By Austin Emery
On the heels of North Korea’s sixth nuclear test, after weeks of ballistic missile launches and fiery rhetoric between American President Donald Trump and North Korean Dictator Kim-Jong Un, the world’s attention has been almost entirely fixated on the 38th parallel. But behind the scenes, a battle has raged for months within the Trump administration concerning an arguably more serious nuclear threat — Iran. On Friday, facing an October 15th deadline to re-certify Iran’s compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal, President Trump unveiled the Administration’s new Iran strategy. Though the President stopped short of his campaign promise to rip up the agreement, something he repeatedly asserted was a “very bad deal”, President Trump announced that he would not certify Iran’s compliance for a third time— marking a radical shift in U.S. policy. What the path ahead entails and how such a dramatic shift in policy will serve to advance U.S. strategic interests is not readily apparent. What is clear, however, is that the stakes are high, and the ramifications of reneging on the agreement are sure to have global consequences.
How we got here
Simply put, the Iran nuclear agreement, more formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), aimed to put a hold on the Iranian nuclear program that was undoubtedly racing towards successful development of a nuclear weapon. Under the agreement, in exchange for a dramatic reduction in centrifuge enrichment, among other stipulations meant to mitigate nuclear proliferation, Iran would receive significant relief from the U.S.-E.U. nuclear-related sanctions that had ravaged the Iranian economy. The rationale for the agreement on the part of the Obama administration was multifaceted. For one, the deal would ensure an Iran without nuclear weapons and would drastically extend the time to nuclear breakout from a few months to over a year. By reducing sanctions, the administration also hoped to foster a more friendly, reformist Iran that would conduct itself as a responsible stakeholder within the region. Moreover, the administration also aimed to exploit common ground in the fight against radical Sunni organizations like ISIL.
The controversy surrounding the deal is no secret, the agreement has been a lightening rod of partisan criticism since its inception in 2015. The agreement, negotiated largely behind the scenes in 2015 under the Obama administration, enraged Senate Republicans and many Democrats, who argued that such an agreement was a treaty and needed Senate ratification. In an effort to constrain the Obama Administration, Senators Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Ben Cardin (D-Md.) proposed and passed legislation with strong bipartisan support. Separate from the statues of the JCPOA, the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act requires the President to certify Iran’s compliance with the agreement every 90 days. Compliance entails that Iran is both abiding by the material stipulations of the agreement, and that the deal is in the national security interest of the United States.
There is no question, the critics of the agreement are not without merit. Many foreign policy experts agree, the calculus of the Obama administration, that the deal would compel the Iranians to conduct themselves as a responsible regional actor, has not come to fruition. By all accounts, Iran has only been expanding its influence and undermining regional stability. Following the signing of the agreement in 2015, an emboldened Iran and Russia, facing no confrontation from the U.S., came to the aid of their ally in Syria, Bashar al-Assad, drastically raising the stakes in what was already a dire situation. Iran has continued its support for terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, and secretly funneled weapons and aid to the Houthi insurgency in Yemen. Iran’s expanded ballistic missile program, in defiance of U.N Security Council Resolution 2231, has U.S. allies across the region unnerved.
Some of the sharpest criticisms of the JCPOA revolve around the agreement’s “sunset clauses”. Under the agreement, the most rigorous of the deal’s provisions will expire in 2030. Absent the restrictions on advanced centrifuges and weapons grade uranium, Iran’s breakout time could be shortened to days. Many critics also contend that the restricted access of IAEA inspectors to Iranian military sites is a breach of the agreement — a breach that could be allowing Iran to secretly continue the development of nuclear weapons. However, International Atomic Energy Agency head Yukiya Amano has noted that Iran is complying with the restrictions on its nuclear program.
What’s Next? Iran, North Korea, and the Transatlantic Alliance
Even with the flaws of the deal and Iran’s irresponsible behavior considered, leaving the agreement would almost certainly undermine U.S. strategic interests— not to mention our international credibility. It is apparent that the costs of unilaterally withdrawing from or breaching the agreement far exceed any potential benefits. By decertifying Iran’s compliance, the Trump Administration hopes to pressure the Iranians back to the negotiating table, where the President can negotiate his “better deal”. But it is not at all clear how that strategy will work, nor is it likely too. Early indications suggest that Iranian moderates, the constituency U.S. policy makers have hoped to leverage, are becoming more aligned with the regime hardliners in their opposition towards the United States. Should congress choose to re-implement nuclear related sanctions, an action that would constitute a U.S. breach of the agreement, the Iranian’s would have a clear path to revamping their nuclear weapons program under diminished U.S. credibility.
The United States’ credibility problems are not limited to the Iran issue. With Secretary of State Rex Tillerson desperately attempting to deescalate the nuclear crisis with North Korea, vowing that the U.S. will pursue diplomacy until “the first bomb drops”, U.S. signals of uncertainty regarding the Iran deal will only diminish its credibility at the negotiating table with Pyongyang. If the U.S. continues towards what seems to be an inevitable withdraw from the JCPOA, it is hard to see how the North Koreans will view any proposed nuclear agreement with the United States with any credibility.
But perhaps of greatest importance, any further efforts towards unilaterally withdrawing are sure to have calamitous effects on global politics and the United States’ standing in the world. The JCPOA was not a bilateral agreement between the United States and Iran. The deal is an international, multilateral agreement that includes the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, Germany and the European Union. The North-Atlantic alliance, already strained by President Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric towards the United States’ European partners, will only be further divided should the U.S. pull out of the agreement. In fact, by all accounts, British Prime Minister Theresa May, French President Emmanuel Macron, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are staunchly opposed to President Trump’s signals that he is considering pulling out of the deal. Should the administration opt to withdraw the U.S. unilaterally, the U.S. runs the likely risk of further exasperating tensions with its European partners, threatening to bring U.S.-Europe relations to lows not seen since the in 2003. Any divide, without a doubt, serves only to embolden a resurgent Russia and its President, Vladimir Putin.
The structures of the JCPOA allow for the accountability and enforcement that was all but absent prior to the agreement. Without any viable alternative, many, including Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), argue that the best way to advance U.S. interests is to work within the framework of the agreement. There is no question that Iran must be held accountable for its malicious, destabilizing behavior. But there is also no doubt that, without the support and cooperation of its European partners, the United States will be crippled in its pursuit of its main strategic interest — an Iran without nuclear weapons.