Paul Pillar

Hold the Iran Deal–Killers Accountable

First-Order Consequences

Accountability can begin with the JCPOA itself and the consequences of causing it to unravel. The agreement has been working and doing exactly what it was intended to do in preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon. The only problems have been due to the Trump administration reneging on U.S. commitments. If this reneging eventually leads Iran, understandably and justifiably, to declare the agreement void, then Iran will be free to enrich as much uranium as it wants as fast as it wants to whatever level of enrichment it wants.

Much of what needs to be said in seeking accountability flows directly from the illogic of the opponents’ own arguments. About those sunset clauses, for example: those who railed against ten or fifteen years being too short a limit for certain restrictions will be responsible, if their efforts result in death of the JCPOA, for the same restrictions vanishing altogether. The same applies to inspections, which Trump again asserted today are not extensive enough, even though the JCPOA created the most intrusive nuclear inspection regimen any nation has voluntarily negotiated and had imposed on itself. Most of the inspections and monitoring would go away if the agreement dies. Trump and other opponents of the JCPOA would be responsible for that consequence, and for the world having to fly largely blind about what exactly the Iranians might be up to regarding nuclear activities behind closed doors.

Then there are the subjects that opponents of the JCPOA have kept bringing up as supposed flaws of the agreement even though the JCPOA was never intended to address them. Ballistic missiles, for example. Reneging on U.S. obligations under the JCPOA or killing the agreement altogether does nothing to eliminate even a single Iranian missile. Trashing the agreement means having a mostly unrestricted Iranian nuclear program and Iranian missiles. The same goes for the vaguely defined Iranian regional actions that routinely get put under the label of nefarious, malign, destabilizing behavior. Reneging on the JCPOA does nothing to change that for the better, either. To the extent that trashing the JCPOA affects such Iranian behavior at all, it is likely to affect it for the worse. Any state that has had its own effort to play by the rules rebuffed by U.S. perfidy is more, not less, likely to try to advance its interests by non-rule-based means.

Accountability should demand even more from JCPOA opponents on this same subject, given the arguments those same opponents have made. The opponents have claimed that the JCPOA has made nonnuclear conduct even more threatening, with assertions such as that the accord “has facilitated a landmark expansion of Iranian activity and activism throughout the region—with dramatic results.” The usual argument along this line is that the economic benefits of sanctions relief have given Iran the wherewithal to expand its activity. This assumes, incorrectly, that Iran is a nation of bookkeepers whose regional policies are governed by how much money it has in its bank account rather than by other events in the region. If the argument were valid, then reimposing nuclear sanctions and cashiering the JCPOA ought to have landmark, dramatic results in a favorable direction as far as Iranian regional policies are concerned. It won’t, and opponents of the agreement should be confronted with that fact and how it demonstrates that their argument was invalid.

Consequences for which Trump and other enemies of the JCPOA will have to answer certainly extend to politics within Iran and the future turns Iranian policy is likely to take. One of the surest effects of the United States reneging on its obligations under the JCPOA is the weakening of pragmatists led by President Hassan Rouhani and the strengthening of Iranian hardliners who have doubted whether Iran ever should have agreed to restrictions on its nuclear program and who favor more aggressive foreign policies. Even before this week, the Trump administration’s cheating on its JCPOA commitments was strengthening the hardliners, who are saying to the pragmatists “we told you so” in preaching about the folly of reaching agreements with the perfidious Americans. Trump and company will try to depict any future Iranian hardline policies as merely demonstrating that the Iranians were intractable extremists all along. Trump and company must not be allowed to do that. They have been preaching a self-fulfilling prophecy. A U.S. hard line begets an Iranian hard line.

Wider Effects

Then there are all the other consequences, reaching beyond Iran, of the United States reneging on a carefully negotiated multilateral agreement. Those effects include needless friction with Western allies (not to mention an added complication in relations with Russia and China) and a blow to U.S. credibility in trying to reach agreements with other governments, on any topic. Of course, no future U.S. diplomatic failure can be blamed entirely on the after-effects of reneging on the JCPOA, but the effects are real and should be included on the scorecard of accountability. One of the first places such effects are likely to be felt is North Korea, whose posture on nuclear matters is likely to belie the Trump administration’s argument that violating the JCPOA supposedly strengthens the U.S. bargaining position by “showing we won’t accept a bad deal.”