While President Donald Trump’s criticisms of the Iran Deal have merit, withdrawing from it now could very well make things worse. Trump hopes that pulling out of the deal will compel Iran to come back to the bargaining table. But it’s a gamble with long odds of paying off.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as it is more formally known, does have substantial flaws. Even if all goes perfectly, the JCPOA delays — but does not prevent — Iran from eventually acquiring a nuclear weapon. It does not eliminate Iran’s nuclear weapons capacity, it simply places it in mothballs until the deal expires. At best, the deal extends the “breakout time,” the time it will take Iran to develop a weapon if it restarts its program, from a few months to about a year.
Chief among the JCPOA’s flaws are the so-called sunset clauses. Nearly all of the restrictions placed on Iran’s nuclear program end after 10–15 years. At that point, Iran can essentially pick up the nuclear program not far from where they left off and have a nuke in about a year. This is because Iran is allowed to keep most of its uranium enrichment infrastructure. Under the deal, Iran is permitted to keep 5,060 of its 20,000 centrifuges used to enrich uranium in operation. The rest must be kept in storage, but the deal does not require that they be destroyed. This is significant because enriching uranium is the most difficult and time-consuming part of building a nuclear weapon. Allowing Iran to keep its centrifuges means that it can manufacture enough highly-enriched uranium to build a bomb in a matter of months.
Even President Obama acknowledged that this is a problem. “What is a more relevant fear would be that in year 13, 14, 15, they have advanced centrifuges that can enrich uranium fairly rapidly, and at that time the breakout times would have shrunk almost down to zero,” Obama said.
Even before the JCPOA expires, if Iran decides it no longer wants to comply, all it has to do is pull its gas centrifuges out of storage and start enriching uranium again. And, the procedures for verifying Iran’s compliance with the deal have some blind spots that leave room for abuse. By the time the international community discovers that Iran is back at it again, Iran may be only months away from having a bomb.
President Obama hoped that the deal would result in a moderation of Iran’s behavior. But, the reality has been exactly the opposite. Iran, now flush with cash thanks to sanctions relief, is wreaking chaos through its terrorist proxies in Syria and throughout the Middle East.
These are all perfectly valid reasons to believe the deal should not have been struck. It’s reasonable to argue the US and EU should have held out for an agreement that requires Iran to dismantle its nuclear weapons capability permanently. But, pulling out of it now is a different calculation entirely. There is a strong argument that the Iran deal was a mistake, but chunking it now could prove to be a bigger one.
Abandoning the JCPOA does little to correct its problems. While complaints about the sunset provisions are valid, if Iran reciprocates and the deal collapses, a worry down the road about Iran restarting it’s nuclear program becomes an immediate threat.
In Congressional testimony Tuesday, Stephen Rademaker, a skeptic of the Iran deal and Assistant Secretary of State in President George W. Bush’s Administration, argues that the U.S.’s withdrawal from the deal “would threaten to turn the long-term problem of the sunset clauses — a problem which will mature in January 2026, ten years after the agreement entered into force — into an immediate problem.”
The JCPOA gave Iran benefits on the front end. Ending the deal will prevent the US from getting much in return over the long haul. “The reality is that structure of the JCPOA frontloaded many of the benefits to Iran, while backloading most of the benefits to us. Consequently, if we abandon the agreement today, we will be unable to reclaim the benefits Iran has already received, while positioning Iran to withhold many of the future benefits it committed to provide us,“ Rademaker says.
The other problem is that the JCPOA involves more than just the US. It is an agreement between the five permanent member of the UN Security Council — Russia, China, the U.S., France, and Great Britain — plus Germany and the European Union. Multilateral sanctions, once lifted, are very hard to reimpose. And, the countries still party to the deal appear to have no intention of reimposing sanctions.
For President Trump’s gambit to succeed where Obama failed, he will have to convince Iran to fold while holding a weaker hand.
The U.S. is no longer a part of the deal, but in reality little else has changed. The other countries party to the JCPOA intend to continue to participate in the deal and Iran says it plans to continue complying with the JCPOA’s terms.
It’s unlikely that Iran will decide now to accept the concessions President Trump is demanding. There is less incentive for Tehran to accept tough terms than when President Obama’s Administration was negotiating with them. If far more crippling multilateral sanctions weren’t enough to compel Iran to make deeper concessions a few years ago, it’s hard to see how US sanctions alone would provide President Trump enough leverage. For President Trump’s gambit to succeed, he will have to convince Iran to fold while holding a weaker hand. Trump fancies himself a pretty good negotiator. But, that’s a tall order.