Washington Cannot Redo the Iran Deal By Itself
Decertification of the deal on Iran’s nuclear program, renewed sanctions, and a new proposal will not work if undertaken unilaterally by the United States.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), negotiated between the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council -- the United States, Britain, France, Russia, and China -- plus Germany, the European Union, and Iran, was formally adopted on Oct. 18, 2015. Despite the JCPOA’s stature as an international agreement, the U.S. Congress in May 2015 had already placed a domestic U.S. restriction upon any such deal -- the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act. So in addition to the U.S. president having to waive sanctions against Iran anew every 120 days, Congress under INARA can impose new sanctions if and when a president concludes that the JCPOA is no longer in the U.S. national interest and therefore decertifies the deal.
Both as candidate and as president, Donald Trump has regularly denounced the JCPOA as a bad deal. The foreign policy and military wings of his government do acknowledge privately that Iran is in compliance with the nuclear agreement. However, President Trump believes the Islamic Republic is not living up to the spirit of the agreement, citing its missile program and its involvement with terrorism. The Trump administration asserts publicly that the Iran is not complying fully with the multilateral nuclear deal, justifying decertification as a prelude to seeking a better deal.
Indeed Iran’s ambitions seem to go well beyond the acquisition of an atomic bomb. The country endeavors to acquire hydrogen power and other weapons of mass destruction, ballistic missiles, military technology transfers, and political influence around the world.
But EU nations, Russia, and China, having entered into billions of euros, rubles, and renminbi worth of contracts with the Iranian government and Iranian companies, will need to be convinced that amending or replacing the JCPOA is in their own economic and political best interests. In September, while attending the U.N. General Assembly in New York, French President Emmanuel Macron proposed adding elements to the deal to alleviate U.S. concerns. The Iranian regime’s assent is needed too.
In off-the-record comments at the U.N. General Assembly, Iranian officials expressed a willingness to consider a separate deal on its ballistic missile program even as its foreign ministry publicly renounced any compromise.
Pressure will need to be maintained on Iran to ensure it does not resume military dimensions of a nuclear program. Verification needs to be foolproof; violations must be dealt with swiftly and firmly. Most important, mechanisms should be put into place to ensure that Tehran does not turn its WMD programs back on once the JCPOA sunsets by 2030. The International Atomic Energy Agency will have to remain centrally involved with monitoring compliance. The P5+1 and other economic powers will have to participate fully for punitive sanctions to be effective.
At the same time, it is necessary to persuade Iran to curtail any development of ballistic missiles, irrespective of the payload such missiles would carry. Without termination now of its missile program, Iran will quickly be able to combine nuclear breakout capacity with lethally efficient delivery of intercontinental WMD payloads once the JCPOA or any reworked or new accord ends. Successfully terminating the illicit technology and material transfers that facilitate Iran’s missile program requires intelligence-sharing among and shipment interception by all the major world powers.
Likewise, Iran’s connections to and collaborations with other nations developing or seeking WMD and missile capabilities need to be monitored, severed, and penalized for the sake of global stability. Such collaborations, including with North Korea, presently allow Iran to seem to comply with the JCPOA while actually furthering technological prowess and military capability. Without cooperation from Russia and China, Iranian involvement in North Korea’s nuclear program cannot be halted.
The Trump administration wants to hinge any new deal on the Islamic Republic ending its support for terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and rogue regimes such as that of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Curtailing Iran’s involvement with uprisings inside Bahrain and Yemen is on the White House’s action list as well. So is holding the regime in Tehran accountable for domestic human rights violations, despite President Trump’s oft-stated claim of non-interference in foreign governments’ internal sociopolitical affairs. Unless Moscow can be persuaded that it shares common cause with Washington in ending Iran’s growing authoritarian footprint across the Middle East, neither Tehran’s terrorist ties abroad nor its iron fist at home will ebb.
It takes a global effort
All in all the challenges posed by Iran are multifaceted, multilateral, and long-term. Decades of autonomous U.S. sanctions did not induce the Islamic Republic’s cooperation on a nuclear freeze -- only a global initiative did so. Even then Tehran did not yield on its missile development, its global power plays, or its domestic repression. Just as the Obama administration did not prevail by itself in crafting the JCPOA, the Trump administration will not be able to produce and implement an effective and enforceable revised deal, nor an entirely new deal, without the full support and cooperation of U.S. partners and of the other superpowers.
So as the Trump White House seeks to restructure the existing international accord, it is vital not to soldier on alone. Washington should work with and even through EU and U.N. partners to ensure that a united front faces the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Tehran likely would bow to global will, just as it did on the JCPOA, rather than to solitary U.S. threats. Only then will removal of the sunset clause on nuclear activities, inspection of military sites linked to WMD and ballistic missile programs, curtailing of terrorism and rebellion sponsorship, and respect for human rights be accepted by Iran’s government.