Donald Trump and the Art of Trashing the Nuclear Deal

Members of Iranian armed forces march during a parade in Tehran, Iran, September 22, 2017. via REUTERS

U.S. policies meant to dismantle the nuclear deal will be seen parochial and partisan.

Another fallacy often attributed to the JCPOA was illustrated in a recent speech at the American Enterprise Institute by U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley. That’s when she denounced the deal’s failure to moderate Iranian behavior, specifically its support for terrorism, proxy groups and ballistic-missile testing. Although these problems must be addressed, they were never meant to be addressed within the scope of the JCPOA, which was specifically tailored to achieve a prioritized national-security objective: preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon.

Yet, according to Haley, the deal has produced an environment of nuclear blackmail by constraining American options out of a fear that Iran could exit the deal. This argument—much like her refutation of the IAEA’s ability to verify Iran’s compliance without unfettered access to all undeclared sites—does not hold up to scrutiny. First, as British foreign secretary Boris Johnson has written in the Washington Post, the “truth” of the agreement collapsing is “that Iran—not the United States or Britain—would regain the most freedom of action” in addition to nuclear arms. Second, in an article for the New York Daily News, Middle East diplomat Dennis Ross argued that Washington could more effectively coerce Iran through targeted economic sanctions and international diplomacy, which, unlike abandoning the JCPOA or rejecting the IAEA’s findings of sustained Iranian compliance, would not harm American credibility and its relationship with Europe. Additionally, it would isolate Tehran instead of Washington.

There is precedent for Ross’ belief that a strategy to pressure Iran will not collapse the deal. Threats of withdrawal from Iranian political leaders notwithstanding, the JCPOA has neither prevented the passage of new American sanctions against the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) for ballistic missile testing nor has it kept the United States from supporting friendly proxy forces in Syria or striking Iranian-backed forces near strategic flashpoints like the al-Tanf border crossing with Iraq. Short of outright provocations like kinetically striking Iranian personnel or war (which the JCPOA was specifically meant to avoid), Iran is unlikely to risk its economic recovery and diplomatic rejuvenation by choosing withdrawal.

Moreover, it is worth recognizing that a deal encompassing all of Iran’s behavior is as much of an impossibility today as it was in 2015, given Iran’s ideological commitment and multifarious means to enhance its security at the expense of American allies in the Middle East. As Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institution revealed to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa in September 2015, Iranian support for terrorism and proxies cannot be realistically stopped by economic sanctions because it has historically been detached from resource considerations and subsisted in spite of “epic constraints.” If the height of the international-sanctions regime did not stop Iran from pursuing goals, which are antithetical to U.S. policy (e.g. propping up the Assad regime in Syria), additional pressure from a fragmented coalition will not stop them now.

Furthermore, despite that the JCPOA does not address Iranian ballistic-missile testing, Iran has expressed its willingness to engage with the United States over this sticking point. This opportunity should be thoroughly explored because, as Michael Eisenstadt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy observed in March, Iran’s existing ballistic-missile arsenal (already the largest in the Middle East) is set to double by 2030—just as the JCPOA’s major limits will expire. Eisenstadt concludes that an Iranian nuclear breakout capability poses the pinnacle Iranian threat to U.S. national security, given the sophistication of Iran’s nuclear-capable missiles forces and the proximity of American bases and allies. Rather than decertifying or withdrawing from the JCPOA over its “failure” to address ICBM testing, he advocates for a strategy of closing loopholes within the JCPOA and the IAEA’s Additional Protocol (which Iran is required to “provisionally apply” and then ratify under Annex V of the JCPOA) and building international pressure to dissuade the development of an Iranian industrial nuclear capacity after restrictions are lifted in fifteen years.