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Iran: Did the Maximum Pressure Weakened the JCPOA or Rather It Exposed Its Weaknesses

Earlier this month, France’s Foreign Minister Jean Yves Le Drian spoke to the media about the ongoing deterioration of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and called for immediate action to halt and reverse Iranian regime’s escalating violations. Among European officials, Le Drian has distinguished himself as one of the Iranian regime’s most ardent critics, and yet even his appeals fall far short of what is needed in order to appropriately confront Tehran’s malign activities.

The French foreign minister seems less inclined to pull punches than some of his colleagues in describing the nature and status of Iran’s provocations. Speaking to the Journal du Dimanche newspaper, he emphasized the need for an imminent change because Iran is in the process of acquiring nuclear weapons capability. By resolving to “say this clearly,” Le Drian avoided the mistake of lending credibility to Tehran’s denials and evasions.

With its most recent violation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iran moved to begin work on the production of uranium metal, which has virtually no other purpose than to be used as part of the core of a nuclear explosive device. This and related developments have sparked a sense of urgency among Western policymakers. But even those who have given appropriate voice to that urgency, like Le Drian, have not used it to motivate appropriate policy demands.

Instead, they have continued clinging to the notion that this issue can be resolved through ordinary negotiations, as if the failure of the JCPOA can be corrected by simply retreading the same ground. Le Drian’s more pointed criticisms of Iranian actions have not prevented him from emulating his more guarded colleagues’ practice of counter-balancing those criticisms with equivalent commentary aimed at the United States. In the same interview where he condemned Iran for moving toward nuclear capability, he also reiterated European opposition to the US maximum pressure campaign.

“The Trump administration chose what it called the maximum pressure campaign on Iran. The result was that this strategy only increased the risk and the threat,” Le Drian said, implying that Tehran’s violations were a necessary consequence of that campaign, and not the flawed JCPOA itself.

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The facts are clear and indisputable.
First, it proves that the JCPOA had failed to deny either Iran’s capability or means of obtaining a nuclear bomb. The regime’s nuclear infrastructure had remained intact. Thus, everything was left at the mercy of the Iranian regime.
Second, it shows that even after the JCPOA, Iran had continued its clandestine nuclear program, such that it was able to resume 20% uranium enrichment immediately and other related activities.
Third, Iran’s new breaches reaffirm its desire to obtain nuclear weapons.
Fourth, given Iran’s past failure to uphold its promises, no one can confidently trust the Iranian regime.
Fifth, and finally, Tehran is engaged in a blackmail operation. The appropriate answer is not to panic or offer more concession to the regime but to send a sharp and clear message that if it does not stop the provocation and fully abide by its commitments, European countries will adopt a maximum pressure policy.
Such an approach would certainly force the regime to retreat from making its hollow threats. Any indication that Europe or the US might give in to the regime’s blackmail is a recipe for disaster.
It is a misjudgment to suggest that US withdrawal from the JCPOA led to the current situation. Tehran was already pursuing its hidden objective. The maximum pressure policy slowed down the regime, because of financial constraints, among others.

Figures like Le Drian should stop feeling compelled to treat Iran as if it is simultaneously victimized and at fault. They should also begin to acknowledge that the effect of the maximum pressure campaign was not to weaken the JCPOA but rather to expose the weaknesses that had already existed. If left in place, those weaknesses will only give Iran incentive to restrain certain activities at certain locations, while advancing its nuclear capabilities in other areas, secure in the knowledge that most of its suspended activity can be resumed at a moment’s notice.

Le Drian seemed to acknowledge the need for a stronger agreement when he told the media that “tough discussions will be needed over ballistic proliferation and Iran’s destabilization of its neighbors in the region.” But recognition of this broader pattern of malign activity should lead to conclusions that the French foreign minister, like many of his colleagues, has been wary of accepting.

If there is any hope of Iran granting concessions over these other activities, it will depend on sustained international maximum pressure. All of these issues are closely intertwined as aspects of the Iranian regime’s effort to use force projection as a safeguard for its grip on power. Therefore, Tehran’s malign activity will persist in every area until it becomes clear that the consequence of that activity is complete economic and diplomatic isolation, and ultimately the collapse of the ruling system.

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