Credible reports have surfaced — some from the UN inspection agency — of “small but significant” Iranian violations of the January nuclear deal, in the words of the New York Times November 9. Minor issues or not, the Obama administration would be wise to call out Iran now rather than letting President Trump do it.

In June, Germany’s domestic security agency found “an escalated level of illegal proliferation activities.” Iran’s alleged breaches are highly technical — for example, Iran exceeds its limit of heavy-water production and purchases specialized carbon fiber — but could indicate Tehran is testing limits to see what it can get away with. (For details, see John R. Haines’ article at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.)

In the January agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA — doomed to fail because it’s unpronounceable), the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) sought to block Iranian development of nuclear devices. The U.S. alone cannot suspend this agreement but might persuade Britain, France and Germany to also get tough with Tehran.

Russia and China, however, seeing Iran as a junior partner in their anti-U.S. coalition, might not cooperate. Iranian violations are supposed to trigger a “snapback” of hefty economic restrictions, most of which are controlled by the Western powers. The message to Moscow and Beijing: You sure you want a nuclear Iran? The message to Tehran: You better stop testing limits now or Trump will tear up the agreement, with potentially drastic consequences.

Suspending a nuclear agreement that took years to reach is an unhappy thought, but threatening to do so has several plus features. It puts Iran on notice that they can’t nibble away at the deal’s limits. It is reversible, once P5+1 concerns are satisfied. It shields President Obama and Secretary Kerry from charges that they have been too trusting, that Tehran played them. And it undercuts President-elect Trump’s claim that he alone can project strength.

The situation resembles a slow-motion 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Weeks before, Sen. Kenneth Keating (R-NY), alerted by Cuban-Americans, warned of Soviet missiles in Cuba. President Kennedy denied it publicly, but U.S. intelligence knew something was up. The October 14 flight of a U2 spy plane over Cuba confirmed that Soviet missile bases were indeed under construction. The clincher: the photos showed soccer pitches that Soviet soldiers play on rather than baseball diamonds that Cubans use.



On October 22, Kennedy spoke to the nation and got out ahead of Keating’s allegations in time for the Demo-crats to win the 1962 midterm elections. It was really scary. I remember sitting around a cafeteria table at UCLA discussing how we might spend our last hours alive. But, thanks to the U.S. naval blockade, it was over by October 28, the closest we came to World War III.

The Point: Get out ahead of suspicions. By the time you read this, the Obama administration may already have done so. Yes, it’s a pity that Tehran never unclenched its fist in response to Obama’s outstretched hand. It was well that Obama tried. But now, for the good of Obama’s historical reputation and to foster continuity from one administration to the next, head off even vague violations before Trump takes office.

President Trump will face difficult decisions as well. If we’re going to get tough with Iran on nukes, we cannot simultaneously ally ourselves with Iranian forces fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Baghdad’s mostly Shia army is amply aided and advised by Iran’s Quds Force. In Syria, Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanese Shia clients, are Damascus’s best fighters. We have to decide which is the bigger menace, ISIS or Iran? One hopes someone in the Trump camp can handle complexity and ambiguity. 

If this situation is fumbled, Iran could go to full-scale enrichment, leading to nuclear devices in a few years. We’ll know when Iran first tests through seismic activity and radioactive dust downwind. At that point, at a minimum, ground-penetrating bombs will be required. 

A clever Trump — and he likes unexpected moves — could name Secretary Kerry as special envoy for proliferation enforcement. Kerry, who has not spoken on the Iran deal for a while, may now be hardening his stance. If so, please say so. Kerry knows the technology and details of the agreement and would not need extensive reading-in. And he would reassure Americans that this matter is not in the hands of a fuming Islamophobe.

If Obama does not head off doubts now, he gives Trump the issue. If minor Iranian violations are not handled early by a calm president, a not-so-calm president could opt for drastic action. Moving now could actually save the agreement. Some Iran specialists argue that Tehran’s hardline theocrats need America as an enemy to sustain themselves in power. Many Iranians despise them. U.S. pressures, starting with threats to reimpose economic sanctions, could sober Tehran into strict compliance before Trump starts tearing up international agreements.