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.

Due to the fact that decertification rests upon the claim that the JCPOA is no longer in the U.S. national interest, it logically follows that Washington will pursue additional pressure or renegotiation. As James Jeffrey wrote last week for the Washington Institute, the United States could increase pressure on Iran by leveraging the power of the U.S. dollar in international finance to deter states and businesses from investing in Iran or by pursuing diplomatic initiatives to undermine the impression that Iran is a reputable member of the United Nations. However, both Jeffrey and Adam Szubin, the previous director of the Office of Foreign Assets Control, have acknowledged that a policy of economic intimidation without clear Iranian violations will “threaten the long-term primacy of the U.S. dollar and undermine our own markets and leverage.” Likewise, Jeffrey recognizes that American noncompliance will result in undesirable outcomes: parallel Iranian violations, such as additional uranium enrichment, or Iranian compliance, which would isolate Washington from the rest of the agreement’s stakeholders.

Accordingly, if the United States unilaterally sabotages the agreement or forces an Iranian withdrawal, it will only exacerbate the current situation beyond salvageable means. During the JCPOA negotiations, Iran made its consent contingent upon having the “right to enrich” uranium, ensuring that the outcome of any subsequent negotiations will require the same. Additionally, since the unity of the international community post-American decertification is suspect, it will be exceedingly difficult to garner the economic and political pressure necessary to force Iran back to the negotiating table. Consequently, an American withdrawal will only release Iran, now empowered by sanctions relief, from its political commitments and set it towards attaining a breakout capability.

If Iran begins approaching a nuclear weapon, then the United States will find itself in another Korean crisis, with action and inaction both incurring unacceptable costs. Although there is no equivalent to Pyongyang’s ability to hold Seoul at risk, Tehran can threaten America’s security interests through a variety of conventional and asymmetric means. For instance, Iran can abruptly inflate oil prices by harassing or blockading international shipping in the strategic Persian Gulf and narrow Strait of Hormuz via the placement of undersea mines, artillery, ballistic missiles and midget submarines. Likewise, the Iranian IRGC has honed capabilities which are specifically designed to offset the United States’ conventional and technological supremacy. Anthony Cordesman of the Center of Strategic and International Studies has detailed how IRGC cells at the battalion and squad level have been trained to fight conventionally and irregularly or to direct proxy forces against American regional assets despite the loss of Iranian command, control, communications and intelligence capabilities. Nevertheless, limited military action cannot erase Iran’s technical ability nor its propensity to pursue nuclear weapons to ensure regime survival, leaving regime change as the only viable, albeit costly, means to decisively prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon.

These military threats will likely worsen with the extension of the Russian-Iranian alliance, which has deepened since Russia entered the Syrian Civil War (SCW) in 2015. In Syria, Russia has fought from the air in support of Iranian ground forces, creating a symbiotic relationship where the IRGC and its proxies would supply intelligence for Russian airstrikes. That Russia has established a joint operations center in Baghdad with Iran and Syria to share information in the fight against the Islamic State speaks to the transnational nature of the rising Russian-Iranian relationship. Even though Russia and Iran do not always share the same strategic objectives, both nations relish opportunities to undermine American influence in the Middle East, and both are benefitting from bilateral military cooperation and arms deals. For instance, Iran recently spent $800 million to obtain the Russian S-300 surface-to-air missile system and, according to Russian officials, may purchase another $10 billion in arms once limits on Iranian offensive weapons purchases expire in 2020.