In an update to our earlier article published in The Age and Sydney Morning Herald, the future of the Iran nuclear deal was indeed prominently discussed during French President Emmanuel Macron’s Australian visit.
As the United States continues to consider its future attitude towards the deal, Macron is to be commended for his clear acknowledgement during the visit that the Iran nuclear deal is “not sufficient”.
On Wednesday, Macron clearly articulated France’s requested additions to strengthen the nuclear deal in a bid to curtail Iran’s dangerous and expansionist behaviour.
Speaking to the media alongside Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, he elaborated on French concerns about the flawed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran.
Macron said he still supported the deal but that additions were required.
“I made it very clear last September at the United Nations – I repeated it and I consistently discussed that with President Trump – I think we have to complete this agreement, with three additional pillars.
“One about the nuclear activity post-2025.
“Second, in order to have a better control and monitoring of the ballistic activity of the Iranian regime.
“Third, in order to have an eco-containment of the Iranian activity in the region, especially Iraq, Iran – I mean Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.”
The JCPOA, negotiated in 2015 when Barack Obama was US President, has many critics – current US President Donald Trump among the most vociferous. The deal’s critics focus on three main weaknesses and these weaknesses largely overlap with Macron’s stated concerns.
The JCPOA contains sunset clauses that essentially lift all restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program, including enriching as much uranium as they want and undertaking any nuclear activity as long as it is ostensibly for peaceful purposes. These clauses begin in 2025, and all restrictions are gone by 2030. Given that Iran is currently researching ultra-fast centrifuges, this could allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons at virtually any time without the outside world having time to stop it. As Obama admitted in an interview in 2015, as the sunset clause kicks in, Iran could “have advanced centrifuges that enrich uranium fairly rapidly, and at that point the breakout times would have shrunk almost down to zero.”
As illustrated in Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s widely reported presentation earlier this week, Iran has been holding detailed nuclear weapons program documentation away from the prying eyes of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Further, those inspectors, while declaring that Iran has fulfilled its commitments under the JCPOA as far as they can determine, have not checked Iran’s self-declared “military sites”, which Iran has kept off-limits. This leaves the IAEA with little way of knowing whether work on nuclear weapons is taking place there. This flaw in the inspection regime is a fourth key point raised by critics of the JCPOA – and one not addressed by Macron.
Furthermore, Iran continues to advance its ballistic missile program, with missiles or other delivery systems a central pillar of any nuclear weapon. Iran has conducted as many as 23 ballistic missile tests since the JCPOA came into force – more than North Korea over the same period, though the latter have attracted much more publicity. Furthermore, Netanyahu’s presentation showed that Iran had plans to put nuclear warheads on its existing missiles, even though Iran has repeatedly denied that these missiles are “nuclear capable.” Missiles were omitted from the JCPOA – though they are mentioned in the UN Security Council resolution passed to implement it – and Iran’s full steam ahead efforts in this area are clearly allowing it to make major strides on a critical component of a future nuclear arsenal.
Finally, Iran is also continuing its role as one of the Middle East’s most active supporters of terrorism and destablisation – from Hamas in Gaza, to Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Assad regime in Syria – and indeed has stepped up such efforts since the signing of the JCPOA. As recent protests in Iran have illustrated, the regime is directing the money it received from the unfreezing of assets under the JCPOA to prop up terrorist groups and murderous regimes while largely ignoring the needs of the Iranian population.
Macron has been on a global tour in the past week. His trip to Australia followed a successful visit to the White House. Significantly, he also mentioned he’d held discussions this week with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
While the clock continues to tick towards May 12 – the date the JCPOA needs to be recertified by Congress to keep the US in the deal – Trump is holding his cards close to his chest.
During the French President’s visit to Washington DC, Trump told Macron the JCPOA was a “terrible deal. It should have never ever been made”, but he did not announce whether he would withdraw from it.
Speaking on Wednesday at the swearing-in of new US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Trump had little to add. “We’re confronting all types of Iranian hostility and we are deciding on the next steps from the flawed JCPOA,” the US President said.
Although not a signatory to the JCPOA, Australian leaders have noted their ongoing support for the deal.
A joint “vision statement” signed in Sydney by both Turnbull and Macron, stated: “The leaders supported the continuation of the JCPOA nuclear agreement with Iran, while expressing concern about Iran’s ballistic missile program and regional activities.”
Macron’s visit to Australia has shone a light on the reasons why the JCPOA is far from an adequate answer to Iran’s destablising and illegal nuclear ambitions. The French President is showing himself to be a thoughtful leader, who is prepared to stand up for nuclear non-proliferation. The question is, can the rest of the international community face the problems of the JCPOA squarely and find genuinely effective answers to them?