BY IAN XU
President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal, adds to the long list of poor decisions he has made. By withdrawing from the Deal, President Trump has raised tensions between the U.S. and Iran but reneging on the JCPOA goes beyond this; President Trump has also pitted the U.S. against its allies and the rest of the world.
The Iran Nuclear Deal was originally signed in 2015 by Iran, Germany, the European Union, and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Under this accord, Iran would meet a number of restrictions in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions that have crippled their economy. For instance, Iran would eliminate 98 percent of its uranium stockpile. The other two percent of uranium can reach a maximum enrichment level of 3.67 percent, which is only sufficient for civilian nuclear power and medical research, not military purposes. Additionally, Iran would place all of its advanced centrifuges and more than two-thirds of its first generation centrifuges needed for uranium enrichment into storage. The agreement also allowed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to request access to any site inspectors suspect might be conducting illicit nuclear activities. Iran can delay the inspection for a maximum of 24 days, but this limited time is insufficient to hide any substantial violations.
Most of these provisions would slowly phase out after 10 to 15 years, but some of these provisions are indefinite. For example, Iran may not conduct activities which could contribute to the design and development of a nuclear explosives. Iran must also implement and ratify the Additional Protocol, which are another set of elements that give the IAEA more authority and access to information on nuclear related activities and to suspect locations.
Critics of the JCPOA claim that Iran is cheating. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Iran of secretly hiding and expanding its nuclear technology, though he failed to provide significant evidence to support his claim. The reality is that the Iran Nuclear Deal was not written in a manner that trusts Iranians to self-regulate. It was written with the famous Russian maxim Doveryai, no proveryai ( “trust, but verify”), in mind.
However, President Trump’s withdrawal centers primarily on defects in the deal itself, not Iran’s non-compliance. President Trump called the JCPOA “one of the worst deals I have ever seen.” He believes that because many of the provisions have a sunset clause, the U.S. is merely kicking the can down the road 10 to 15 more years before inevitably facing these issues again, while Iran gains the benefits of economic sanction relief. The reality is that the United States isn’t kicking the can down the road; there are permanent provisions in the JCPOA that prohibit Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, as stated above. Contrary to Trump’s judgement, the rigorous oversight that this deal was built upon was working—President Barack Obama, current Secretary of Defense James Mattis, the United States’s European allies, and the International Atomic Energy Agency agreed on its effectiveness.
Another point of contention for President Trump is Iran’s violation of “the spirit” of the agreement. He elaborated further, stating that the “Iranian regime supports terrorism and exports violence, bloodshed and chaos across the Middle East.” President Trump is right: according to the United States Department of State, Iran is designated a State Sponsor of Terrorism. But Iran is also a sovereign state, and the U.S. cannot maintain control over all of its political actions. What the JCPOA did do, however, was control a very important element of Iran: its nuclear capabilities. If Iran had nuclear weapons it would further destabilize the Middle East and put the entire world on edge.
After President Trump withdrew the United States from the deal, his Administration moved to re-implement the previous sanctions. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that these sanctions, in addition to new sanctions, would place “unprecedented economic pressure on the Iranian regime.” However, these sanctions are just the beginning. Secretary Pompeo threatened that the United States would add further sanctions which would amount to the “strongest sanctions in history.” However, he did note that the United States is willing to cut a new deal and outlined 12 basic requirements for a new agreement.
None of these demands are new and Iran can satisfy them individually, but they go far beyond the scope of restricting the development of nuclear weapons. If Iran satisfied them, it would be ceding an extraordinary amount of interest to the U.S. Therefore, it is unrealistic that Iran will actually meet all of these requirements, but it is possible that the U.S. and Iran could reach a compromise as Iran meets some of the more feasible demands.
But reaching a new deal with Iran is improbable. Even if Iranians would normally meet these requirements, there would always be that bitter taste left in their mouths. Iran, not to mention the rest of the world, would likely question whether future presidents will renege on agreements in attempts to cut deals more favorable for the U.S.
Ultimately, Iran will likely pursue producing nuclear weapons again. The importance of these weapons of mass destruction extend beyond defending itself against external threats and having greater influence over the Middle East. These weapons have a symbolic importance for the state and have become rooted in Iranian domestic politics. On the other hand, the Trump Administration will likely follow through with its plans of applying secondary sanctions, which would cripple Iran’s economy. These secondary sanctions do not punish Iran directly. Instead, they place companies that conduct business with both Iran and the United States in a dilemma in which they would have to choose between conducting business in either state. And given that the United States is the world’s largest economy, they would likely choose the United States.
Many of these firms that the U.S. has placed in this dilemma are European and have billion dollar deals at stake, which is problematic because the U.S. is treating our supposed allies like enemies. The United States needs friends on the world stage. When China and Russia are expanding their influence in the world, President Trump should not back America into a corner where even our once closest allies don’t wish to join us.
Times have changed. The United States can and should no longer be the world’s bully. President Trump should reinsert the United States into the JCPOA while the consequences inflicted by withdrawal are still relatively low.