The Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, which Congress passed in May 2015, requires the president to certify every ninety days that Iran is complying with the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the nuclear deal. After months of vacillating between certification and withdrawal, reports now indicate that President Donald Trump is now prepared to decertify Iran’s compliance with the agreement on October 15. If the decision has truly been made, then the Trump administration is punting the future of the agreement to Congress and the United States is plunging into uncharted waters. However, critics of the JCPOA should hold their applause because this path holds serious risks for the United States. Decertifying the agreement in rejection of the wishes of our European allies and Russia and China, the other two stakeholders, is certain to undermine the credibility of American commitments and fracture the coalition that is keeping Iran to task. Moreover, gambling with the future of U.S. nonproliferation policy in the Middle East for partisan gain is a poor way to promote regional stability and the security of American allies. Therefore, an objective assessment of the deal and of the risks of withdrawal must be a part of the Trump administration’s deliberations going forward.
To date, the certification of Iran’s compliance has been based on information provided by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which is performing inspections into Iran’s nuclear program with an unprecedented degree of intrusion and frequency. These reports, to date, have been accepted by all of Trump’s senior political, military and intelligence advisors. Decertification would mean that either Trump’s top advisors are now convinced that Iran is no longer compliant or that Trump decided that certification was no longer in the United States’ national interest. If this occurs, then Congress has sixty days to decide whether to bring back sanctions that were lifted after the JCPOA went into effect.
If the United States withdraws from the JCPOA, then it will see a small number of transient benefits that are greatly overshadowed by a range of enduring costs. Opponents of the deal, such as former U.S. ambassador to the UN John Bolton, have waded into idealism by arguing that the United States can create a “new reality” that is more favorable to American interests and requires fewer concessions. In his Iran nonpaper for the National Review, Bolton envisions a deal that considers the “legitimate interests” of American regional allies—alluding to the linkage of ratification to Iranian nuclear dismantlement—and both accounts for Iran’s interference in the affairs of its neighbors and its relationship with rogue nations like North Korea.
Unfortunately, Bolton only outlined how to make a withdrawal more politically palatable for domestic and international audiences. He omitted a plan for new negotiations or addressing the likelihood of European, Russian or Chinese acquiescence. His suggestion that the United States could “move ahead with or without [Russia or China]” belies the certainty of Russian and Chinese obstinacy in supporting the JCPOA. Chinese thinking has been succinctly summarized by both its delegation to the UN and its foreign ministry, which respectively described the deal as a “successful example” of diplomacy that all relevant parties should continue to implement. The Russian foreign ministry went even further this summer by praising Iran’s “unfailing compliance” and labeling American attempts to increase pressure on Iran “a violation of the spirit and letter of the JCPOA.” Given Iranian compliance, neither Beijing nor Moscow will squander their developing economic and political ties with Tehran to placate a U.S. policy that is viewed abroad as both irresponsible and dangerous.
Furthermore, any American strategy to increase the pressure on Iran will depend on European support. If Iran was truly acting in poor faith, then Britain, France and Germany would undoubtedly stand with Washington in condemning Iranian actions. However, the political statements emanating from London, Paris and Berlin reflect the opposite position—all three countries support the agreement and its continued implementation. If President Trump decertifies Iran, then American credibility and reliability will be damaged and European diplomats will be forced to bypass the executive branch and lobby Congress to save the deal.
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.
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.
Russia has also hosted Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the leader of the IRGC’s extraterritorial and elite Quds Force, three times over the past three years in violations of UNSC sanctions. Considering that Soleimani has direct control over Iran’s regional proxy forces, his frequent visits to Moscow are particularly unnerving. Reports of direct cooperation between senior Russian and Lebanese Hezbollah military personnel at operations rooms in Latakia and Damascus, and Russian special operations forces wearing Hezbollah insignia in Syria, do little to assuage these concerns. Previously, IDF Brig. Gen, Muni Katz and Nadav Pollak revealed at the Washington Institute that Hezbollah has gained exposure to Russian military thinking, intelligence analysis and planning as well as indispensable experience in complex offensive operations. As the authors warn, “this will be the first time [Hezbollah] will be able to watch how a first-tier military plans a fighting campaign.”
The Russian-Iranian alliance also has implications for the United States’ Middle Eastern strategy outside of Iran. While Russia has been careful to not needlessly antagonize the Israeli national-security establishment in Syria, it has seemingly stood by as Iranian efforts to empower Hezbollah have progressed. Despite that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu had personally visited Russian president Vladimir Putin four times since last summer, Moscow has thus far been unwilling to push back on aggressive Iranian overtures in both Syria and Lebanon—with the most recent being the production of missile facilities in both countries. If Iran continues to defy Israeli red lines in Syria and Lebanon, then it is likely that the pace of Israeli cross-border operations will increase and disrupt American-backed ceasefires in Syria, which Jerusalem views as supportive of Iran’s goals.
Over time, Israel’s reaction to the JCPOA has progressively shifted between severe anxiety and measured reticence. Originally, Netanyahu had decried the deal as a “stunning historic mistake” because, because he saw it as a temporary agreement that provided legitimacy to Iran’s nuclear program. Yet, notwithstanding the Israeli national-security establishment’s enduring belief in Iranian malevolence, the deal faded from the political limelight as more immediate threats stemming from the SCW and Palestinians captured the public’s attention. Since then, Israel has primarily sought to monitor Iranian compliance within the scope of the deal, but its officials have often been unable to avoid disparaging its tenets. For example, while speaking on September 11 at an anti-terrorism conference, Israeli intelligence minister Yisrael Katz urged President Trump to renegotiate or withdraw from the deal as it “protects Iran’s ability to get nuclear capabilities in the future.” However, Carmi Gillion, a previous director of Israel’s General Security Service (the Shin Bet), argued in July for Foreign Policy that the JCPOA has not been all bad for Israel. By examining the regional security environment, Gillon found that the JCPOA has achieved laudable successes, such as dismantling the majority of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and increasing its breakout time. A nuclear-capable Iran, Gillion says, would pose the apex existential threat to Israeli security and complicate Israeli and American policy options in addressing Iran’s malign activities. Gillon believes that the agreement has provided Washington and Jerusalem with time to develop a counterstrategy, when before time was of the essence.
Iran’s other neighbors have had more varied responses to the JCPOA, from unease to utter displeasure, but have accepted the agreement as it stands. Of all the states disturbed by an Iranian nuclear weapon, none has been so public in its intentions as Saudi Arabia, which remains mired a struggle with Iran for religious and regional hegemony. Although the Saudis are currently a party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), there is evidence that Saudi Arabia would develop nuclear weapons in parallel to Iran. For instance, a 2008 report to the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee noted that states often choose to “dial up or dial down” their programs to “keep their options open” and that Washington cannot take Riyadh’s commitment to nonproliferation for granted. To drive this point further, BBC correspondent Mark Urban reported in 2013 that King Abdullah, the previous Saudi monarch, confirmed to Dennis Ross that Saudi Arabia would pursue whatever nuclear capability Iran achieved, including nuclear arms. In the medium- to long-term interim, Saudi Arabia’s technical shortcomings are insufficient to prevent the kingdom from developing a latent breakout capability given that Riyadh is pursuing a nuclear energy development as well as building the scientific and industrial base for a nuclear hedge.
In comparison to Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt have responded with greater political restraint. Both countries have found Iran’s growing regional influence disconcerting, despite that Ankara and Cairo have found themselves on different sides in the SCW. Iran and Turkey have shared an uneasy balance of power for decades, but that has been threatened by the former’s nuclear aspirations, extensive proxy forces and conventional buildup brought on by sanctions relief. On September 12, Turkish president Erdogan gave a nuanced statement on the consequences of “Persian expansionism” that also mentioned how Iranian efforts were crucial to stabilizing Iraq and Syria. Turkey remains a low proliferation risk in the near term, due to its privileged position as a NATO member and a beneficiary of the American nuclear security umbrella. Therefore, Ankara has an interest in seeing the JCPOA’s continued implementation, not only to suppress the impetus for regional proliferation by keeping Iran out of the nuclear club, but also because sanctions relief serves to grow its bilateral trade with Tehran.
For his part, Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has avoided military involvement in the region’s tumultuous events, instead trying to foster internal stability at home and fighting ISIS in Sinai. As a secular military leader who came to power by ousting an Islamist government, Sisi has preferred stability and backed strongmen like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad over the chaotic forces that he sees engulfing the region. When the JCPOA was signed, Egypt accepted the outcome, but was forthcoming in its intention for reassessment if Iran reneged on its promises. As a leading member of the international Non-Aligned Movement, Egypt has long rallied for nuclear disarmament internationally and sought a weapons of mass destruction free zone in the Middle East. Consequently, Egypt’s primarily interest is in the JCPOA succeeding, which is something that Egyptian Ambassador to the UN Amr Abdellatif Aboulatta emphasized to the Security Council in January. Nonetheless, that Aboulatta has also condemned Iranian regional arms trafficking as well as Tehran’s “interference in the affairs of Arab states” speaks to the growing Arab unease pertaining to Iran’s growing influence in its backyard.
President Trump’s decision to decertify Iranian compliance with the JCPOA will yield assured costs for uncertain benefits. Desiring a more stringent deal to deter Iran’s history of clandestine nuclear efforts and policies—which are anathema to U.S. interests—is a prudent endeavor, but this should be achieved from within the existing framework rather than from without. Notwithstanding the Trump administration, the international community will remain committed to the JCPOA as long as the IAEA continues to certify Iran’s compliance. Until these hard facts change, U.S. policies meant to dismantle the deal will be seen parochial and partisan. Those policies will undermine American credibility, reliability and influence rather than serve the country’s national-security interests.
Geoffrey Kemp is senior director for regional security at the Center for the National Interest. He served in the White House as Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs in the first Reagan Administration
Adam Lammon is a graduate student at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs and the Middle East, Climate, and Security Intern at the Center for the National Interest.
This article was originally prepared as a background paper for a Nuclear Security Working Group dinner on September 20, 2017.