Trump’s Dumb Decision to Withdraw from the Deal Gave Iran the Advantage
President Donald Trump’s decision to stop abiding by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) has undercut American interests and has positioned the United States to fail. The debate in Washington about “fixing or nixing” the deal was never anything more than a euphemism for American abrogation of an international commitment. The discussion has ignored how isolated the United States now is and how its options to deal with Iran are far worse than they were before 2015, when the deal was finalized.
The United States is now on the outside looking in. As the International Atomic Energy Agency made clear long before the Israeli prime minister’s dog and pony show, Iran had a nuclear weapons program before halting work in 2003. If the program had not been detected, Iran would have been able to build the bomb. But it was. And, for the United States, preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon has been a top national security priority. In 2015, the United States, along with its three main European allies as well as Russia and China negotiated an agreement that did just that. This agreement came on the heels of an elaborate and far-reaching U.S.-led campaign of sanctions and covert action meant to bring Iran to the table and to get it to make a deal. And make a deal Iran did.
The Islamic Republic of Iran made a political decision to forego work on nuclear weapons and agreed to extraordinary and unprecedented inspections to verify the non-diversion of fissile material for military use. In return, the United States eased sanctions on Iran and recognized its right to enrichment, but within the strict and verifiable limits the JCPOA imposes for 25 years on the front end of the nuclear fuel cycle. This simple concession allowed the United States to realize its national security interests, without the use of force, and with the consent of its allies and major competitors alike. And it did so in a way that achieved its main objective: placing verifiable restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program. Or, at least until shortly before 2 pm yesterday.
Yesterday afternoon, the United States unilaterally decided to no longer abide by the agreement. Trump also demanded a more comprehensive agreement that limits Iran’s missile production, among other things. Iran may be amenable to capping the range of its missiles, but there is a problem with the emphasis on “nuclear capable.” The term is meaningless.
A well-designed warhead can fly on most anything. Iran’s nuclear warhead design was crude and designed for the first generation of Shahab-3’s nosecone. The JCPOA focused on the nuclear weapons part of “nuclear capable” missiles. Even if a more comprehensive agreement that imposes strict limitations on ballistic missiles were possible, it was far beyond what Tehran was willing to give up during the Obama administration. An agreement on ballistic missiles might be possible but will take years to negotiate and be exceedingly difficult to finalize. In the interim, the United States intends to reimpose extraterritorial sanctions to try and force other countries to act against their own self-defined national security interests and come around to America’s hawkish policy towards Iran. The United States may be able to force some countries to comply, but it will be weaker after doing so.
It didn’t have to be this way.
Trump’s speech announcing his decision, like most criticisms of the JCPOA, was poorly informed about the agreement’s realities. The JCPOA places a series of time-bound restrictions on the program and centralizes enrichment at Natanz. For 10 years, Iran agreed to only use 5,060 first generation centrifuges to enrich uranium. Thereafter, it committed to not enriching uranium above 3.67 percent, or the purity normally associated with energy programs. After this 15-year sunset, Iran agreed to another decade of monitoring on its centrifuge production facilities and uranium mines. In the event of suspected Iranian noncompliance, the United States and its allies — France, the United Kingdom, and Germany — managed to win agreement on a mechanism to “snap-back” sanctions, without approval from the U.N. Security Council, where Russia and China could veto.
Trump ignored all of these provisions and, instead, focused on the least important: The 10- and 15-year sunsets on enrichment. It is true that Iran, in 2031, will not be subject to these restrictions on enrichment and could, in theory, make the decision to expand its enrichment program. However, it would still face the secondary protocols designed to monitor its centrifuge production and uranium mining for another decade (25 years in total). These twin provisions seem minor but they far exceed normal IAEA safeguards and were designed specifically to prevent Iran from being able to construct a bomb in secret. Thus, the JCPOA traded relatively short-term concessions on the enrichment question in return for longer-term inspections on the nuclear fuel cycle. Iran, therefore, faces serious constraints on its nuclear program until 2041. The current Iranian leadership will be dead by then. And as I have argued before, the JCPOA is a regime change agreement; it just waits for nature to take its course to get there.
The Trump administration’s withdrawal from the JCPOA simply deprives America of tools to monitor Iran’s nuclear program and risks the agreement’s total implosion. If this were to happen, Iran could simply enrich uranium under normal IAEA safeguards. To be sure, the world relies on these measures to prevent the non-diversion of fissile material. But, accounting for fissile material does not provide the same level of assurances that the JCPOA’s inspections offer. Iran could still choose not to develop a nuclear weapon, but American tools to verify that are now weaker — and will get weaker still if the agreement collapses under American pressure.
JCPOA opponents have suggested that the agreement could be “fixed” if the sunsets were made permanent. How? Under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, the United States and its allies pushed for this outcome during previous rounds of negotiations with Iran. Iran refused. How will things turn out differently this time around? This is usually where “fixers” start throwing around meaningless buzzwords like “credibility” and “getting tough,” which will supposedly frighten Iran into making concessions it has never signaled it is willing to accept.
For example, Iran managed to wage an insurgency against American forces in Iraq without inviting significant, overt American military reprisals. The United States certainly has the capability to increase military pressure on Iran, but such a decision risks a wider war that would require making financial and military commitments radically incongruent with Trump’s thoughts on America’s role in the Middle East. Take the cases of Syria and Iraq. The United States has thousands of troops deployed there to fight Islamic State. The Trump administration has made clear that it intends to finish the fight against the Islamic State and then begin to draw-down troops from the region. In Iraq, the withdrawal of troops has already started. If the United States does leave-behind a small, counter-terrorism force to hunt Islamic State leadership, as Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has signaled, policymakers will have to accept that this force is too small to seriously counter Iran and, therefore, vulnerable to external attack. Or they will have to leave behind a much larger presence and defend it, indefinitely.
The broader point is about leverage. For all the talk of “getting tough” with Iran and “rolling them back,” the reality is that Iran can impose real costs on the United States. In the counter-ISIL war in Iraq and Syria, for example, U.S. policymakers, including in this administration, do not want to bear the political cost of losing soldiers in combat. The Trump administration has also expressed a desire to eliminate the U.S. troop presence in Syria or make it smaller than it is. Iran is a weaker country, but could choose to target American soldiers in Syria and Iraq. Indeed, Iran managed to pursue this strategy for years in Iraq, where its operatives killed and enabled the killing of U.S. soldiers without crossing inviting a heavy-handed response. Iran pursued this strategy, I must add, during a Republican administration enamored with American military might.
In the short-term, Trump and members of his administration have indicated that the United States will reimpose sanctions, including the demand that countries decrease imports of Iranian crude exports or face American sanctions of their own. These sanctions helped to compel Iran’s return to negotiations before current President Hassan Rouhani was elected and his government returned to a more conciliatory position on the nuclear issue. However, this time around, the United States faces a recalcitrant and reluctant Europe, whose own sanctions were critical in advancing the JCPOA negotiations. As Lawrence Freedman noted on Twitter, ”[extraterritorial] sanctions are directed against Europe. If Europe resists and continues with deal Trump ends up with a futile gesture. This is an enormous issue for Atlantic Alliance.”
The “fixer” crowd has somehow latched on to this idea that the Europeans are “soft” and can be counted on to follow America. This is wrong. Take France: During the JCPOA negotiations, the French made demands in excess of their American counterparts, delayed negotiations, and won concessions from Iran that improved the JCPOA. France now supports the JCPOA because they played an important role during the process and think it is a good agreement. The EU-3 (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom) released a joint statement, expressing regret over Trump’s decision, and underscoring that the JCPOA is a multilateral agreement and not beholden to unilateral action. Sadly, they are talking about American unilateral action and not some Iranian violation. French President Emmanuel Macron has pledged to work with the United States on a separate arrangement, but in a critical difference from the “fixer” crowd in Washington, France doesn’t think withdrawing from the JCPOA makes the likelihood of a separate arrangement governing ballistic missiles more likely.
The JCPOA faces an uncertain future. What is not uncertain is that Trump’s decision is dumb. The United States has ceded leverage to Iran, is at odds with its closest allies, and has deprived itself of tools to monitor Iran’s nuclear program. The JCPOA was constructed to prevent Iran’s violation of terms and ensure that Iran would be caught and punished if it cheated. The text was clearly written with Iran’s history of clandestine behavior in mind. It was not intended to protect against American stupidity. But that is what has just happened. And this fact cannot be “fixed.”
Aaron Stein is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East