Surviving the U.S. Withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Deal: What We Do—and Don’t—Need to Worry About
In a September interview with Germany’s Der Speigel, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif stated that if Europe could not meet Iran’s demands for sustained economic benefits following the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal, Tehran would be within its rights to resume some of its nuclear activities. In other words, Iran could expand its nuclear program without walking away from the agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). While it is unclear whether this was mere bluster from Tehran’s top diplomat — and whether the remaining parties to the deal would agree with his interpretation of its text — it is the latest in a series of threats and announcements, since the United States exited the JCPOA, that Tehran remains ready to quickly resume activities halted under the agreement.
Of course, such rhetoric is primarily meant to put pressure on Europe and other remaining deal participants to offset U.S. economic sanctions. Conventional wisdom is that Iran appears willing to stay in the deal, at least for now.
But this does not mean the United States should not take Iran’s threats seriously or refrain from planning for their occurrence. Indeed, U.S. sanctions on Iran’s oil and banking sectors — which are the sanctions most likely to put the squeeze on Iran’s economy — don’t go into effect until November 5, at which point Iran could carry out its threats. In addition, while Europe has taken a few steps to try and blunt the impact of the U.S. pressure campaign and save the deal, such measures will probably have a small effect on reducing the economic pain on Iran. Thus, there is ample reason to worry that Iran could still make good on these threats, sparking an escalatory cycle and increasing the risk of miscalculation and conflict.
This would not be the first time. Beginning in late 2005, Iran removed International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) seals and began to resume its fuel cycle activities following a pause in response to the exposure of its then-covert uranium enrichment and reactor-related facilities. Over the next decade, as international pressure increased — including threats of military action — Iran responded by ramping up its program. It is entirely plausible that Iran might do so again to regain negotiating leverage as sanctions begin to bite.
During my time as a senior analyst in the intelligence community and a policymaker at the National Security Council, I watched the pendulum swing from escalation, to negotiations and the completion of the JCPOA, and back to the U.S. withdrawal and resumption of pressure and threats to try and force a new deal. The United States may now need to re-learn old lessons.
If the Trump administration is to successfully manage the risks in this new environment while it tries to reach a better deal, there are six points that the White House, Congress, and American public would do well to keep in mind.
- A resumption of nuclear activities prohibited under the JCPOA does not necessarily mean Iran is dashing to a weapon. Following the withdrawal from the deal, President Donald Trump stated that if Iran re-starts its nuclear program, there will be “very severe consequences,” echoing a similar statement he made in April, leaving open the possibility of military action. Such vague threats in response to ambiguous Iranian actions are dangerous, because any Iranian resumption of activities must be interpreted in context. If Iran starts rolling back its commitments, it will likely do so slowly to test the international community’s reaction. Efforts to marginally exceed limits on its enrichment level or the amount of material it has on hand, for example, although prohibited by the deal, would almost certainly be for political reasons — to demonstrate to the United States that there are costs for its actions, to appease domestic constituencies, and to acquire negotiating leverage.
Although actions like these would begin to reduce Iran’s breakout timeline — the amount of time Iran would need to produce enough fissile material for a weapon — policymakers would still have an ample window to formulate a response. The specifics of the response would depend on the nature of the Iranian transgression. Assuming the deal was still in place, Europe would have JCPOA dispute resolution mechanisms at its disposal, including, if needed, the “snap back” of UN sanctions. The U.S. response could include added diplomatic and economic pressure — preferably as part of a united front with European allies. Finding new, meaningful ways to tigthen the vise on Iran, however, will be a challenge for the administration because it is already pursuing a “maximum pressure” strategy.
But threats of military action to deter Iran from increasing its enrichment level by 2 percent or going 20 kilograms over its JCPOA-mandated limit are neither wise nor credible. The United States will need to look at any Iranian nuclear advances in the contexts in which they occur, including whether Iran retains existing transparency measures. This brings me to my next point.
- Even if Iran leaves the JCPOA, the international community will almost certainly still have insights into Iran’s nuclear program. The international community was not blind to the status of Iran’s nuclear activities before the JCPOA and its predecessor, the Joint Plan of Action, and it will likely not be blind without it, provided Iran quits only those requirements associated with the deal.
Before the added monitoring and transparency provisions of the deal, Iran’s cooperation with the IAEA and the agency’s access to Iran’s nuclear program were guided primarily by its nuclear safeguards agreement (as with most countries that possess nuclear material).
If Iran leaves the JCPOA, the safeguards agreement should still allow the IAEA to visit key nuclear sites — albeit probably with less frequency, and without the more robust and short notice inspection benefits of the Additional Protocol (the more extensive verification measures that Iran implements as part of the JCPOA). The IAEA could still monitor Iran’s activities, just as it did prior to the JCPOA. This would be less than ideal, but not disastrous. Indeed, senior U.S. intelligence officials have testified that, even before the deal, Iran could not successfully divert nuclear material away from IAEA monitoring and make a bomb without detection.
If the deal collapses or Iran threatens to curb IAEA access, the United States, Europe, China, and Russia, should make it clear to Iran that ditching its safeguards agreement is unacceptable and, at a minimum, they expect it to adhere to the pre-deal IAEA transparency measures. This will ensure that insights into Iran’s activities are at least no worse than they were before the deal. If Iran doesn’t intend to build a nuclear weapon, and wants to avoid escalating pressure and risks of a military strike, it also has a strong interest in maintaining transparency.
- Breakout timelines matter, but not as much as we think. One of the most common criticisms of the JCPOA is that the breakout timelines produced by the deal — which extended the amount of time Iran would need from a few months to a year — are too short, and will inevitably shorten further. This was one of the key “sunset provisions” that allegedly needed fixing. Trump highlighted this critique when he withdrew from the deal, claiming (falsely) that the JCPOA allows Iran to reach “the verge of a nuclear breakout in just a short period of time.” The administration’s approach to this dilemma so far appears to be focused on insisting on zero enrichment.
Focusing too much on breakout timelines is ill-advised. Not only is Tehran highly unlikely to accept the administration’s maximalist position on enrichment, Iran’s extensive experience with the technology means that breakout timelines can’t be extended to infinity. Knowledge and industrial capacity can’t be erased. Finally, producing fissile material is only one part of the equation. Iran must then package this material into an explosive device.
Thus, before doubling down — including threats of military action — on the need to maintain the current one-year breakout timeline, the United States should think carefully about what timelines are actually acceptable, and why. This discussion should be guided not by unachievable conditions or nice round numbers, but rather how long the United States believes it will need to act. Limiting obsession over this number is wise for another reason.
- Breakout is probably not the most likely path to an Iranian bomb. Regular IAEA visits are a deterrent against breakout. Producing weapons-grade uranium in full view of the IAEA, or trying to prevent inspectors from entering facilities for a prolonged period, would set off the necessary alarm bells in Washington, Jerusalem, and the rest of the world. Iran probably recognizes this. Of course, the shorter the breakout timeline, the less margin for error — both for the international community, and for Iran. But racing to a single, untested device is far more likely to invite the attack it is trying to deter.
Moreover, the West’s disclosure of the undeclared Fordow enrichment facility in 2009 suggested that Iran’s strategy, at least until that point, was focused on developing nuclear capabilities in secret. In other words, if Iran wanted a nuclear weapon, breakout was never a preferred option, an assessment the U.S. intelligence community made in 2007. If forced to choose, the United States should prioritize preserving those aspects of the deal — such as the robust monitoring provisions that apply to Iran’s entire fuel cycle and the Additional Protocol — that improve the international community’s ability to detect and deter Iran’s potential covert paths to a nuclear weapon.
As the administration tries to improve upon these measures, it needs to keep one thing in mind.
- No deal can provide the United States with 100 percent confidence that Iran is not cheating. This was true for the JCPOA, and it will be true of any future deal the Trump administration secures. National Security Advisor John Bolton’s claim that the JCPOA was jettisoned because it could not reach such a threshold is a straw man argument, akin to arguing that you should not eat healthy and exercise because you can’t guarantee that doing so won’t prevent a heart attack. Robust monitoring and verification — like diet and exercise — significantly increase the likelihood that the international community can detect Iranian cheating. How effectively these measures do so and how effectively U.S. policy requires that they do so depend on numerous factors, some of which the United States can control (e.g., its own political objectives), some of which it can influence (e.g., the access provided to inspectors), and some of which are already determined (e.g., how much the international community knows about the program before a deal).
Developing an effective monitoring apparatus is art, not science. It is an exercise in minimizing uncertainty and managing risk. The JCPOA has accomplished this exceedingly well, as evidenced by repeated certifications by the IAEA and by U.S. officials that Iran is complying with the agreement. In pursuing a new deal, the Trump administration should not let an idealized, but illusory, concept of “perfect” verification be the enemy of “sufficient” verification.
- Additional nuclear proliferation in the region hinges on more than just the fate of the JCPOA. Days after Trump announced the U.S. withdrawal from the deal, the Saudi foreign minister stated that if Tehran gets the bomb, Riyadh would, too. Although such claims by Saudi Arabia are not new, Trump’s critics used this to lament that leaving the JCPOA was a strategic mistake.
Making a case that the JCPOA (or its demise) will cause additional regional proliferation is difficult, in part because the data is limited. The deal has only been in existence a few years, and is already imperiled. On the one hand, the agreement’s predictability — in that it capped Iran’s nuclear capabilities — and the added ability to detect an Iranian bomb should have a stabilizing effect, reducing incentives for other countries to pursue nuclear weapons. The Obama administration made this argument. On the other hand, the expiration of some of those caps on Iran’s capabilities is equally predictable. Trump made this case when announcing the U.S. withdrawal, stating that if the deal remained, “there would soon be a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.” In addition, Arab leaders believed the deal would only empower Iran, and it reinforced doubts about Washington’s judgment and defense commitments. Finally, other Middle East countries are woefully behind Iran when it comes to domestic nuclear technology, and could have used that time to catch up. All of these factors should create pressures for proliferation.
That there is no publicly available evidence that Arab states were racing for a bomb before or after the JCPOA should make us cautious in claiming that the deal will single handedly determine proliferation one way or the other. (There is evidence, however, that the deal may have created incentives for at least one country to develop a hedging strategy.) In either case, future proliferation decisions by regional countries will take into account several factors: the status of Iran’s nuclear program, confidence in U.S. security guarantees, and, perhaps most importantly, the perceived technical, political, and economic risks and costs to pursuing domestic nuclear weapons capabilities. That conclusion is both frightening, as these factors are in flux, and reassuring, because the United States has the power to influence them.
Navigating the risks of the coming months — and perhaps years — will be difficult, if the decade prior to the deal is any indication. But even if Iran were willing to meet with the United States tomorrow, would American policymakers be ready? The Trump administration must move beyond simplistic criticisms of the JCPOA and unrealistic demands on Iran, and toward more limited, concrete proposals that have a chance of working. The United States has saddled itself with a difficult, if not impossible, task. Withdrawal from the deal means Trump now owns the consequences of that decision. He would do well to learn from his predecessors.
Eric Brewer is a Visiting Fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He spent the past decade working Iran nuclear issues in the U.S. Intelligence Community, including as Deputy National Intelligence Officer for WMD at the National Intelligence Council (2014-2017). He most recently served as the Director for Counterproliferation at the National Security Council. You can follow him on Twitter @BrewerEricM. The analysis and opinion expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.