The Iran Deal Is Keeping the Middle East From Going Nuclear. Why Does Trump Want to Blow It Up?
It is the height of irresponsibility for the Trump administration to even consider walking away from the JCPOA.
Few international agreements are as important to U.S. national security as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal. The JCPOA puts a lid on Iran’s nuclear program and subjects it to intrusive inspections designed to ensure that Tehran cannot cheat. For at least the next decade, the deal avoids the twin dangers of an Iranian nuclear bomb or a major war in the Middle East to prevent that development.
Yet it is no secret that President Donald Trump hates the agreement, and there is an awful lot of strategizing underway by outside critics to develop a compelling rationale to help the administration ditch the deal. Some deal opponents have put forth a supposed approach, which argues that Trump should not recertify that Iran is complying with the agreement but not immediately reimpose nuclear-related sanctions. Instead, the administration should impose maximum pressure on the Iranian regime via massive non-nuclear sanctions, including on entire sectors of the Iranian economy. The ostensible goal is to enforce the JCPOA and push back against Iran’s nefarious behavior, but the real intent seems to be to collapse the deal or bait Iran into abandoning it. Other deal skeptics are more transparent about their intentions. Most recently, former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton has published an undelivered presidential memo outlining an explicit roadmap for ridding the international community of the agreement.
To be sure, the Iran deal is imperfect and efforts should be undertaken to address its shortcomings. But if Trump follows the recommendations of these deal critics one thing is clear: It will put the United States in a much weaker position with less leverage to negotiate a better deal. It will also produce a higher likelihood that, over time, this decision leads to either a nuclear-armed or a direct military confrontation between Iran and the United States.
The good news is that a number of Iran hardliners, including former National Security Council member Derek Harvey, former NSC Senior Director for Intelligence Programs Ezra Cohen-Watnick, and most importantly former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, have recently left the White House. The bad news is that one relentless anti-deal hawk remains: Trump. In October, he will have to decide whether to keep certifying Iranian compliance with the terms of the JCPOA, something all but certain to be justified on the basis of the facts of Iranian nuclear activities. His decision will mark a vital turning point for U.S. relations with much of the rest of the world and the course of international nuclear nonproliferation efforts more generally.
Of the various proposals on the table for walking away from the JCPOA, Bolton’s is the most refreshing, both in its honesty and in its recognition of the core problem in leaving the deal: the absence of a coherent narrative for pursuing such a course and likely dearth of international cooperation in dealing with the aftermath. Bolton’s memorandum flows from this conclusion, emphasizing at the outset, “U.S. leadership here is critical, especially through a diplomatic and public education effort to explain a decision not to certify and to abrogate the JCPOA. Like any global campaign, it must be persuasive, thorough, and accurate.” Bolton implicitly recognizes in setting forth the strategy he suggests that the United States would be fighting an uphill battle to convince the rest of the international community that walking away from the JCPOA is sensible or necessary. It is not coincidental that Bolton recommends that the first phase of engagement and consultations with partners should start with the administration telling them, “we are going to abrogate the deal based on outright violations and other unacceptable Iranian behavior,” and only thereafter to “seek [partner] input.” Bolton knows — as do, surely, all those monitoring the JCPOA — that to seek input before walking away from the JCPOA is to invite only pleas to stick with the deal and to stop rocking the boat.
Although Bolton is direct in his entreaties to the Trump administration, his proposed strategy is no less flawed than the others advocated by JCPOA skeptics. It takes as a given that other countries (and, even failing that, their companies) will follow the U.S. lead wherever it goes because of the awesome power of U.S. sanctions and strategic judgment. Bolton argues that by presenting a clear picture of the failings of the JCPOA as well as the nefarious nature of Iranian policy more generally, states will once again fall in line to cooperate with a U.S.-led sanctions effort against Iran. In fact, nowhere in his memo does he actually lay out one example of how Iran has violated the JCPOA. And there is good reason for that. Iran is not in breach of the agreement. Instead, his argument rests on the twin assumptions that other countries are ignorant of the fact that the JCPOA permits Iran to retain enrichment or that Iran supports groups like Hezbollah, and that if they still don’t care, the United States can force their cooperation and assistance in pursuing its policy initiatives with Iran.
In this, Bolton misses a core attribute of the sanctions strategy enlisted by the George W. Bush administration after he left his post at the United Nations in 2006: to combine an effort at sanctions with the promise of a diplomatic outcome. This dual-track strategy, which the Obama administration later expanded upon and accelerated, created a combination of push and pull factors that convinced countries that the United States had a plan to secure the peaceful resolution of the nuclear problem. It was this strategy that made possible countries’ decisions to restrict their oil imports from Iran or to cooperate with Treasury Department investigations of Iranian finances. And U.S. efforts to impose sanctions against Iran were calibrated with an earnest effort to avoid damaging the national economies of U.S. partners (as with the oil reduction sanctions from 2012 to 2013, phased in execution to avoid jarring oil markets). Bolton suggests instead soliciting of suggestions for new sanctions after the United States walks away from the JCPOA, and only rhetorical efforts to restart talks. In fact, this might be the most surprising admission of all in Bolton’s memorandum: He does not see his own strategy resulting in a new agreement, agreeing with JCPOA advocates that “Iran is not likely to seek further negotiations once the JCPOA is abrogated.”
In truth, once the United States has embarked on the path away from the JCPOA — either forthrightly as Bolton suggests or duplicitously as others do — the United States is likely to find that the time of snapping its fingers and deriving international cooperation is long since past. Instead, countries and companies are likely to react depending on a combination of interests that may militate against a fraction of the coercive power of the 2010-2013 sanctions campaign being recapitulated. Some will doubtless cooperate. There are many foreign companies that are dependent on their access to the U.S. market and will be compelled to abandon any interests in Iran or those doing business with Iran. Likewise, there are some governments whose national interests demand close coordination with the United States. Japan and South Korea, for example, are likely to go along with renewed U.S. sanctions against Iran, even if only tepidly, out of fear of Trump administration abandonment in the face of the threat from North Korea.
Other countries and companies will choose a different course. Some may be outright hostile to a U.S. decision to sabotage the JCPOA. China, for example, was difficult for the Obama administration to chivvy along on Iran sanctions because of the country’s sense of its own national interests in the region as well as its resistance to being directed by the United States. China cooperated with U.S. sanctions, but on its terms and behind the scenes. In an environment in which the United States is no longer seen as a responsible global player and in which tariffs and trade wars are threatened casually, there is little incentive for China to cooperate on Iran sanctions. At best, the United States may be able to convince China to trade areas of interest in a transactional foreign policy, but what would be worth exchanging with China in order to enlist its sanctions support?
Bolton’s dismissive attitude toward China notwithstanding, the Chinese matter incredibly in a sanctions effort toward Iran. China alone purchases anywhere from 20 to 30 percent of Iranian oil and a Chinese decision to refuse cooperation could encourage others to similarly risk American reprisals. Sanctions fatigue will already be a real threat given the unnecessary nature of this renewed crisis. China standing on the margins will magnify this problem.
Of course, this assumes that the United States has the luxury of European partnership in the endeavor. All of those arguing against preserving the status quo may believe that, no matter what, the European Union and the United States will stand shoulder to shoulder in confronting Iran again, even if European governments do not presently support walking away from the JCPOA.
Unfortunately, this cannot be assumed.
First and foremost, the EU is itself hardly a coherent bloc on the Iran front. At various times during the main years of sanctions, the United States had to work with those in support of sanctions to convince the others that sanctions had a diplomatic rationale and a chance of success. This would obviously be gone in the event of JCPOA abrogation. If the EU cannot unite to support the adoption of sanctions, then the sanctions effort will be deprived of the benefits of bloc politics. As one of us has written about separately, part of the power of the EU has been its ability to enlist support for tough measures by burden balancing among Instead, the EU is likely to endorse only a least common denominator approach to sanctions, if that. And, without cohesion, beggar-thy-neighbor politics would instead result, in which no EU government is prepared to accept economic costs not accepted in some fashion by another (especially if China sits out).
Moreover, European governments will face a domestic cost for cooperating with the United States. Trump is deeply unpopular across Europe creating political incentives for politicians in democratic states to rail against him. And in Europe the JCPOA is overwhelmingly popular. It becomes a lot harder to coax cooperation out of your friends when every request comes with a domestic political cost instead of a benefit.
This is not to say that some companies and banks might not go along with the U.S. sanctions push. As noted earlier, there will be some with a powerful incentive to do so. But, the result will be far more haphazard and catch-as-can than strategic. This is even more likely in a situation where European governments decide — either en masse or individually — to contest new U.S. sanctions at the World Trade Organization or through bloc or national blocking legislation on their companies. This is no mere fantasy: In 1997, the Clinton administration was convinced this was a real threat over Iran sanctions, and from 2001 to 2009, the Bush administration studiously avoided this risk through its own sanctions measures.
From some, this conclusion may come as good news, suggesting that though the United States might itself be isolated in walking away from the JCPOA, Iran, the EU, and other countries might preserve it through their own actions. The head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Ali Salehi, seemed to recommend this course of action recently, noting that Iran would comply with its obligations even if the United States withdrew so long as Europe remains party to But, though the United States should be cautious in its expectation that foreign partners will sign on to any adventure it suggest with regard to Iran sanctions, Iran would soon find that partial cooperation with U.S. sanctions is deleterious to its own economic interests. Even if European governments resist joining the United States, some companies would join. A chilling effect from either abrogation or an unwarranted decision to no longer certify Iranian compliance would limit Iran’s economic opportunities and create political pressure inside of Tehran to withdraw as well. Iran would demand that the EU force its companies to comply with their contracts and the intent of the JCPOA, but there is no legal recourse available in EU for governments to make this work.
Half of Europe, China, Russia, and a few other countries simply cannot deliver enough sanctions relief benefits to make up for the U.S. secondary sanctions threat — even if waivers remain legally in place — to keep the Iranian satisfied with the tradeoff implicit in the JCPOA. Moreover, if Trump very publicly walks away from the agreement, there will be overwhelming domestic political pressure on President Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his allies to respond. The likely result of being placed in this situation is that, rather than hunker down and accept its place, Iran would instead match provocations with the United States and restart its suspended nuclear activities.
Fortunately, Bolton and others have an answer to that concern, implicit in their shared assumptions about Iranian responses and the unacceptability of any agreement including anything less than total prohibition of Iranian nuclear fuel cycle activities and unfettered U.S. access throughout the country: “U.S. support for the democratic Iranian opposition,” which we can read more directly as “regime change.” And if that does not work — and it likely won’t — Bolton has a long track record of advocating for American or Israeli military action.
It is the height of irresponsibility for the Trump administration to even be considering walking away from the JCPOA while North Korean missiles are zipping over the heads of U.S. allies and a wealth of other national security problems remains unchecked. Far from being a necessary component of managing those problems (as some Iran deal skeptics claim), walking away from the JCPOA or convincing Iran to do so will only magnify the problems facing the United States in the Middle East and beyond. We should take comfort for how hard JCPOA opponents are laboring, as they are pushing against common sense and good policy, and hope that it is a sign that this White House will listen to its adults again.
Photo credit: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images
Richard Nephew is a fellow at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. He was formerly part of the U.S. negotiating team with Iran and advisor on Iran at the White House.
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