The international agreement with Iran continues to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. No American national security objective would be served by withdrawing from it as long as Iran is meeting the agreement’s requirements. To the contrary, given continuing assurance by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that Iran is in compliance with the agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), such a unilateral act would have grave long term political and security consequences for the United States.
Reports indicate that President Donald Trump may refuse to certify Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA in October, which could lead to restoring sanctions against Iran that were suspended in 2015 in accordance with the agreement. Doing so would bring the United States—rather than Iran—into noncompliance with the agreement.
We recommend instead a comprehensive policy toward Iran that furthers U.S. national security interests . This approach would push back against Iran’s threatening actions against its neighbors; enable the achievement of other U.S. objectives in the region; and continue to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon—all without the risk of war and the consequent loss of American lives, resources and stature of the United States as a world leader. Specifically, we recommend that the United States:
Continue to certify Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA as long as the IAEA, the United States and other nations determine that Iran is meeting its commitments. The United States will thereby buttress the international coalition that brought Iran to the table and avoid a highly damaging challenge to the U.S. dollar-lead international financial order that could come from wide international opposition to what is judged to be an unjustified re-imposition of U.S. sanctions. In addition, preserving U.S. fidelity to the JCPOA will be essential for successful future joint action should Iran ever be found in violation. Iran with a nuclear weapon would be a far greater threat to the region and U.S. security.
Engage fully in the work of the Joint Commission of JCPOA, the body specifically set up to oversee compliance by all parties to the agreement. American leadership in that governing body would: strengthen IAEA oversight; maintain active U.S. involvement in questioning all credible evidence of Iranian violations; and preserve the U.S. option to take unilateral action against Iran should it violate the agreement and others do not respond. International compliance investigations, intelligence-gathering and inspections are important parts of this effort. But, they must be done in good faith and in a credible fashion, letting the results speak for themselves. While the United States should encourage the IAEA to inspect sensitive sites in Iran when there is evidence of possible violations, in the absence of such evidence, the United States would not have the support of a majority of Joint Commission members needed to require Iran to accept IAEA access.
Begin discussions with other JCPOA Joint Commission members on options for a follow-on agreement that would, after the expiration of JCPOA, add further guarantees to assure that Iran will not have the capacity to build a nuclear weapon far into the future. The United States should quietly begin conversations with its negotiating partners (Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia) not to seek to renegotiate the JCPOA—which all would oppose—but to explore the potential for a mutually agreeable arrangement for the future. Consideration should also be given to approaches that would build on the JCPOA to promote nuclear restraints on a regional basis.
Propose a new consultative body comprising Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia, Turkey, the United States, China and the European Union that would begin regular exchanges on the major disputes in the area. This would not be easy and the first meeting including Saudi Arabia and Iran could take many months to organize. Since none of the conflicts in the Middle East can be resolved by military force alone and all will require some agreement between the Gulf States and Iran, the exploration of these broader political options is essential. Such a body could encourage these governments to discuss differences from the standpoint of nation states, not from an ideological or sectarian point of view.
Establish a regular channel of communication at a senior level with Iran that would enable the United States to express its concerns directly to Iran’s leaders about Iranian actions, provide a channel to resolve conflicts before they escalate, and explore opportunities for working in parallel with Iran on problems that impact U.S. security interests such as in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen.
Begin regular consultations with U.S. allies and partners in the region to share information and coordinate strategies to push back against Iran’s threatening actions that contribute to the instability in the Middle East, including proxy and asymmetrical activities, particularly if direct engagement with Iran on these issues proves fruitless. Retaining the JCPOA will be integral to the success of this effort.