President Trump’s recent “help-me-before-I-do-something-really-irresponsible” statement on the Iran nuclear deal could have been worse. But it should have been better. And it will almost certainly end badly.
Contrary to what many had feared, Trump didn’t void the deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). While he imposed some new penalties on Iranian officials, they were not of the sort that put the deal in immediate danger. He nonetheless chose yet again to attack and undermine an international agreement that, by all accounts, is working, to which America’s allies and partners are committed, and whose collapse would both severely undermine U.S. credibility and allow Iran to resume the nuclear activities it recently halted. By threatening to withdraw from the deal unless Congress and Europe implausibly and unilaterally alter its terms, Trump has put it on a path to collapse without any realistic plan for what to do if that happens.
Having been closely involved in the JCPOA negotiations, we know it is not perfect; no negotiated deal ever has been or could be. Yet insisting on a “better deal” and warning that one will otherwise walk away is not a recipe for that better deal, but for no deal at all.
Trump’s latest threats are part of what is now a familiar pattern: The president vows to “dismantle” the nuclear deal, walks up to the brink, and then announces a sort of reprieve that allows the deal’s supporters to breathe a sigh of relief when he backs off. That happened last spring, when he waived sanctions for the first time, as the deal requires him to do every few months; in June when he said he was completing a policy review; in October when he “de-certified” Iranian compliance and demanded that Congress and Europe “fix” the deals alleged flaws; and again last week. This time, Trump waived the sanctions, but called into question the accord’s future by pledging – this time for real! – to withdraw within 120 days unless Congress and Europe agree to restore nuclear sanctions if Iran fails to comply with Trump’s new conditions.
Trump’s gambit is problematic on two counts. First, relief at a potential catastrophe deferred desensitizes deal advocates to the actual injury inflicted. True, the JCPOA survives for now. But what was widely considered egregious a few months ago (an arbitrary decision to decertify the deal Trump had just certified three months prior, even though all U.S. allies and the International Atomic Energy Agency deemed Iran to be in compliance) barely registers when it is repeated. And each time Trump raises the specter of impending withdrawal, the deal’s fate is thrown into greater doubt as potential investors and trade partners with Iran get colder feet. The deal was premised on a straightforward tradeoff: In exchange for rolling back, severely capping, and accepting unprecedented monitoring of its nuclear program, Iran would get some relief from the sanctions that were imposed for that purpose. But for how long will Tehran see merit in continuing to respect its obligations if – as a result of U.S. actions – it is no longer receiving its anticipated economic returns? In short, at each milestone in the JCPOA’s implementation, the administration has weakened the deal’s foundations and pushed it toward collapse.
The second problem is more serious. By threatening to walk away from the deal, the president is seeking to push Europe and Congress to try to save it – but in ways that could end up destroying it. There are many elements to Trump’s list of demands, some more open to interpretation than others, but the essence is this: He wants to compel Iran to abide by all its nuclear restrictions not for the 10, 15, 20, or 25 years provided by the deal, but (as is the case for some of them already), forever. That’s what critics of the deal call the sunset clause, the allegedly “fatal flaw” they want to eliminate.
To be clear about one thing: The time-bound nature of some of the constraints is not a flaw of the deal, it was a prerequisite for it. To call it a flaw is like saying your employment contract is “flawed” because it requires you to work in order to get paid. In that respect, it is no more a “flaw” than, from Iran’s perspective, the facts that almost all U.S. national sanctions on Iran remain in place; the president has to waive sanctions every four months to keep the deal alive; and Washington can unilaterally “snap back” even international sanctions at any point in time. Iran’s negotiators strongly opposed all of those outcomes, and many critics in Tehran faulted them for accepting them.
The same is true for the so-called sunsets: The U.S. would have liked all restrictions to last in perpetuity, but that was never in the cards. During the years when the U.S. position was “zero enrichment forever,” after all, Iran mastered the nuclear fuel cycle, installed many thousands of centrifuges, and built a heavy-water reactor capable of producing enough plutonium to build multiple nuclear weapons (that reactor’s core is now filled with concrete). The real choice in 2015 was between achieving a deal that constrained the size of Iran’s nuclear program for many years and ensured intrusive inspections forever, or not getting one, meaning no restrictions at all coupled with much less verification.
To be clear about another thing: A legally binding commitment to violate the deal in the future is a violation of the deal today. Legislation, presently under consideration, that would automatically re-impose sanctions if Iran engages in behavior that is not barred by the JCPOA (for example, if it installs additional centrifuges in eight years, when the first of the restrictions expire) will be seen in Tehran as an immediate and one-sided modification of terms that were hotly contested – indeed, arguably as much as any other provision of the JCPOA. Iran’s temptation will be great, and its political imperative arguably even greater, to reciprocate with a violation of its own. It could, for example, back out of its commitment to ratify and permanently implement the International Atomic Energy Agency’s most intrusive inspections regime. It could void its commitment never to reprocess plutonium. Or it could even resume some of the deal’s banned nuclear activities right away. In seeking some mechanism to ensure that Iran does not undertake certain activities starting in 2026 or 2031, in other words, Trump may well be ensuring that Iran undertakes those activities this year. And then what?
None of this means, of course, that the issue of long-term time horizons cannot be revisited. Arms-control deals often have follow-on agreements. But they typically do so under three conditions, none of which the Trump administration has given any indication it is prepared to meet: The initial deal is implemented in good faith for some period; the follow-on agreement is negotiated among parties to the original one; and new measures accepted by one side are matched by steps taken by the other. In this instance, the administration is not fully carrying out its obligations under the deal; wants to unilaterally modify its terms; and is offering nothing in return to Iran (other, that is, than refraining from quitting the deal).
Giving the president something he can accept without violating the JCPOA will be tempting to those who want to keep the deal alive. It might not even be wholly out of the question. The president has issued a set of highly ambiguous demands that include “immediate inspections at all sites requested by international inspectors;” the assurance that Iran can “never come close to possessing a nuclear weapon;” and subjecting ballistic missile testing to “severe sanctions.” These are so imprecise and subject to interpretation that they have left not only critics but even allies of the administration confused.
That theoretically could leave room for negotiations. Europe and Congress might be able to agree, for example, to seek a negotiated follow-on agreement. They also might state that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) should be able to visit any suspected nuclear site in Iran (a requirement already provided for in the deal, incidentally), that they will penalize Iran’s long-range missile development, and that Iran will never be allowed to acquire a nuclear weapon. None of this is quite what the president asked for, but it would hardly be the first time Trump accepted far less than he demanded and then sold it as precisely what he wanted. Congress could also agree to amend U.S. legislation so that it does not require the president to regularly and publicly “certify” a deal he obviously hates, but requires the administration instead to report to Congress only potential Iranian violations of the deal (which Trump would presumably relish).
Judging from the president’s tone, however, and the degree to which he has rhetorically boxed himself in this time, the odds of achieving a JCPOA-consistent compromise with Congress and Europe seem long. If Trump truly means Iran can never expand its enrichment program (even for nuclear energy and under careful monitoring); that access to all Iranian sites including military bases needs to be “immediate” (something no country would contemplate allowing); and that U.S. law must equate ballistic missile developments with nuclear weapons development (the latter of which the United States says it will prevent by all necessary means, including military strikes), then he has set a bar that will simply not be reached. So the dilemma Europeans and members of Congress are likely to face is this: Is it better to submit to Trump’s ultimatum while hoping Iran won’t react in kind, or to rebuff his demands while risking that he will pull the plug outright?
It’s perfectly understandable why Trump would want Europe and Congress to be partners or accomplices in his maneuver. But they should keep in mind that what he is effectively asking them to do is destroy the nuclear deal in order to save it. For he knows – or at least his advisers would have told him – that it would be far more difficult, and far less effective, for him to scrap the accord directly and on his own than by altering its terms with others by his side. If he doesn’t have Europe, he probably doesn’t have Congress, which means his renunciation of the deal would be seen for what it is: a politically motivated, unnecessary, and reckless move.
Paradoxically, the deal almost certainly would have greater odds of surviving a blunt unilateral American withdrawal than a joint U.S.-European attempt to rewrite it. A JCPOA violation with Congress’s and Europe’s imprimatur and consent would leave Iran with little choice but to reciprocate in ways that likely would kill the deal. A Trump administration violation over their objection might not. Having protected its credibility as a fair arbiter, Europe in particular would retain leverage to try to persuade Tehran to comply with its nuclear obligations despite U.S. violations, by pointing to the benefits of preserving strong political and economic Iranian/European bilateral ties that would be lost if Iran too disregarded its commitments.
The president’s announcement in essence boiled down to this: Either kill the JCPOA with me, or I’ll kill it on my own. That’s a choice Congress and Europe should have no part of. If Trump wishes to undo the deal, the responsibility for doing so – and to come up with a viable alternative – ought to be his alone.
Robert Malley, President & CEO and Philip Gordon, Mary and David Bories Senior Fellow in US Foreign Policy, Council of Foreign Relations.
Originally published in The Atlantic