May 8, 2018

Trump’s Iran Deal Own Goal



Yesterday, President Trump tweeted that he would have an announcement regarding the Iran nuclear deal today at 2 pm—preempting by a few days the May 12  deadline for a decision on the future of the deal. It is widely believed that Trump will announce America’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action(JCPOA). Despite efforts by U.S. allies in Europe to persuade the president to remain within the framework of the deal to improve it, David Sanger reports today in the New York Times that these efforts have failed and those same allies are now certain Trump will announce his decision to leave the agreement this afternoon.

With some notable exceptions, the president’s plan to withdraw from the JCPOA is viewed as a bad idea. Besides the international inspectors regularly verifying Iranian compliance with the agreement, even some Iran hawks that were against the deal initially have argued that maintaining the deal and trying to improve it is the better option. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, whose military career came to an end after disagreements with the Obama administration over its Iran policy, has continued to argue against U.S. withdrawal from the deal. Neoconservative author Max Boot has argued that Trump should “improve” the deal rather than end it. Most recently, Republican Congressman Mac Thornberry, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, suggested the president maintain the JCPOA rather than risk losing international inspectors’ access to Iran’s nuclear program.

There are good reasons Iran hawks should support the maintenance of the deal. Political scientist Austin Long, who studied the potential effectiveness of military strikes on Iran’s nuclear program for more than a decade, explained why the JCPOA would make a military operation much more likely to succeed if the worst case scenario occurred and Tehran was caught cheating or tried to restart its program. Writing in 2015 when the deal was first reached, Long cited three reasons why those who prefer the military option for dealing with Iran’s nuclear program should support the deal:

  • The inspections regime provides previously unavailable intelligence on the extent of Iran’s uranium enrichment capability, which will need to be crippled in any military strike;
  • The deal concentrates most of the centrifuges Iran would use for enrichment at Natanz, making it more vulnerable to airstrikes; and
  • The inspections make it easier for the intelligence community to detect an Iranian effort to create a clandestine nuclear weapons “breakout” capability.

In addition to these reasons, Long notes, military strikes after the United States leaves the deal unilaterally would have far less legitimacy than those conducted in response to an Iranian violation.

And the Trump administration’s “own goal” might leave a military option that lacks international legitimacy, and one where the effectiveness of a strike would be less certain in the absence of robust international inspections, as its only option if Iran begins to pursue a nuclear weapons capability again. The reason is that the circumstances that enabled the JCPOA in 2015 are absent today, meaning the Trump administration’s plan to renegotiate it is likely to backfire. Writing at the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog, Dartmouth College political scientist Nicholas Miller explains why:

A look at past nonproliferation diplomacy with Iran suggests that any U.S. effort to win still more concessions would fail. Three factors made the 2015 concessions possible: an uptick in Iranian nuclear provocations, a powerful multilateral coalition to stop those, and domestic receptivity in Iran. None of those conditions exists now.

With America’s own goal on the JCPOA imminent, it also raises questions about what effect leaving the Iran nuclear deal will have on upcoming negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Just over a week ago, National Security Advisor John Bolton said the Trump administration was seeking a deal with the Kim regime based on the “Libya model,” in which Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi gave up an embryonic nuclear weapons program in 2003. Yet less than a decade later, Gadhafi lost both his regime and his life at the hands of rebels backed by the United States and its European allies. Such an example is already likely to give the Kim regime pause in possibly agreeing to give up its far more developed nuclear arsenal.

If the Trump administration demonstrates once again that American commitments to states that curtail their nuclear ambitions lack credibility, where does that leave its efforts to convince the Kim regime to denuclearize? And where does America’s withdrawal from the JCPOA leave the Trump administration when negotiating a better deal with Iran proves to be an illusion?