For the third time in three years, Thomas R. Pickering, a longtime United States diplomat who now works for the Iran Project, addressed a Pittsburgh audience to garner support for the Iran nuclear deal.
Pickering, who holds the title of career ambassador, was the featured speaker at a lunch held at the Duquesne Club on Nov. 8, hosted by the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh.
The Iran Project operates to “preserve the JCPOA [the Iran nuclear deal]” which it claims is “working to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons, hold open opportunities for collaboration and dialogue when it is in the U.S. interest to do so and reduce the possibility of a direct conflict between the U.S and Iran,” according to its website.
The Iran Project was started in 2002 by the United Nations Association of the USA and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, which, since 2013, also has given at least $880,000 to groups working to advance a boycott of Israel.
Pickering came under fire from several media outlets last year for failing to disclose that he was working for Boeing during the time of the JCPOA negotiations, when he was attempting to garner support for the agreement.
From 2001 to 2006, Pickering was an employee of Boeing — a company which has benefitted significantly from the Iran deal — and from 2006 to 2015, he worked as a consultant to the aerodynamics firm.
In addition to speaking to audiences across the country, Pickering wrote op-eds in favor of the deal and testified before Congress.
The JCPOA allowed Boeing to secure a deal estimated to exceed $20 billion with Iranian Airways.
At his talk last week in Pittsburgh, Pickering told the audience that he no longer works for Boeing in response to a question during the Q&A following his chief presentation, which covered a brief history of Iran’s nuclear program, the basis of the JCPOA and potential Congressional moves following President Donald Trump’s decision last month to not certify that Iran was complying with the agreement.
“The agreement itself is complicated,” Pickering told his audience. “But the fundamental basis of that agreement I think is quite simple. That agreement, in fact, said that Iran would accept severe limitations on its civil nuclear program. It would accept, as well, the most extensive monitoring and verification system ever set up in an arms control arrangement, and in return the sanctions that had been put on Iran internationally would be relaxed and Iran would derive commercial benefits.”
Now, two years into the deal, Pickering said, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the monitoring body that has been charged with “looking at the Iranian performance, has consistently reported that Iran is in compliance” with its obligations under the deal.
But critics of the deal say that inspections have been absent from Iran’s military sites, and even Iran’s international affairs adviser Ali Akbar Velayati has told reporters that “Nobody is allowed to visit Iran’s military sites.”
The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, has pressed the IAEA to seek access to Iranian military bases to assess whether the Iranians were concealing activities banned by the JCPOA.
Pickering explained that Trump “ran on a platform consistent with tearing up the agreement,” and in line with that platform, decided on Oct. 13 that he would not certify Iran’s compliance.
That failure to certify compliance has triggered a 60-day Congressional time frame for deciding whether to pass “legislation which would once again reintroduce the American sanctions that were waived as part of our participation in the agreement.”
While there is “no solidifying Congressional view,” he said, “there is clearly a view among many leaders of Congress in both parties that they do not wish to take steps with American legislation that would put us in violation of the agreement.”
Reintroducing American sanctions would do just that, he opined.
“That means, in fact, if we put the sanctions back in place against Iran, and there has been no Iranian material breach of the agreement, then we are the first to violate the agreement,” he said. “The result of that would be, on the one hand, to give Iranians under international law the opportunity to say the agreement has fallen, it no longer binds them.”
The Iranians would then be “free once again to do whatever they like with their nuclear program, including running centrifuges, including enriching uranium with no limitations,” according to Pickering.
“The second alternative that I think in some ways seems slightly more hopeful is that Iran, the Europeans, Russia and China would continue with the agreement after the United States,” he postulated.
But a U.S. abandonment of the agreement would lead to a weakening of U.S. influence, and European partners to the JCPOA would “not be party to additional sanctions over Iran to improve, change or otherwise modify the agreement,” Pickering continued.
That “would be something of a gift to the Russians,” who are interested in driving a wedge between the U.S. and the Europeans, he said.
Pickering averred that there is strong international support for the continuation of the JCPOA, stating that “even places like Saudi Arabia and Israel” were now in favor of keeping it alive.
“Even Prime Minister Netanyahu has said, ‘it’s time not to nix it but to fix it,’” he said.
Pickering warned that in the absence of an agreement with Iran, the U.S. might be “prepared, if Iran can’t be stopped in other ways, to engage in the use of force.” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at