The Trump administration appears to be preparing to back away from the Iran nuclear deal despite Tehran’s continued compliance. If the US does withdraw, it risks snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
It looks increasingly likely that President Donald Trump will not certify to the US Congress that Iran has met its obligations under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) when it comes time to do so in October. That, as US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley noted in a speech to the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), would not necessarily invalidate the nuclear deal, but would leave it up to Congress to decide whether the US remains a party to the accord. The requirement to certify Iranian compliance is not a part of the JCPOA, but was created by the US Congress in the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act. It’s a requirement of US law, not of the JCPOA itself.
If Trump decides not to certify, the onus would be on Congress to choose whether to continue to comply with the JCPOA or withdraw from the nuclear agreement. Congress would have 60 days to make that determination. If Congress decides that Iran isn’t in compliance with the JCPOA or that it’s not in the security interests of the US to continue implementing the deal, it could re-impose sanctions on Iran that were removed after the nuclear agreement was reached in 2015.
Ambassador Haley, in her speech to the AEI, deliberately broadened the subject of compliance to include other concerns, such as Iranian missile activity, its support for groups that the United States considers to be terrorists, and its policies of ‘destabilising’ the Middle East. She argued that the president and Congress are likely to decide the issue of Iran’s compliance and the re-imposition of sanctions on the basis of such broader considerations, in addition to the precise issue of Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA, which was directed specifically at restraining Iran’s nuclear weapons-related program in return for removal of sanctions.
Given Haley’s closeness to the president and in light of speculation in Washington that she may soon replace Rex Tillerson as secretary of state, it appears that her remarks were meant to preview the decision that Trump is likely to make next month. His impending decision to decertify, in combination with Congress’s strong and widely signalled inclination to re-impose sanctions on Iran, means that there’s a very good chance that the US would withdraw from the nuclear deal.
Such a decision would not only mean a return to the worst days of American–Iranian antagonism, it could open the way for Iran to withdraw from the JCPOA as well. If Tehran decides to do so, it could return quickly to enriching uranium up to weapons-grade level, and it could resume work at the Arak heavy-water plant in order to move down the plutonium route to the acquisition of nuclear capability.
According to CIA estimates, in 2013 before the signing of the interim agreement Iran was only 8 to 12 weeks from reaching the breakout point. Anticipating that course of events, a group of leading practitioners and scholars of American foreign policy issued a statement on 8 August strongly exhorting Trump not to renege on the nuclear deal. They argued forcefully:
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 … such a unilateral act would have grave long-term political and security consequences for the United States … Doing so would bring the United States—rather than Iran—into noncompliance with the agreement.
The statement’s authors, all veterans of the foreign policy arena, then went on to advise the president that he should continue to certify Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA as long as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) continues to determine that Iran is keeping its part of the bargain. However, such sensible advice seems to be falling on deaf ears in Washington. The move towards decertification is picking up greater momentum, despite the IAEA’s clear statement in its latest quarterly report that Iran was in full compliance with the agreement, with its stockpile of low-enriched uranium less than a third of the maximum allowed under the JCPOA.
Decertification accompanied by the re-imposition of sanctions on Iran by the US could have very dangerous consequences. At the least, it would mean a major rift between the US and its leading European allies if Iran continues to stick to its side of the bargain. That would increase the distrust between the Trump administration and major European governments that is already evident in their mutual relationship. At worst, it could mean a major war involving the US in the Middle East if Iran withdraws from the JCPOA and resumes enrichment activities.
In such an event, the US, either alone or in company with Israel, might launch attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities. Iran in retaliation could target American facilities in the Gulf, as well as launch attacks on American allies such as Saudi Arabia. It might also target US forces in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan with the help of its surrogates in those countries.
Such a conflagration would be a recipe for disaster—not only for the Middle East, but for the whole world—and it would be unlikely to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons in the long run. By renouncing the JCPOA, so meticulously put together after excruciating bilateral and multilateral negotiations by the Obama administration as described masterfully by Trita Parsi in his book Losing an enemy: Obama, Iran, and the triumph of diplomacy, the Trump administration will be snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
Mohammed Ayoob is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of International Relations, Michigan State University, and senior fellow at the Center for Global Policy.
This article was originally published on the The Strategist on 12 September 2017. It is republished with permission.