’s destabilizing behavior while putting a nuclear weapons capability permanently out of reach. Iran’s past pursuit of nuclear weapons – and, as we’ve seen recently, its decision to maintain documents and expertise preserving, for potential later use, the weaponization knowledge gained in those prior efforts – shows the fallacy of having assumed that the JCPOA’s temporizing offered a viable answer to the Iranian proliferation problem.
The fact that Iran pursued its weapons work for years when subject to Article II of the NPT and IAEA safeguards shows the difficulty of relying solely upon promises of compliance by a country with Iran’s track record. Iran’s secret preservation of the knowledge necessary for reconstitution of its weapons program shows the danger inherent in the JCPOA’s “sunsetting” of restrictions upon the size of Iran’s fissile material production program and fissile material stocks.
Clearly, what is needed is a solution that restricts Iran’s capabilities in such a way that nuclear “breakout” is permanently out of reach – not merely postponed until someone else got to sit in the White House and inherit the problem. It’s that kind of enduring solution that we seek now, as indeed we should have sought all along.
Looking forward, the President has made clear that the United States is ready, willing, and able to negotiate a new and better deal that comprehensively addresses our concerns, as spelled out by Secretary Pompeo on May 21. In return, we would allow and support Iran’s full reintegration, politically and economically, into the community of nations.
As the Secretary spelled out, Iran will need to stop uranium enrichment and never pursue plutonium reprocessing, close its heavy water reactor, and provide unqualified access for the IAEA. It will need to stop missile proliferation, and development and launching of nuclear-capable missiles. And it will need to respect its neighbors and end a range of destabilizing activities and support for militants and proxies. This might sound like a lot to ask, but on one level, these requirements should not be difficult to meet – for we ask nothing from Iran except that it act like a normal, peace-loving nation. If Secretary Pompeo’s points appear challenging, it is only because Iran’s actions are today so out of line with the norms of acceptable international behavior.
If it does not accept those norms, Iran will have difficult choices ahead of it. It seems to have thought it could avoid those choices by pocketing the goodwill of the international community while continuing to pursue its destructive behavior. That was a mistake. We’ve made clear that this is unacceptable, which is why we’re now focused on bringing new financial, economic, and political pressure to bear on Iran to change that behavior.
But we remain willing to meet Iran in an agreed solution, if it can find within itself a commitment to peaceable norms of behavior, and if it can demonstrate through actions that its nuclear weapons ambitions lie forever behind it rather than simply being held in abeyance for some rainy day. In return for that strategic choice, we are prepared to end the principal components of our sanctions regime, re-establish full diplomatic and commercial relationships, and allow Iran’s acquisition of advanced technology. We’re also prepared to support the modernization and reintegration of the Iranian economy into the international economic system.
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. Even as we speak, a diplomatic “roadshow” has begun in which teams of U.S. diplomats are circulating to a growing list of capitals around the world to engage with counterparts about our new Iran strategy, about how best to minimize partners’ exposure to U.S. nuclear-related sanctions as these restrictions begin to be re-imposed, and about how we can all work together in pursuit of a better, successor agreement with Iran.
We’re not naïve 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.
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.