President Donald Trump’s risky decision on October 13 not to certify Iran’s compliance with the 2015 nuclear agreement raises several troubling questions.
Is he recklessly playing with fire by jeopardizing an accord that placed strict and verifiable limits on Iran’s budding nuclear program?
Is he giving Iran a pretext to resume its quest for a nuclear arsenal?
Is he sowing the seeds of a new war in the Middle East?
Trump, in refusing to certify the agreement before the U.S. Congress’ October 15 deadline, stopped short of withdrawing from it. But he issued an unmistakable warning that he might terminate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as it is also known, should Congress be unable to amend it to his satisfaction.
Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, tempered his threat by saying that the United States would “stay” in the agreement, but “aim to make it better.” But what makes her think this objective can be achieved?
This is a multilateral agreement, signed by seven countries, that one single nation cannot change unilaterally.
In justifying his rationale for not certifying Iran’s compliance with the agreement, Trump claimed that Iran has violated its spirit. As he said: “By its own terms, the Iran deal was supposed to contribute to ‘regional and international peace and security.’ And yet, while the United States adheres to our commitment under the deal, the Iranian regime continues to fuel conflict, terror, and turmoil throughout the Middle East and beyond. Importantly, Iran is not living up to the spirit of the deal.”
Contrary to Trump’s claim, the International Atomic Energy Agency has confirmed that Iran is indeed complying with the provisions of the agreement, which offered the Iranian regime relief from crippling economic sanctions in exchange for curbing its nuclear program for at least the next decade.
Two of the top officials in Trump’s cabinet, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis, both agree that the agreement — signed by Iran, the United States, France, Britain, Russia, China and Germany — serves American national security interests. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, concurs with their assessment.
Washington’s closest allies have made the same argument.
In a joint statement, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain and President Emmanuel Macron of France said they’re “committed” to the accord — the culmination of 13 years of diplomacy — because it is in everyone’s “shared national security interest” and was “a major step towards ensuring that Iran’s nuclear program is not diverted for military purposes.”
“JCPOA is not a domestic issue,” European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said in the wake of Trump’s speech. “It is clearly not in the hands of any president anywhere in the world to terminate it … The president of the United States has many powers, not this one.”
As most observers would probably agree, the agreement is solely about Iran’s nuclear program — not about its hegemonic and disruptive foreign policy in the Middle East. But when Trump distanced himself and the United States from it, he placed much of the emphasis on Iran’s behavior in the region.
The Iranian regime, he noted, is the world’s “leading state sponsor of terrorism,” providing assistance to Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Hezbollah and Hamas, among others. “Iran deploys missiles that threaten U.S. troops and American allies. Iran harasses American ships and threatens freedom of navigation in the Arabian Gulf and in the Red Sea. Iran imprisons Americans on false charges. And Iran launches cyberattacks against our critical infrastructure, financial system, and military.”
In addition, Trump maintains, Iran has fueled sectarian violence in Iraq and has played a pivotal role in the civil wars tearing apart Yemen and Syria.
“So today, in recognition of the increasing menace posed by Iran, and after extensive consultations with our allies, I am announcing a new strategy to address the full range of Iran’s destructive actions,” he said.
First, the United States and its allies will attempt to counter Iran’s “destabilizing activity and support for terrorist proxies in the region.”
Second, the United States will impose additional sanctions on Iran to block its “financing of terror.”
Third, the United States will challenge Iran’s ballistic missile program.
And finally, he said, the United States will “deny the (Iranian) regime all paths to a nuclear weapon.”
In devising his strategy, Trump was clearly influenced by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has always opposed the agreement. Trump’s announcement, Netanyahu stated, had created an opportunity to fix or nix this “bad deal.” (Apart from Israel, Saudi Arabia — a U.S. ally embroiled in a battle with Iran for supremacy in the Middle East — welcomed Trump’s “new strategy” toward Iran).
Trump’s broad demands are clear: The agreement cannot be allowed to expire. Iran must be denied the ability to achieve a nuclear breakout capability. Iran should be subjected to additional sanctions in punishment for its missile programs and aggressive actions in the Middle East.
Iran is certainly a disruptive force in the Middle East.
Iran’s repeated calls for Israel’s destruction are deplorable and beyond the pale. Its support of Hamas and Hezbollah is extremely problematic. Its close strategic relationship with the repressive Syrian regime of President Bashar-al Assad, which goes back three decades, is worrisome and does not bode well for either Israel or neighboring Sunni countries like Jordan.
In short, Iran’s regional ambitions must be thwarted and contained.
But why jeopardize the stand-alone nuclear accord in pursuit of this objective?
Netanyahu’s former national security advisor, Uzi Arad, argues that the agreement, while imperfect, “imposes ceilings, benchmarks and verification systems that you do not want to lose.”
The advantages of the accord by far outweigh its weaknesses, says Efraim Halevy, the former director of Israel’s Mossad intelligence service.
Ehud Barak, Israel’s former prime minister and defence minister, is of the view that the United States would be foolhardy to pull out of the agreement. He argues that none of its co-signers, particularly Russia and China, would follow suit, leaving the United States isolated and Iran strengthened.
Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to the United States and currently deputy minister for diplomacy, believes the agreement can be improved to include stricter inspections of nuclear sites, stiff penalties for violations and the elimination of the “sunset” clause gradually phasing out the agreement. Revisiting it, he thinks, will send an unequivocal signal that the United States is “truly unwilling to accept a nuclear Iran.”
These are points worthy of consideration, but in the wake of Trump’s announcement, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani declared that Iran will not agree to “any amendment whatsoever.” He is not bluffing. The agreement cannot be altered without Iran’s goodwill and cooperation.
So what might possibly happen should the Trump administration withdraw from the agreement and reimpose the sanctions it began lifting two years ago?
The United States’ reliability as a nation that honors its obligations would be called into sharp question. This would not be lost on North Korea, whose nuclear arsenal is a source of deep concern.
The United States would almost immediately lose the ability to conduct intrusive inspections of Iran’s nuclear sites. As the former U.S. secretary of state, John Kerry, correctly observed, Iran would no longer be accountable to the international community and could restart its nuclear program, as if there had never been an agreement to curb it.
Once Iran has reembarked on building a nuclear device, which is not a far-fetched possibility, Israel and/or the United States would most probably gear up for a military strike on Iran’s widespread network of nuclear facilities. Lest it be forgotten, Israel appeared to have embarked on that fraught path in 2011 or 2012 before pulling back.
An Israeli attack on Iran would lead to an Iranian response. Iran would unleash an unprecedented missile barrage on Israel’s cities, resulting in frightful losses of life and immense property damage. The destruction would be far greater than Iraq’s relatively puny Scud missile barrages in 1991 against Israel, or Hezbollah’s far more dangerous missile attacks in 2006.
And for what end? Iran’s nuclear sites are widely scattered and deeply buried. Israel, perhaps, might set back Iran’s nuclear program by a year for two. But would it be worth the dreadful cost? Probably not, compared to the high human and material losses that Israel would incur if Iran and its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, retaliated.
And if the United States bombs Iranian nuclear sites, Iran would almost certainly attack Israel.
The Iran nuclear agreement is hardly perfect, but it freezes Iran’s nuclear program for about a decade and prevents what could be a costly war in the Middle East, for which Israel would pay very dearly.
Trump should take these nightmarish scenarios into account before he jumps ship.