Paul Pillar

The Iran Nuclear Agreement: Listen to the Voices of Experience

Donald Trump appears poised to make one of the most damaging moves yet of his presidency: to pull out of the multilateral agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), that severely restricts Iran’s nuclear program and closes all pathways to a possible Iranian nuclear weapon.  Iran is adhering—as inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency have repeatedly certified—to its obligations under the agreement.  Despite this record, Trump’s administration already has been violating U.S. obligations, by withholding licenses for commercial transactions permitted under the accord and by actively discouraging other countries from conducting normal commerce with Iran.  Trump has been chomping at the bit to withdraw from the JCPOA altogether.  He reportedly has been restrained from doing so only by the strong urging of senior subordinates who understand that such a step would be contrary to U.S. interests and to the interests of nuclear nonproliferation.

With Trump’s dismissal of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, some of the most significant restraints on Trump’s impulses are gone.  The replacements, Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, have been just as viscerally opposed to the JCPOA as Trump and can be expected to encourage, rather than restrain, his destructive impulses.

Nothing good can come out of a U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA.  The very best scenario one could hope for, in which the other six parties to the agreement keep some version of it going without U.S. participation, would mean isolation of the United States rather than Iran and additional divisions and acrimony between the United States and its allies.  Other scenarios, in which the JCPOA collapses—as suggested by some statements from Iranian officials that if the U.S. pulls out, so will Iran—are worse.  This would mean the end of all the special restrictions that the JCPOA placed on Iran’s nuclear program.  It would mean Iran could reopen shut-down facilities, enrich as much uranium as it wanted to as high a level as it wanted, and get back to where it was before the JCPOA went into effect, which was within striking distance of being able to build a nuclear weapon.  And just as was the case before the negotiations that led to the JCPOA got under way, Iran’s likely response to more and more pressure from the United States would be to spin more and more enrichment centrifuges.

While all this was happening, the absence of the unprecedently intrusive international inspections that the JCPOA provided for would mean we would be put back in the dark with regard to exactly what Iran was doing with its nuclear program.  The Trump administration would have a new nuclear crisis, totally of its own making, at the very time that efforts to deal with the problem of North Korea’s nuclear weapons enter a critical period.

Trump’s animus toward the JCPOA, like much of the opposition to it, is rooted in political impulses that have nothing to do with the terms of the agreement.  For Trump the overriding motivation, as with much of the rest of his presidency, has been to undo whatever his predecessor did.  With Bolton, there is the further inclination to oppose diplomacy generally and to look to military force as the solution to any foreign problem.

In times such as these, we should look for guidance to those whose dedication to U.S. national security interests is unquestioned, whose detachment from current political fights is sufficient for their advice to be guided by long-term concern for those interests, and whose experience gives them deep understanding of the issues and problems involved.  Such people are to be found in a group of more than a hundred American national security leaders who, calling themselves a National Coalition to Prevent an Iranian Nuclear Weapon, issued today a statement supporting adherence to the JCPOA.  The signatories include several dozen retired generals and admirals from the U.S. military.  They include 31 former ambassadors, including five former U.S. ambassadors to Israel.  They include former members of Congress, both Republican and Democrat, including former chairs of the foreign relations and armed services committees.  They include former senior executive branch officials as well as those who have studied intensively from the outside the problems of relations with Iran and of nuclear proliferation.  These leaders would disagree among themselves on many issues, but they agree on the wisdom of maintaining the landmark agreement that is the JCPOA.

Here is their statement:

 

Keep the Iran Deal — 10 Good Reasons Why

Statement of the National Coalition to Prevent an Iranian Nuclear Weapon

March 2018

President Trump should maintain the U.S. commitment to the Iran nuclear deal. Doing so will bring substantial benefits and strengthen America’s hand in dealing with North Korea, as well as Iran, and help maintain the reliability of America’s word and influence as a world leader. Ditching it would serve no national security purpose.

Maintaining Rigorous Implementation of the Agreement Enhances U.S. and Regional Security

1. Iran will be prohibited from exceeding severe limits on its nuclear program under continuing, unprecedented international monitoring, preventing it from moving toward a nuclear weapon for the duration of the agreement. If there is no follow-on agreement that maintains constraints on Iran and if Iran should move toward acquiring a nuclear weapon, nothing prevents the U.S. from taking action.

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