Paul Pillar

Killing the Iran Nuclear Agreement with a Thousand Cuts

The second component is that a bill “must ensure that Iran never even comes close to possessing a nuclear weapon.”  How close is close?  The JCPOA certainly has pushed Iran farther away from any ability to make a nuclear weapon.  In terms of the familiar measure of “breakout time,” that push moved the time from something like two months to more like a year.  If the vague language about closeness is code for zero enrichment of uranium, that idea was tried and failed during the George W. Bush administration, and it is still just as much out of reach today.

The third component refers to the so-called “sunset” clauses that apply to some of Iran’s obligations under the JCPOA.  The statement fails to mention how most of the important provisions of the accord, including the intrusive inspections and Iran’s basic commitment never to acquire a nuclear weapon, are permanent.  Nor does it mention how expiration dates are standard fare in arms control agreements, including some of the big ones the United States has reached with the USSR or Russia.  But this very subject of sunset clauses underscores the shambolic nature of the demands that Trump’s statement lays out.  Trump explicitly threatens to pull out of the agreement if his demands are not met and his “components” don’t materialize.  So what would happen if the component about ending sunset clauses doesn’t materialize, the United States pulls out of the agreement, and Trump’s dream of killing the JCPOA altogether is met?  Why, then Iran would be free to spin as many centrifuges and enrich and stockpile as much fissile material as it wants right away, rather than having to wait ten or twelve years or to some other time limit.  So much for the supposed importance of limits that never expire.  And so much for the supposed bargaining clout that the dealmaker-in-chief would have in negotiating a “better deal”.

The fourth component is that “legislation must explicitly state in United States law—for the first time—that long-range missile and nuclear weapons programs are inseparable, and that Iran’s development and testing of missiles should be subject to severe sanctions.”  This presumes that an act of Congress can negate a physical fact about weapons and weapons programs.  One could even say it presumes that an act of Congress can repeal laws of physics, in the sense that some ballistic missiles are physically incapable of carrying a payload the size of a nuclear warhead.  Long-range missile programs and nuclear weapons are not inseparable.  Many missile programs, including Iran’s, serve strategic and deterrent purposes that have nothing to do with nuclear weapons.  Iran might be open to negotiating restrictions, such as on range, that would apply to regional neighbors as well as to itself.  But given Iran’s history of being on the receiving end of missile firings and given the air and missile forces that surround it today, any expectation of even a heavily pressured Iran unilaterally forgoing its own ballistic missiles is unrealistic.

Nobody knows if Trump will carry out his threat to stop waiving nuclear sanctions and to withdraw from the JCPOA if his demands are not met.  He may be lying about this just as he lies about so many other things.  He has lied about other contingent threats, such as to sue women who, prior to the election, accused him of sexual misconduct.  But he does not have to execute the threat to continue on his course of piecemeal destruction of the JCPOA.  Each step in that process makes the agreement less attractive to Iran and increases the chance that the Iranians will throw up their arms in dismay and disgust over U.S. noncompliance and declare the agreement null and void.

The Trump administration already has violated not only the spirit but also the letter of the JCPOA by, for example, urging other member states of the G-20 to end commercial ties with Iran.  This violates the commitment in paragraph 29 of the JCPOA for the parties to “refrain from any policy specifically intended to directly and adversely affect the normalization of trade and economic relations with Iran inconsistent with their commitments not to undermine the successful implementation of this JCPOA.”  The more that the United States piles additional sanctions on Iran, ostensibly for non-nuclear reasons, the more this negates the effects of relief from the nuclear sanctions. 

Even just the sowing of doubt about the future of the agreement has economic effects—by stoking wariness in the private sector about doing any new business with Iran—that make the JCPOA less attractive to Tehran.  This week’s White House statement, bristling with threats to pull out of the agreement, serves that purpose for Trump.

The overall effect of all of the administration’s hostile measures, including formal ones as well as wariness-stoking rhetorical ones, is similar to what the administration has done to another major accomplishment of Trump’s predecessor, the Affordable Care Act.  That process already has gone far enough for Trump to claim last month, “We essentially repealed Obamacare.”  He cannot yet make that claim about the JCPOA, but that’s the direction he’s headed.

It will be a tragedy that a measure that serves the interests of the United States and of international security and the cause of nuclear nonproliferation will fall victim to a campaign of destruction driven by motives as base as the ones Trump exhibits.  It will be no less a tragedy for happening gradually rather than all at once.