Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who on Monday presented what he claimed was evidence of a secret Iranian nuclear weapons program, may have added fuel to a looming foreign policy crisis for the United States. On May 12, President Donald Trump is expected to decide to re-impose sanctions on Iran under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. That will significantly increase the chances of war – and may be exactly the outcome Washington seeks.
The 2015 agreement, signed by the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (including China and Russia), plus Germany, requires the American president to certify every three months that Iran's nuclear program is in compliance with the deal. In return, the next quarter's economic sanctions are waived against the Islamic Republic. Earlier this year, Trump warned he was waiving sanctions for the final time, setting the May deadline for significant changes in the agreement to be made. Failing those changes, Trump's non-signature would trigger sanctions to snap into place.
The changes Trump is insisting on – reduce Iran's ballistic missile capability, renegotiate the deal's end date, and allow unrestricted inspections – are designed to force failure.
Iran's ballistic missile program was purposefully never part of the deal; as the United States learned during the Cold War, trying to throw every problem into the same pot would have assured no agreement could ever be reached. Ballistic missile capability lies at the heart of Iran's defense. Sanctions have already kept the country from fielding a significant air force, and memories in Tehran of Iraqi air strikes on its cities in the 1980s – when Iran lacked retaliatory capability – lie deep. The missile program is the cornerstone of Iranian self-preservation and thus understood to be non-negotiable.
The 2030 agreement end date is to the Trump administration a ticking time bomb; it believes that Iran will lie in wait, springing into nuclear status 12 years from now. Yet the worry over an Iran of the future going nuclear is pure political theater. There is more than enough to focus on in the present-day Middle East than what the area might look like in 2030, even assuming Iran could surreptitiously keep its nuclear development going such to then pop out of the cake with a nuclear surprise. Washington’s demand for an indefinite extension of limits on Iran’s nuclear activities is a non-starter.
As for the concern Iran is not compliant with the agreement, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations body charged with monitoring the deal, has presented no such evidence. (U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said that Netanyahu’s information shows that Tehran lied to the Iranian people about a nuclear weapons program, but he declined to say whether the material provided proof that Tehran violated the nuclear deal.) Iran has in fact shown itself anxious to stay in compliance; in two minor instances where the IAEA noted Iran exceeded its heavy water limits, Tehran immediately disposed of the excessive amount. Trump has suggested he wants unprecedented access to any and all Iranian sites, including military sites not known to be part of the nuclear program. The United States never allowed carte blanche to the Soviets during the Cold War; no nation with the power to say no would.
So these aren't really negotiating points, they're excuses for the United States to step out of compliance with an agreement. “President Trump appears to have presented the [Europeans] with a false choice: either kill the deal with me, or I’ll kill it alone,’ said Rob Malley, a senior American negotiator of the original deal, and now head of the International Crisis Group.
Trump has always wanted out of what he calls the “worst deal ever.” The top officials in his new foreign policy team – Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton – are also ardent opponents. While anything can happen inside a White House fueled by chaos, there is no plausible scenario under which the Iran deal survives May 12. What happens next?
The likely effects of walking away from the agreement are global. Iran may immediately kick-start its nuclear program. Tehran’s hegemonic efforts in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon and Syria would remain untouched, if not intensify in retaliation. American forces in Syria and diplomats in Iraq would be even more vulnerable. Iran’s current missiles will still be able to reach Jerusalem and Riyadh. And the decision could scuttle any progress with Pyongyang. Imagine being the new State Department envoy seeking a nuclear deal, sitting across from an experienced North Korean diplomat, trying to answer his question: “What is to say you won’t do this to us, too, in three years?”
European allies would be reluctant to join in future diplomatic heavy lifting in the Middle East or elsewhere, shy to commit only to see the Americans turn up their noses following the next election. Relations could easily sink to the 2003 level, when the United States’ bullheaded invasion of Iraq split the alliance. China and Russia would have a chance at being the "good guys," seizing an opening to expand cooperation with Iran at a time when American diplomacy might instead be looking for ways to drive wedges among them.
Meanwhile, the impact of renewed sanctions may be quite limited strategically. It is unclear if American pique will be followed by all of Europe falling into line with re-imposed sanctions; there is a lot of money in doing business in Iran and absent unambiguous proof Iran violated the agreement it is hard to see them going along in earnest. It is even less clear whether Russia and China would follow the new sanctions regime. And even if some signatories agree to re-impose sanctions, there is little to suggest Iran’s ambitions have been severely thwarted by decades of sanctions anyway. Had they been fully effective, there’d have been no need for the nuclear deal in the first place.
Without the agreement, there is, to misquote Churchill, nothing left to "jaw jaw," leaving Iran free to develop its weapons and the United States only the option of destroying them. That is perhaps the dangerous scenario Washington, encouraged by an Israel who has sought the destruction of Iran's nuclear facilities for years, wants. But this is rough play: the (Israeli) air strikes which decimated Saddam's nuclear program and Syria's were small scale, directed against limited, discrete targets, vulnerable above ground. Not so for Iran, whose nuclear facilities are numerous, dispersed, underground, and protected by both a decent air defense system and a credible threat of conventional, terrorist, cyber, and/or chemical retaliation.
And that’s all before the Russians weigh in. The United States is playing with real fire if it walks away from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on May 12.