A nuclear deal worse than the JCPOA?

Mar 11, 2022 | AIJAC staff

The terms of the new deal reportedly will make it both shorter and weaker than the already badly flawed JCPOA agreement announced in 2015. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
The terms of the new deal reportedly will make it both shorter and weaker than the already badly flawed JCPOA agreement announced in 2015. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Update from AIJAC


03/22 #02


Reports say a new nuclear agreement with Iran has essentially been reached after more than a year of talks in Vienna – and is now only being held up by a new Russian demand that sanctions currently being imposed on Russia because of its invasion of Ukraine will not apply to its trade with Iran.

This Update features analysis of the reported terms of the new deal by two former senior US officials who were responsible for Iran issues –  both of whom say that the new deal looks substantially weaker than the already widely criticised Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement reached in 2015, which the US withdrew from in 2018.

We lead with Richard Goldberg, a former member of the US National Security Council, who makes the case that the deal is weaker than the JCPOA in terms of lifting terrorism sanctions allowed and imposed under the previous deal, allowing Iran to escape accountability for nuclear violations, and weak enforcement, among other issues. He also argues that a big winner from the new deal will be Russia, despite the current efforts to isolate Moscow over Ukraine, in terms of arms sales, trade, a key role in supervising exporting Iranian nuclear materials, and prestige. He also suggests that the US Congress can still stop the deal, and discusses how. For his analysis,  CLICK HERE.

Next up is Gabriel Noronha, who served as Special Advisor for Iran in the US State Department. Noronha agrees with Goldberg that the new deal is looking much worse than the JCPOA, and goes on at some length about various ways in which it will be inferior and dangerous. He focuses especially on the reported extensive promises to lift sanctions related to terrorism on Iranian officials and entities, who are indeed responsible for terrorism, as well as the large amounts of funds Iran will be getting, not only from lifting foreign exchange restrictions but also a reported US$7 billion as effective ransom for Americans Iran is holding hostage. For Noronha’s detailed and important article in full,  CLICK HERE.

Finally, Iran specialist Behnam Ben Taleblu looks at another implication of the reputed deal – its relaxation of restrictions on ballistic missiles in Iran. He notes that Iran already has the biggest missile arsenal in the region, plans to use missiles as delivery vehicles for nuclear weapons once it gets them, and has been extending the range, accuracy and mobility of its missiles even with the current restrictions. He looks in detail at Iran’s missile development efforts – much of it done under cover of a “space program” – and predicts Iranian Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) are coming much sooner than many think. For all the details of the missile situation,  CLICK HERE.

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Biden’s Coming Iran Deal Will Be Even Worse than Obama’s


National Review, March 4, 2022

What the U.S. is agreeing to in Vienna is a shorter and weaker agreement that provides even more sanctions relief in exchange for fewer restrictions.


President Joe Biden vowed this week to isolate Russia, yet his negotiators stayed at the table with their Russian counterparts in Vienna, putting the finishing touches on an Iran nuclear deal 2.0 that will benefit Russia and Iran and endanger the U.S. and its allies.

The new agreement is even worse than the 2015 deal made by the Obama administration. Biden’s version would lift U.S. terrorism sanctions on Iran, the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, and leave Tehran’s illicit nuclear infrastructure intact without first demanding a full accounting of Iran’s secret nuclear work.

Under the deal, Iran would get access to more than $100 billion, which it could spend on terrorism, missiles, and the pursuit of regional hegemony. Enforcement remains weak or non-existent, so there is no barrier to Iran’s crossing the nuclear threshold at a time of its choosing. Terrorism sanctions imposed on the Central Bank of Iran, the National Iranian Oil Company, and a host of other banks and companies will be suspended without any evidence that these institutions are no longer engaged in financing terrorism.

The State Department may even rescind the terrorist designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps despite its continuing sponsorship of terrorism and history of targeting Americans — a slap in the face to nearly 1,200 Gold Star family members who recently pled with the White House not to release any funds to Iran until the regime first paid $60 billion in judgments owed to American victims of Iran-sponsored terrorism.

But wait, there’s more: America may trust Russia to maintain custody of Iran’s enriched-uranium stockpile with a promise to return the stockpile to Iran if the U.S. ever reimposes sanctions. The full contents of the near-final agreement remain unknown, so it is not clear whether Biden will lift U.S. sanctions prohibiting Moscow from transferring conventional arms and missiles to Iran — part of an executive order issued by former president Donald Trump.

The new deal reportedly lifts the terrorist designation not only from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – responsible for almost all of Teheran’s terrorism sponsorship – but many of the individuals associated with its violent activities. (Photo: Shutterstock, saeediex). 

How did we get here? At the end of 2020, Iran was down to just $4 billion in accessible foreign-exchange reserves thanks to the historic success of the Trump administration’s maximum-pressure campaign. The regime was reeling from the loss of its terror mastermind, Qasem Soleimani, and its nuclear-weapons architect, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. Iran wasn’t enriching uranium to higher levels — not 20 percent, let alone 60 percent — nor had it curtailed U.N. inspectors’ access to key facilities. Meanwhile, the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency was on course to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council for noncompliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty over Tehran’s refusal to cooperate with an ongoing probe into concealed nuclear materials, sites, and activities.

The maximum-pressure campaign was working in draining Iran’s reserves and pushing the regime to the brink of economic collapse. But Team Biden had a different strategy in mind: Be nice. The administration stopped enforcing sanctions, eased Iran’s access to frozen funds, and halted pressure on Iran to declare its secret nuclear work. Iran responded by racing forward with its nuclear program and ordering its terror proxies to step up attacks against U.S. forces and allies in the Middle East. For months, Biden’s critics urged a change in strategy — a return to maximum pressure before Iran could erase all U.S. leverage and turn the tables on Washington.

Then came the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan. Vladimir Putin wasn’t the only dictator in the world to perceive American weakness. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei pressed forward with Iran’s nuclear advances, betting Biden would do nothing but offer more carrots. He bet correctly.

As Biden came into office, his administration’s stated policy objective was to negotiate a longer and stronger agreement than the 2015 nuclear deal that faced bipartisan opposition from Congress. What Biden is agreeing to in Vienna is a shorter and weaker agreement that provides even more sanctions relief in exchange for fewer restrictions.

The original deal left Iran’s nuclear-enrichment capabilities intact, provided no restrictions on the development of nuclear-capable missiles, and came with expiration dates — or “sunsets” — on key international restrictions. The first sunset, lifting a U.N. ban on transferring conventional arms to Iran, arrived in late 2020. The next one, lifting a U.N. ban on transferring missile parts to Iran, arrives next year. The deal then allows Iran to conduct the very same nuclear work that we see today in the years that follow.

Moscow loves the old deal, especially the sunsets. Russia stands to make a lot of money off arms sales if Biden rescinds Trump’s executive order. That’s on top of the money Putin will already make building nuclear-power plants in Iran.

The new deal is even better for Putin — the timing of its announcement likely by his design. He will tout it as Russia’s contribution to international peace and security — a contribution requested by Washington.

Now is the time for Congress to act. The White House knows this agreement would never win ratification by the U.S. Senate if submitted as a treaty. Biden may even try to avoid submitting it for congressional review before lifting sanctions, defying a 2015 statute that requires him to do so.

Congress should defend the integrity of U.S. terrorism sanctions by mandating new sanctions on any institution in Iran — including the Central Bank of Iran — that continues to finance the activities of the Revolutionary Guard, Hezbollah, and other terrorist organizations. Congress should condemn as wholly illegitimate the removal of terrorism sanctions without a cessation of illicit conduct. Biden is setting a dangerous precedent for U.S. counterterrorism policy.

New legislation should set a deadline for Iran to fully account for its undeclared nuclear work or face the full reimposition of U.S. sanctions. Removing sanctions for a supposed nuclear deal that knowingly allows Iran to hide its clandestine nuclear activities defies common sense.

Steps will also be needed to deny Russia the benefits of the deal. Sanctions targeting Russian economic, nuclear, and military relations with Iran should be reinstated or strengthened. The same might be considered for China, which has announced a 25-year economic-cooperation program with Tehran.

Finally, the question of military deterrence will take center stage. The coming deal makes it more likely that the United States or Israel will soon have to choose between military action or a nuclear-armed Iran. Congress should consider what tools Israel may need to defend itself in the wake of a strike against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.

Unfortunately, a chaotic and dangerous world is about to get a bit more chaotic and dangerous. At least until Congress or a new administration can change course.

RICHARD GOLDBERG is a senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He served on Capitol Hill, on the U.S. National Security Council, as the governor of Illinois’s chief of staff, and as a U.S. Navy Reserve intelligence officer. 

This Isn’t Obama’s Iran Deal. It’s Much, Much Worse.



Tablet, March 08, 2022

The last thing the world needs is another nuclear-armed dictatorship flush with cash and attacking its neighbors. But that’s what President Biden and his Iran envoy Robert Malley are creating in the deal they are about to close in Vienna, according to career State Department sources.

Hardline Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi has personal reasons to be happy about the new deal – sanctions on him over alleged human rights atrocities will be lifted (Photo: Wikimedia Commons | Licence details)

Anyone seeking to gauge the imminent outcome of the international talks over Iran’s nuclear program being held in Vienna should take a look at reports from late January that three top U.S. diplomats had quit—largely in protest over the direction set by U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley, who serves as the U.S. government’s chief negotiator.

Having served for two years in former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s Iran Action Group, I knew that this development was tantamount to a public cry for an intervention. Such resignations—not of conservative dissenters, but of career staff and President Joe Biden’s own political appointees—should have been cause for Biden or Secretary Antony Blinken to recall Malley and investigate. Their failure to do so is a sign either of a troubling lack of attention to the talks, or else the possibility that Malley—who served in the same capacity under President Barack Obama when the first Iran deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was originally negotiated and signed—has been given a free hand to negotiate whatever he wants, as long as he gets Iran to sign.

Evidence for the latter view can be gleaned from the fact that Blinken has reneged on his pledge that his Iran negotiating team would have “a diversity of views.” Instead, he has let Malley continue to concede issue after issue in Vienna. Multiple career officials view these capitulations as so detrimental to U.S. national security that they contacted me requesting that I rapidly share details of these concessions with Congress and the public in an effort to stop them.

U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley has had three senior members of his negotiating team resign over his concessions to Teheran (Photo: Flickr – Creator: Dean_Calma)

Reports out of Vienna indicate that a deal could occur within the next few days. While some issues are still being ironed out—such as whether the United States will grant Russia immunity from any economic sanctions relating to Iran, as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has publicly demanded—the details that follow have been conveyed to me as finalized. My subsequent discussions with foreign diplomats—including those directly involved and those outside but close to the negotiations—confirmed their claims. Ambassador Mikhail Ulyanov, who led negotiations on behalf of Russia, has crowed that “Iran got much more than it could expect. Much more,” and bragged about how Russia teamed up with China and Iran to get dozens of wins over the United States and European negotiating positions.

The list of concessions that follows is long, detailed, disturbing, but also somewhat technical. But this much is clear to me: The deal being negotiated in Vienna is dangerous to U.S. national security, to the stability of the Middle East, and to the Iranian people who suffer most under that brutal regime. The lack of evidence to justify a removal of U.S. sanctions is illegal, and the deal that will be foisted upon the world without the support of Congress will be illegitimate. This deal will not serve U.S. interests in either the short or long term.

With Robert Malley in the lead, the United States has promised to lift sanctions on some of the regime’s worst terrorists and torturers, on leading officials who have developed Iran’s WMD infrastructure, and has agreed to lift sanctions on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) itself. In exchange, Iran will receive fewer limitations than those imposed under the JCPOA, and the restrictions on its nuclear program will expire six years sooner than under the terms of the old deal. And that’s just the beginning.

The Biden administration is preparing to end sanctions under Executive Order (E.O.) 13876, known as the Supreme Leader’s Office E.O., as soon as the deal is finalized. This would lift sanctions on nearly all of the 112 people and entities sanctioned under that authority, even if they were sanctioned under other legal authorities as well. This move is significant because the United States has used this authority to sanction some of the most evil people you can possibly imagine. Malley and his Russian go-betweens in Vienna have agreed that these people should now be free to roam around the world despite their murderous pasts, unshackled from any restraints on their financing, and plotting new terror attacks.

If that sounds like an exaggeration, believe me: It isn’t. Let’s start with the terrorists, like Mohsen Rezaei, who was involved in the AMIA bombing in Argentina in 1994 that killed 85 people when he was commander-in-chief of the IRGC. Argentine authorities issued international warrants for his arrest, and he remains on Interpol’s Red Notice. Equally culpable in the AMIA bombing is Ali Akbar Velayati, who today serves as a senior adviser to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. He was charged as being one of the “ideological masterminds” behind the attack. He also committed acts of terror in Syria, where he helped the Iranian regime extend credit lines to the brutal Assad regime. Under the nuclear impending deal, both Rezaei and Velayati would be removed from U.S. sanctions lists.

The victims of the Iranian regime span every single continent, but the terror suspects being desanctioned by the United States in particular have American blood on their hands—particularly IRGC Brigadier General Hossein Dehghan, who led IRGC forces in Lebanon and Syria when Hezbollah bombed the Marines compound in Beirut that killed 241 U.S. service members, 58 French soldiers, and left hundreds more wounded.

Then there are the men like Ebrahim Raisi, who now reports to Supreme Leader Khamenei with the misleading title of president. Raisi participated in and ordered the execution of around 5,000 Iranians in the 1988 “Death Commissions” as a judge overseeing sham trials—including of young children—that typically lasted only a few minutes before guilty verdicts and death sentences were delivered. Raisi’s victims were loaded by forklifts in groups of six onto cranes and hanged every 30 minutes.

One of the few survivors “spared” was a woman who was taken to a torture chamber instead of to the crane on account of her pregnancy. She was repeatedly lashed and tortured by several men, and later said she remembered each of their faces, which were etched in her mind. She could not forget that of one young and callous man in particular: Ebrahim Raisi. Under the new nuclear deal, U.S. sanctions imposed against Raisi will be lifted.

The deal also lifts sanctions (which I was personally involved in imposing) against Ahmad Jannati, one of the regime’s most powerful and brutal clerics. Jannati is primarily responsible for rigging the country’s elections as chairman of the Guardian Council and Assembly of Experts. But in his spare time, he leads massive rallies in “Death to America/England/Israel” chants. Jannati routinely pushes for the regime to kill protesters. “I thank the judiciary chief for executing two protesters,” he said in 2010 in the aftermath of the Green Movement, “and urge him to execute others if they do not give up such protests.” That fervor has not changed since the early days of the regime. When Jannati was told a prison in Khuzestan province was filling up with dissidents, he volunteered to go serve there as a “judge.” He proudly recounted: “I got busy working … for there was some doubt whether we should execute them all or not.”

Then there is their master, Khamenei himself, who is ultimately responsible for every act of terror and murder committed by the Islamic Republic of Iran. We know that Khamenei has personally ordered the massacre of Iranians by his security forces. In November 2019, as brave Iranians took to the streets to protest the 40 years of corruption and oppression at the hands of the clerics, Khamenei assembled his top security team together and told them: “The Islamic Republic is in danger. Do whatever it takes to end it. You have my order.” In the ensuing days, about 1,500 Iranians were killed by the regime’s brute squads, including dozens of children and hundreds of women. This mass murderer will also be free of sanctions.

Ambassador Mikhail Ulyanov, who led negotiations on behalf of Russia, crowed that in the new deal “Iran got much more than it could expect. Much more,” thanks to Russian and Chinese help (Flickr | Licence details Creator: Eric Bridiers) 

One of the most challenging responsibilities I had in the State Department was directing the human rights portfolio. For two years, I was in charge of documenting massacres like the one that Khamenei ordered, combing through biographies and photos of torture victims, including children, with bullet holes in their heads. I hope to never see such things again, but I fear that because of this deal, we all will.

Sometimes, in the day or two after the United States placed sanctions on such men, I would get a phone call or email from an Iranian who lost a loved one because of them. Many said it was the first time in years that they felt they had received a modicum of justice—that their pain had been heard in Washington—and they profusely thanked the United States. Sanctions are not merely economic, political, or diplomatic tools—they speak truth to evil.

If you hadn’t heard of such crimes before, it’s mostly thanks to a man named Javad Zarif, who served as the regime’s chief propagandist from 2013-2021. He had the misleading title of foreign minister, but that wasn’t his role in the regime. Zarif had little power to negotiate deals or set the foreign policy of the regime—that’s the IRGC’s job—so he was tasked with fluffing reporters and think tankers in Europe and the United States in the hopes of deceiving them about the regime’s true nature and radical intentions.

He also readily defended the regime’s executions of gay people. In 2019, Zarif was asked by a brave German reporter, “Why are homosexuals executed in Iran because of their sexual orientation?” “Our society has moral principles,” Zarif responded, “and we live according to these principles. These are moral principles concerning the behavior of people in general. And that means that the law is respected and the law is obeyed.” In plain language, Zarif was covering up for the fact that his regime has executed thousands of gay Iranians—between 4,000 and 6,000 according to some estimates. Zarif’s involvement in the regime’s international terror apparatus earned him U.S. sanctions in 2019. Those will be gone, too.

But the pending nuclear deal doesn’t just lift sanctions on people who come and go from power. This deal lifts sanctions on the various economic entities that fuel the regime’s machinery of repression. Most notably, it would lift sanctions on Khamenei’s personal slush funds known as “bonyads,” including Astan Quds Razavi and the Execution of Imam Khomeini’s Order, which confiscated houses and billions of dollars from political dissidents and religious minorities to enrich Khamenei and his goons. Also free from restrictions will be the Bonyad Mostazafan, a massive conglomerate that systematically confiscated property from Jews and Bahai’s after 1979. Bonyad Mostazafan is enmeshed with the IRGC and served as a corruption network used to enrich top Iranian terrorists. All these groups and men have been sanctioned under E.O. 13876, the Supreme Leader’s Office sanctions authority, which the White House is preparing to end.

It’s important to note here that the Supreme Leader’s Office EO is in no way related to Iran’s nuclear program, and the removal of these sanctions under a so-called “nuclear deal” is a farce. The Trump administration lawyers who drafted this executive order were quite clear when we released it in 2019: It was a response to actions taken by Iran and its proxies to destabilize the Middle East, promote international terrorism, and advance Iran’s ballistic missile program. It was issued in response to Iran’s attack against U.S. military assets and civilian vessels.

The EO’s impending repeal makes clear that what Biden and Malley have in mind is not merely, or even mainly, a “nuclear deal” with Iran—it is an appeasement agreement that unshackles the Islamic Republic from any significant economic restrictions, regardless of whether it will enrich the regime’s apparatuses of terror.

Sanctions will be lifted on huge swaths of the regime’s economic and financial arms—close to 40 major entities—that support Iran’s terror, repression, and WMD infrastructure. These sanctions have not been “inconsistent with the JCPOA,” which is the justification that Blinken and Malley have claimed as justification for their repeal. The administration is lifting sanctions on economic arms of the Mehr Eqtesad network and Bonyad Taavon Basij, for example, which directly funds the Basij Resistance Force that recruits and trains child soldiers forced into combat.

The U.S. is not lifting sanctions on the Basij itself (which was the security entity responsible for killing most of the 1,500 Iranians in November 2019) because Iranian negotiators didn’t particularly care—they just wanted sanctions on the funding mechanisms lifted because that’s what actually matters. And Malley obliged. While serving as the mailed fist of the regime’s repression and brutalization of its own people, the Basij play no role whatsoever in Iran’s nuclear program.

Sanctions will also be lifted on the Central Bank of Iran (CBI) and the National Development Fund (NDF), which were sanctioned under counterterrorism authorities for providing billions of dollars to the IRGC, the Quds Force, and Hezbollah. The CBI and NDF were sanctioned after Iran brazenly attacked energy infrastructure in eastern Saudi Arabia in September 2019, an act of war. These organizations still fund terrorism.

The deal will also lift sanctions on the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) and the National Iranian Tanker Company (NITC) that fund the Quds Force, which under Qassem Soleimani’s leadership was directly responsible for killing hundreds of thousands of Syrians and Iraqis and for the death of at least 603 Americans in Iraq from 2003-2011.

The Central Bank, NDF, NIOC, and NITC were all sanctioned under counterterrorism authorities approved by career interagency lawyers, including from the Department of Justice and Department of the Treasury. These sanctions came from a rigorous interagency process that ensured we would not impose them haphazardly; but once such a determination is made, they are not supposed to be lifted until it can be proven the sanctioned entities longer support terrorism. To be clear: They are. But Malley apparently found a way to badger and bully the career lawyers into submission so that these terror financiers will now be free from sanctions, too.

The flags of the various “resistance groups” – including Hezbollah, the Houthis, the Assad regime, the “popular uprising” and others – that Teheran sponsors. The deal looks set to empower all these groups not only with money but by lifting the terrorism sanctioning of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (Photo: Shutterstock, saeediex). 

Perhaps most troubling is Malley’s persistent attempt to remove sanctions on the IRGC, which has plotted and carried out terrorist attacks in 35 countries around the world. As Pompeo disclosed last year, the IRGC is currently providing safe haven and logistical support for al-Qaida inside Iran. When Malley initially made an interagency request to remove the IRGC from the State Department’s Foreign Terrorist Organization list, he met severe resistance from startled career officials across government. Nevertheless, he persisted.

Instead of demanding that the Iranians cease conducting and supporting terrorism, Malley obliged repeated Iranian entreaties to remove the IRGC’s terror designation.

Instead of demanding that the Iranians cease conducting and supporting terrorism, Malley obliged repeated Iranian entreaties to remove the IRGC’s terror designation. At first, he proposed that it could be exchanged for an Iranian commitment to future talks on the terrorism and “regional issues” files. The Iranian negotiators and their Russian facilitators couldn’t believe their luck, and asked for more. They demanded that the concession must be unconditional, and that no future talks would be acceptable. Of course, a promise of future talks is all but meaningless given the American capitulation in Vienna. Either way, a foreign diplomat recently confirmed to me that the IRGC Foreign Terrorist Organization delisting has indeed been finalized.

So what have we received in exchange for all these concessions to the most vile men and institutions in Iran? Has the regime come clean about its clandestine nuclear activities or committed to stop nuclear enrichment? Has the regime committed to stop supporting terror and taking American hostages? The short answer on all counts is no.

The JCPOA’s sunset clauses have not been extended at all. Some JCPOA restrictions, like the United Nations arms embargo on Iran for importing or exporting conventional weapons, have already expired. All meaningful restrictions will expire over the next nine years. Iran will not make any concessions on its ballistic missile activity, its terrorist activity, its support for proxy groups, or its hostage-taking from the United States and other countries. But it will get money anyways—lots of it.

Iran is set to get access to a massive windfall of cash: My latest estimate (derived from figures declassified during my tenure at the State Department) is $90 billion in access to foreign exchange reserves, and then a further $50-$55 billion in extra revenue each year from higher oil and petrochemical exports, with no restrictions on how or where the money can be spent.

Personally, the most troubling transfer of funds will be the $7 billion ransom payment the United States is preparing to pay for the release of four Americans from an Iranian jail. Now, let me be clear: I would be extremely glad to bring these Americans back home safely as quickly as possible. They are innocent victims who, along with their families, have suffered unjustly for far too long. But make no mistake: Biden’s payment will only supercharge Iran’s hostage-taking industry.

After Obama paid Iran $1.7 billion for four Americans back in 2016 (including $400 million in literal pallets of cash), Iranian clerics and generals bragged about it for years—and some suggested that taking hostages could henceforth serve as a sound method for balancing Iran’s budget. Sadly, if Biden goes through with this deal, that could well be the case again. Seven billion dollars would amount to around one-third of Iran’s annual terror and security budget, fueling even more violence around the world and against Iranians. At prices like these, more Americans are sure to land in Evin Prison.

Each day, I learn more about the terrible deal coming out of Vienna. The degree of capitulation happening there is staggering, especially for those of us who worked in the technical trenches to impose these sanctions and monitor Iran’s nuclear program for years. That’s why nonpartisan career staffers are desperately asking for more oversight from Congress, even though Malley and the administration designed the negotiation process to take place without any congressional (and thus democratic representative) input. Administration officials have tried to make the case to lawyers internally that they are merely going back to the original JCPOA, and therefore do not need to submit the deal to Congress under the 2015 Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA) signed into law by the president.

That is not true. The Biden administration is not going back to the JCPOA. It has negotiated an entirely different agreement. And I can assure you it is much, much worse than the original.

Gabriel Noronha served as Special Advisor for Iran in the U.S. Department of State Department from 2019-2020. He previously worked in the U.S. Senate from 2015-2019, including on the Senate Armed Services Committee for Chairmen John McCain and Jim Inhofe.

New Iran Nuclear Deal? Same Old Missile Problems

The U.S. and Europe ignore Iranian missile tech developments at their own peril.

Behnam Ben Taleblu


The Dispatch, Mar. 8, 2022

Islamic Revolutionary Guards display Zulfiqar rockets at an al-Quds day rally in Teheran (Photo: Shutterstock, saeediex)

The Biden administration is nearing a deal with Iran that it hopes could put the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program “back in a box.” The problem? The agreement—which aims to restore the 2015 accord called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—would also relax restrictions on ballistic missiles, a weapon the U.S. intelligence community assessed only months after the JCPOA was implemented as Iran’s “preferred method of delivering nuclear weapons, if it builds them.”

For more than a decade, the U.S. intelligence community has continuously affirmed that Iran’s ballistic missile arsenal is the biggest in the Middle East. Iran uses these missiles to intimidate and punish its adversaries while deterring a military reprisal. In a December 2021 interview, U.S. CENTCOM Commander Gen. Kenneth McKenzie identified Iran’s missiles  as “a more immediate threat than its nuclear program.” Iranian officials have worked assiduously to make that the case, enhancing the range, accuracy, and mobility of their missiles, while also proliferating whole systems and components parts to their proxies to use in attacks on U.S. partners. Any deal predicated on the JCPOA—or its accompanying U.N. Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2231—that removes restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missile program, provides sanctions relief to its supporters, and ignores recent and groundbreaking Iranian ballistic missile developments would be a strategic mistake.

According to Annex B of UNSCR 2231, international prohibitions against Iranian ballistic missile tests and related activities will lapse in October 2023. In 2015 when the JCPOA was reached, this was sold as an eight-year moratorium. Unless amended, in 2022 however, the ban will be in place for only little longer than one year. While Iran has never respected this injunction—launching a combination of at least 27 surface-to-surface missiles (SSMs) and space-launch vehicles (SLVs) while the U.S. was a party to the deal—the prohibition is the result of several last minute Iranian negotiating victories from 2015.

UNSCR 2231 amends an older and more stringent resolution containing a permanent ban on Iranian ballistic missile tests. The new injunction against missile testing lapsing in 2023 is but one of several phased prohibitions popularly termed “sunsets.” Iran, likely assisted by its Russian and Chinese lawyers in the P5+1 negotiating mechanism, successfully replicated and pushed for the sunset-driven model to be applied other areas as well, be it lapsing restrictions on its nuclear program found in the JCPOA or the now terminated prohibition against conventional arms transfers from UNSCR 2231.

Making matters worse, the circumscribed missile prohibition was also caveated. Employing deferential language, UNSCR 2231 “calls upon Iran” not to partake in activities related to ballistic missiles that were “designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons.” And in addition to begetting overly technical debates pertaining to intention and design for known Iranian ballistic missile types, the distinction further redounded to Iran’s favor by ignoring that we still do not know everything about Iran’s past weaponization and miniaturization efforts, and that more broadly, ballistic missiles could be used to deliver other forms of WMD, such as chemical weapons. As a reminder, in 2016 the U.S. intelligence community seemingly left room for such an interpretation of Iran’s missile force when it judged that, “Iran’s ballistic missiles are inherently capable of delivering WMD.” The Islamic Republic has previously developedemployed, and even transferred chemical weapons.

Also in negotiations leading to the 2015 JCPOA, Tehran and its advocates further stymied efforts by Washington to make a case against Iranian violations by terminating an impartial “panel of experts” that previously investigated claims of violations pursuant to a mandate from older Iran-related resolutions. The Trump administration tried but failed to resurrect this panel in 2020. Instead of a panel, UNSCR 2231 requires only reports of alleged violations on a biannual basis.

Beyond the problem of lawyerly language and deference to Iran in UNSCR 2231 is a larger challenge created by EU and U.S. sanctions relief under the auspices of the JCPOA. According to the accord’s previous sanctions annex, the EU (as well as the U.K., given its autonomous post-Brexit Iran sanctions regime) is on track to remove from sanctions lists a broad swath of Iranian defense firms supportive of the regime’s ballistic missile program in October 2023. These are entities inclusive of, and tied to, the sanctioned Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics (MODAFL), it’s various front companies and subsidiaries that aid specific parts of the ballistic missile program such as development of liquid- and solid-propellant systems, as well the sanctioned Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its missile branch, the IRGC Aerospace Force (IRGC-AF).

Retaining this schedule for delisting, which again was subject to an eight-year timeline in 2015 but now will be removed in just over a year, would make transatlantic coordination against Iran’s ballistic missile program more difficult. This raises questions as to how an already sanctions-skeptic and risk-averse administration might punish Iranian procurement nodes operating on the soil of an American ally. Lest the administration forget, then-candidate Biden pledged in an op-ed in 2020 to continue pressuring Iran’s ballistic missile program through targeted non-nuclear sanctions.

But based on what has been reported several times in 2021, non-nuclear sanctions relief undoing penalties imposed on Iran during the Trump administration is very much on the table, raising wider concerns about the dividends an agreement could provide Tehran. U.S. officials may have hinted at their willingness to offer such relief last year when they spoke of their preparedness to lift all sanctions deemed “inconsistent” with the JCPOA.

Accordingly, under the auspices of JCPOA reentry, the Biden administration might directly or indirectly remove sanctions on Iran’s missile program and its supporters, certain sectors of Iran’s economy aiding the missile program, as well as enable Iran access to frozen funds. Any or all of these moves will put Tehran’s ballistic missile and military technology procurement, production, and proliferation networks on steroids. Seemingly getting ready to compound the infusion of cash headed its way, the Iranian Parliament has already called for an allocation of 4.5 million euros from National Iranian Oil Company revenues to go toward the country’s defense capabilities.

This brings us to the final leg of the troika as to why a deal predicated on the JCPOA or UNSCR 2231 is a strategic mistake: ongoing Iranian ballistic missile advances. Iranian officials have never been shy about claiming that their missile program is non-negotiable. Nor have they been shy about touting their missile prowess and advances.

Brig. Gen. Amir-Ali Hajizadeh, who leads the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Aerospace Force recently exclaimed that, “The firepower and simultaneous launches of our missiles have increased 6 to 7 fold, and the preparation time and preparation intervals for launches have been greatly reduced.” Reducing sanctions pressure and making revenues more available for a program that has been able to advance while under pressure would embolden rather than placate the Islamic Republic. This can make a regional military conflict involving ballistic missiles more likely in the short-to-medium term given Iranian confidence in their systems. It can even expedite the ongoing evolution in Iran’s security strategy from deterrent and defensive to offensive and coercive.

This is not theoretical. As Tehran’s ballistic missile aptitudes evolved in the post-JCPOA era, so did its risk tolerance. Iran resumed ballistic missile operations from its own territory against foreign targets, engaging in four publicized operations between 2017 and 2020. Throughout 2021 and into 2022, despite indirect nuclear diplomacy taking place between Iran and the U.S., Iran continued to carry out military drills featuring short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs, which can travel up to 1,000 kilometers) and medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs, which can travel between 1,000 – 3,0000 kilometers), launching a reported 16 missiles during a drill conducted by the IRGC in late December, as well as to parading and releasing new systems.

A US Defence Intelligence Agency estimate of the state of Iran’s missile inventory as of 2019. Iran has continued to add new missiles, and is developing others with longer ranges under the cover of its “space program”, in the years since then. 

This February, Iran unveiled and tested the latest upgrade to its domestically produced line of solid-propellant surface-to-surface missiles originating from the Fateh ballistic missile. Dubbed the “Kheybar Shekan,” or “Breaker of Kheybar,” the missile’s moniker memorializes an early Islamic military campaign against Jewish tribes in Arabia. The name is no accident, as the Islamic Republic is no stranger to courting antisemitism with its missile launches. The missile’s reported range of 1,450 kilometers establishes it as the third solid-propellant MRBM in Tehran’s arsenal. Solid-propellant systems are prized for their mobility and the speed with which they can be prepped prior to launch. Such systems have featured prominently in the four aforementioned Iranian military operations from 2017-2020.

Notably, the regime also did not curb, but rather sped up, its space-launch vehicle flight-tests, which offer a way to get around a self-imposed ballistic missile range cap of 2,000 kilometers and keep a pathway open for an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capability.  Given that space-launch vehicles and ICBMs use similar technologies, an SLV program can inform an ICBM pathway through testing and studies of engines, staging, and more.  In 2019, then IRGC Deputy Commander Brig. Gen. Hossein Salami framed the ban as being purely political, claiming, “We have no technical limitations in increasing [missile] range, accuracy of missiles at long ranges, destructive power, and strong propulsive forces.” Salami then issued a threat, “If based on a conspiracy, today the Europeans or others want to pursue the missile disarmament of the Islamic Republic of Iran, we will be forced to make a strategic leap.”

Previously, the U.S. intelligence community judged that, “Iran’s progress on space launch vehicles—along with its desire to deter the United States and its allies—provides Tehran with the means and motivation to develop longer-range missiles, including ICBMs.” This has remained a near consistent assessment in U.S. government reporting on Iran, whether it be from the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), multiple other Worldwide Threat Assessments by the director of national intelligence (DNI), and the National Air and Space Intelligence Committee (NASIC).

As I have previously assessed, datapoints from Iran’s progress on solid-propellants and increased SLV testing also supports the conclusion that Iran is working toward a full solid-propellant SLV, which would be a game-changer and in turn the clearest indication of its long-range strike capabilities evolving toward a potential ICBM capability. Iran has produced at least two solid-propellant motors, the smaller Salman motor in 2020, and larger Rafee motor in 2022, for its SLVs. It also already has two SLVs—the Qased and the Zuljanah—employing at least one solid-propellant motor in one of its stages. Both the Salman and the Rafee have thrust-vectoring capabilities and share other similarities. And just last month, a hardline Iranian newspaper heralded the Rafee as bringing ICBM-class missiles “more within range than ever” for Iran.

But Iran need not rush to an ICBM tomorrow to keep closing the gap between medium-range missiles and what it’s space-launch vehicles might be able to offer in terms of range. Iran has reportedly worked on improving the Khorramshahr ballistic missile, whose range Iran has grown through warhead modifications. Initially billed as an MRBM by Iranian sources, the Khorramshahr is based on a liquid-propellant nuclear-capable intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM, which can travel between 3,000 to 5,000 kilometers) that Iran received from North Korea in the early 2000s. According to European reports to the U.N. in 2019, Iran’s new Khorramshahr variant is now essentially an IRBM. U.N. reports have also assessed that Iran and North Korea “resumed cooperation on long-range missile development projects” in 2020.

The U.S. and Europe ignore these developments at their own peril. An Iranian IRBM and potentially ICBM capability is coming, and perhaps sooner than one might think. In the face of such a possibility, the worst thing Washington might do is ink an agreement like the JCPOA that offers sanctions relief to Iran’s missile underwriters, ignores the evolution in Iran’s ballistic missile forces, and waters down U.N. restrictions all while failing to block a pathway toward an ICBM capability. Borrowing from the famed French diplomat Talleyrand, inking such an agreement as a stand in for counterproliferation policy on Iran would be “worse than a crime.” It would be “a mistake.”

Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where he focuses on Iranian political and security issues and contributes to its Center on Military and Political Power.

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