By Michael Oren: The US has signed agreements with three rogue regimes strictly limiting their unconventional military capacities. Two of those regimes — Syria and North Korea — brazenly violated the agreements، provoking game-changing responses from Donald Trump. But the third agreement — with Iran — is so inherently flawed that Tehran doesn’t even have to break it. Honouring it will be enough to endanger millions of lives.
The framework agreements with North Korea and Syria، concluded respectively in 1994 and 2013، were similar in many ways. Both recognised that the regimes already possessed weapons of mass destruction or at least the means to produce them. Both assumed that the regimes would surrender their arsenals under an international treaty and open their facilities to inspectors. And both believed these repressive states، if properly engaged، could be brought into the community of nations.
All those assumptions were wrong. After withdrawing from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty، Pyongyang tested five atomic weapons and developed intercontinental missiles capable of carrying them. Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad، less than a year after signing the framework، reverted to gassing his own people. Bolstered by the inaction of the US and backed by other powers، North Korea and Syria broke their commitments with impunity.
Or so it seemed. By ordering a Tomahawk missile attack on a Syrian air base، and a US Navy strike force to patrol near North Korea’s coast، the Trump administration has upheld the frameworks and placed their violators on notice. This reassertion of power is welcomed by all of America’s allies، Israel among them. But for us the most dangerous agreement of all is the one that may never need military enforcement. For us، the existential threat looms in a decade، when the agreement with Iran expires.
Like the frameworks with North Korea and Syria، the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action of 2015 assumed that Iran would fulfil its obligations and open its facilities to inspectors. The JCPOA assumed that Iran would moderate its behaviour and join the international community. Yet unlike its North Korean and Syrian allies، Iran was the largest state sponsor of terror and openly vowed to destroy another state: Israel. Unlike them، Iran systematically lied about its unconventional weapons program for 30 years. And unlike Damascus and Pyongyang، which are permanently barred from acquiring weapons of mass destruction، Tehran can look forward to building them swiftly and legitimately in the late 2020s، once the JCPOA expires.
This، for Israel and our neighbouring Sunni states، is the appalling flaw of the JCPOA. The regime most committed to our destruction has been granted a free pass to develop military nuclear capabilities. Iran could follow the Syrian and North Korean examples and cheat. Or، while enjoying hundreds of billions of dollars in sanctions relief، it can adhere to the agreement and deactivate parts of its nuclear facilities rather than dismantle them. It can develop new technologies for producing atomic bombs while testing intercontinental ballistic missiles. It can continue massacring Syrians، Iraqis and Yemenis، and bankrolling Hamas and Hezbollah. The JCPOA enables Iran to do all that merely by complying.
A nuclear-armed Iran would be as dangerous as “50 North Koreas”، Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the UN in 2013، and Iran is certainly many times more dangerous than Syria. Yet Iran alone has been granted immunity for butchering civilians and threatening genocide. Iran alone has been guaranteed a future nuclear capability. And the Iranian regime — which brutally crushed a popular uprising in 2009 — has amassed a million-man force to suppress any future opposition. Rather than moderating، the present regime promises to be more radical yet in another 10 years.
How can the US and its allies pre-empt catastrophe? Many steps are possible، but they begin with penalising Iran for the conventions it already violates، such as UN restrictions on missile development. The remaining American sanctions on Iran must stay staunchly in place and congress must pass further punitive legislation. Above all، a strong link must be established between the JCPOA and Iran’s support for terror، its pledges to annihilate Israel and overthrow pro-American Arab governments، and its complicity in massacres. As long as the ayatollahs oppress their own population and export their tyranny abroad، no restrictions on their nuclear program can ever be allowed to expire.
In responding forcibly to North Korean and Syrian outrages، President Trump has taken a major step towards restoring America’s deterrence power. His determination to redress the flaws in the JCPOA and to stand up to Iran will greatly accelerate that process. The US، Israel and the world will all be safer.