Why Is Obama Ignoring Iran Cheating on the Nuke Deal?

A ballistic missile is launched in Iran on March 9. Elliott Abrams writes that a new German intelligence report proves that Iran is deliberately cheating on the nuclear deal signed a year ago, and the Obama administration’s response is to do nothing. Mahmood Hosseini/TIMA/reuters

This article first appeared on the Council on Foreign Relations site.

The greatest imminent danger in last year's nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was always that Iran would cheat—taking all the advantages of the deal but then seeking to move forward more quickly toward a nuclear weapon—and that the Obama administration would be silent in the face of that cheating.

This was always a reasonable prospect, given the history of arms control agreements. Those who negotiate such agreements wish to defend them. They do not wish to say, six or 12 months and even years later, that they were duped and that the deals must be considered null and void.

Last week, Germany's intelligence agency produced a report detailing Iranian cheating. Here is an excerpt from the news story:

Germany's domestic intelligence agency said in its annual report that Iran has a "clandestine" effort to seek illicit nuclear technology and equipment from German companies "at what is, even by international standards, a quantitatively high level."

The findings by the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany's equivalent of the FBI, were issued in a 317-page report last week.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel underscored the findings in a statement to parliament, saying Iran violated the United Nations Security Council's anti-missile development regulations.

"Iran continued unabated to develop its rocket program in conflict with the relevant provisions of the UN Security Council," Merkel told the Bundestag.... The German report also stated "it is safe to expect that Iran will continue its intensive procurement activities in Germany using clandestine methods to achieve its objectives."

According to an Institute for Science and International Security July 7 report by David Albright and Andrea Stricker, Iran is required to get permission from a UN Security Council panel for "purchases of nuclear direct-use goods."

While the German intelligence report did not say what specifically Iran had obtained or attempted to obtain, the more recent report said dual use goods such as carbon fiber must be reported. Iran did not seek permission from the UN-affiliated panel for its proliferation attempts and purchases in Germany, officials said.

Here is a summary of that report by Institute for Science and International Security:

The Institute for Science and International Security has learned that Iran's Atomic Energy Organization (AEOI) recently made an attempt to purchase tons of controlled carbon fiber from a country. This attempt occurred after Implementation Day of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

The attempt to acquire carbon fiber was denied by the supplier and its government. Nonetheless, the AEOI had enough carbon fiber to replace existing advanced centrifuge rotors and had no need for additional quantities over the next several years, let alone for tons of carbon fiber.

This attempt thus raises concerns over whether Iran intends to abide by its JCPOA commitments. In particular, Iran may seek to stockpile the carbon fiber so as to be able to build advanced centrifuge rotors far beyond its current needs under the JCPOA, providing an advantage that would allow it to quickly build an advanced centrifuge enrichment plant if it chose to leave or disregard the JCPOA during the next few years. The carbon fiber procurement attempt is also another example of efforts by the P5+1 to keep secret problematic Iranian actions.

So Iran isn't only being more aggressive since the signing of the JCPOA—in Iraq and Syria, for example, or in cyberattacks on the United States—but is also cheating on the deal.

And what is the reaction from the Obama administration and other cheerleaders for the JCPOA? Nothing.

John Kerry famously said, "Iran deserves the benefits of the agreement they struck." They do not deserve to be allowed to cheat.

When asked in April if Iran would "stick to the key terms of this deal for the next 20 years," Kerry said, "I have faith and confidence that we will know exactly what they're doing during that period of time. And if they decide to try to cheat, we will know it, and there are plenty of options available to us. That I have complete faith and confidence in."

That's nice. But now we know they are cheating, and the option the administration appears to have chosen is silence. Just ignore the problem.

When asked about the German intel report and the Institute for Science and International Security report, the State Department spokesman replied, "We have absolutely no indication that Iran has procured any materials in violation of the JCPOA."

Needless to say, this kind of response will only encourage Iranian officials to cheat more, secure in the knowledge that Obama administration officials will not call them out on it, nor choose any serious one of the "plenty of options" Kerry said they have.

This means that Iran's breakout time will diminish, and the danger to its neighbors and to the United States will grow and grow.

Elliott Abrams is Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.