A decision long in the making finally came to pass last Tuesday. When President Trump finally removed the United States from the international Iranian nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), it arguably represented his boldest foreign policy move since being elected.
Nixing JCPOA was one of the louder points of the platform Trump ran on during his election campaign. Famously calling it the “worst deal ever,” Trump caused a schism within his own administration on the issue. Some of his closest aids, including Secretary of Defense James Mattis, supported staying in the deal, arguing that the consequences of a pullout would be too costly. Mattis’s influence—which he undoubtedly has—wasn’t enough to hold Trump back, especially after hardliners like Bolton and Pompeo joined the White House.
Where We Were, and Where We’re Going
The Iran nuclear deal was indeed flawed from the outset. Even supporters of the agreement, like Mattis, recognized its shortcomings.
There is some misconception on this point, as the conversation on the integrity of the nuclear deal is often skewed, and ultimately misses the mark.
When assessing JCPOA, there are really two completely independent questions that need to be asked. The first is a more technical inquiry, namely: Are the terms of the deal good for the Western nations that backed it?
In regards to this question, there are a few facts worth pointing out.
First off, the Iran nuclear deal was only temporary. JCPOA does not require Iran to curb its nuclear activity forever. The sunset clause within the agreement allows Iran to continue almost all nuclear advancement, unfettered, after ten years time. This is an embarrassingly blatant example of the common blunder made by democracies, kicking a serious problem down the road to be dealt with at another time.
Then there was the issue of transparency. While the deal does require Iran to give free, unimpeded access to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors, as the text of the deal makes clear, this relates only to “declared” nuclear facilities. There is no mechanism for the signators of the deal to examine facilities suspected of undeclared nuclear activity. This is a really big concern, considering that Iran hides its nuclear facilities underground, and many are only acknowledged by the regime after being discovered by Western intelligence agencies.
Take the example of the facility in Fordow, one of the country’s biggest reactors. The site is buried more than 200 feet under the side of a mountain and was hidden from the international community until the US revealed it in 2009.
Bases of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), where it is known Iran has engaged in nuclear-weapons research in the past, are now effectively off-limits to inspectors.
The sheer effectiveness of the deal in preventing Iran from developing a bomb is also questionable. The assertion made by the Obama administration that JCPOA cuts off “every pathway that Iran could take to develop a nuclear weapon” is factually not true. One of the central stipulations of JCPOA was to cut 19,000 centrifuges to 6,104. This is supposed to limit the capacity of enriched fissile material Iran can produce. Checkups by the IAEA are based on Iran’s current technological efficiency in enriching uranium through centrifuges. The problem is, there is no way to ensure Iran is not developing more advanced centrifuges in locations that are off-limits to inspectors. If Iran were to have developed such technology, there is no reason it couldn’t significantly shorten the time it takes to produce an atomic weapon.
A Strategic Blunder, Masked by a Tactical Win
But presenting all of these shortcomings fails to highlight what the problem with JCPOA really is. In fact, even having a conversation about the merits of the deal’s specific clauses, distracts the observer from the primary issue.
The real reason why the signing of JCPOA was such a blunder for the West is that it gave a radical, militant, state sponsor of terror international legitimacy and room to maneuver.
The problem with Iran was never its nuclear aspirations. The threat Iran poses to global stability is its hyper-militant nature and its desire to export such activities to the broader region and all over the world. The regime’s nuclear aspirations are one facet of this problem and the most alarming one. When the world started to become aware of this threat some ten years ago, the focus shifted to containing this danger. Leaders understood this threat for what it was. The West needed to prevent Iran from obtaining a bomb at all costs. The obsession with the nuclear facet created a myopic view of the Iranian problem. All the political energy of the United States and Europe became focused on closing a deal. Years in the making, marshaling all the diplomatic prowess of the P5+1 nations, JCPOA was seen as a tremendous victory when it was finally signed in July 2015. And to be honest, it may have been a great accomplishment—that is if obtaining such a deal was the correct response to the challenge at hand.
The outcome of the nuclear deal meant that the Ayatollahs had essentially blackmailed the world into signing a deal that would let them be. The fact that Iran had “come to the table” and negotiated was even lauded by both the regime and Western leaders as an indication the Islamic Republic was willing to “play ball” with the international community. Iran was able to return to its regular mischief unabated. Since the signing of the deal and the subsequent freeing-up of billions of dollars in assets, frozen before JCPOA, Iran returned to its projects with renewed vigor. From the time the deal came into effect, Iran has increased its involvement in the Syrian conflict, and projected itself further into the country with bases and permanent installations of the IRGC. The country has funded rebel factions in Yemen, giving them ballistic missile capabilities that continue to threaten Saudi Arabia and others to this day. Funding for Hezbollah has increased by a factor of four over the past two years.
An Alternative Model from The Donald
Trump’s decision to withdraw from JCPOA reflects the rejection of this approach on Iran. From now on, as Trump put it, a “comprehensive” solution that addresses the danger of Iran as a whole will be America’s strategic goal.
There are some important points to highlight from the president’s speech announcing America’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal. First, he linked the decision to the upcoming North Korea negotiations—reminding the world that in contrast to the Iran nuclear deal, which was an embarrassing attempt at appeasement and detente, his approach to North Korea has been the opposite: maximum pressure until he sees observable steps forward. Granted, the Iranian Ayatollahs are not the North Korean communists. But the fact that concrete, observable progress in dealing with Pyongyang has been attained via Trump’s hardline, often brutish approach is quite telling.
Second, he also left the door open for a new negotiation with Iran and other world powers over broader issues, including the nuclear program, the ballistic missiles program, and Iranian-sponsored terrorism. Trump is banking on the pressure of the renewed sanctions, as well as the additional ones he recently added, to bring Iran back to the table. When the pressure from these sanctions becomes too heavy for the regime to handle, the leaders of Iran will once again have to choose between regime survival economically or negotiating over all their malign activities.
Lastly, it is worth noting the populist in Trump addressing the Iranian people in his speech:
“I want to deliver a message to the long-suffering people of Iran: The people of America stand with you. It has now been almost 40 years since this dictatorship seized power and took a proud nation hostage. Most of Iran’s 80 million citizens have sadly never known an Iran that prospered in peace with its neighbors and commanded the admiration of the world.
“The truth is, as we have seen in the past months, Iran has an issue with its population. Take the most recent series of protests, brutally put down by Iranian authorities. Although demonstrations began as a protest against economic policies, the scope of these actions expanded to include political opposition to the theocratic regime of Iran and its longtime Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. When former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gets arrested for supporting the opposition, there’s a solid indication that popularity for the regime is waning.
Will Trump’s attempt to leverage the sentiment of the Iranian masses work? Time may tell.
One thing is for sure: the American pullout from JCPOA sent a strong signal as to the nature of American diplomacy under Trump. Short-sighted compromising is over.