Getting smart on the Iran Deal

By Daniel DePetris

January 16, 2018, marked the two-year anniversary of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), an agreement with Iran that compelled the country to place temporary restrictions on its nuclear activities in exchange for the lifting of multilateral economic sanctions. The deal was a pragmatic arrangement among two sides with a complicated history that did not trust one another. But the arrangement has nonetheless proven effective in curtailing a program that led officials in Washington to discuss military options just a few years ago.

President Donald Trump has never liked what the previous administration in Washington negotiated. Whereas the U.N. Secretary-General lauded the JCPOA as a significant diplomatic accomplishment the entire international community can be proud of, Trump has called the agreement woefully insufficient, perhaps even a capitulation to an evil regime and American antagonist. The president wants the U.S. Congress and America’s European Union allies to strengthen the deal to ensure Iran never reaches the point where it is close to accumulating the material for a nuclear weapon. “If other nations fail to act during this time,” Trump wrote. “I will terminate our deal with Iran.”

While the administration’s desire to improve the deal by strengthening the world’s inspection power and making permanent its sunset provisions is understandable and desirable, it’s highly unlikely to be successful.

The Iranians have made it abundantly clear they would not cooperate with such a scheme—senior Iranian officials, including Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, have called the JCPOA “nonnegotiable.” Washington’s European negotiating partners are likewise uninterested in modifying a deal they view as effective, especially if the cost is highly-valued economic investments in the country. With the U.K., France, Germany, Russia, China, and the European Union all either opposing Trump’s new terms or reluctantly batting them away, the prospect of amendments being added to the agreement and Iran continuing to uphold it is bleak.

If the deal doesn’t survive, restraints on its nuclear activities will no longer be a hindrance—Tehran would be able to enrich as much uranium as it wanted. A risky and destabilizing armed conflict to stop Iran from making any further progress would then again be on the table.

Even so, critics of the Iran have a point when they mention flaws. Despite the cheerleading of many former Obama administration officials and descriptions of the agreement being some kind of diplomatic miracle on par with history’s most infamous accords, Tehran gets plenty out of the JCPOA, including a a repatriation of $100 billion from frozen bank accounts on a lump sum.  The lifting of financial and oil sanctions; and the preservation of an operable uranium enrichment capability are nothing to sneeze at either. The fact that Iran will be permitted to research the development of faster centrifuge machines in just six years is undesirable to say the least.

The agreement can be improved. But the U.S. must do so in a smart and pragmatic way. Unilaterally attaching more nuclear restrictions on a multilateral agreement Europe, China, Russia, and Iran view as effective in its current form is a recipe for bad deal-making and turmoil within the P5+1 coalition party to the JCPOA. Nor is walking away from the deal, as President Trump threatened to do last month, a good strategy. Because the JCPOA was structured in a way where Iran was given all of its money early, Washington’s withdrawal would in effect let Tehran off the hook.  It would be similar to a plumber being payed up front, and then refusing to let him into your house to fix the pipes.

Instead, the Trump administration should look ahead to the time when the enrichment caps expire—working with our partners overseas and lawmakers on Capitol Hill in order to prevent an Iranian nuclear breakout from occurring during the 2026-2031 period.

First, the White House ought to get to work right away in crafting the broad outlines of a follow-on accord (call it JCPOA II). This will require U.S. officials to learn from the previous rounds of diplomacy with Iran in pursuit of a more durable and acceptable future agreement. The Iranian nuclear talks took nearly three years to initiate and conclude, so State Department and White House officials can’t afford to waste any time. President Trump must authorize Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and trusted members of his national security team to jet to European capitals, Moscow, and Beijing with a single purpose in mind: arriving at a common position as to what they can verifiably extract from Iran. Were the P5+1 to come to a unifying baseline, it would be far more difficult for Iran to sow discord among the U.S. and our allies during a future negotiation.

Second, the U.S. should explore the possibility of establishing a more permanent channel of communication with the Iranian government. Such a channel would serve three purposes: promoting understanding between the two nations; decreasing misinformation that flows from the capitals of both; and gauging Iran’s interest in a second nuclear agreement when the most substantive JCPOA provisions expire.

Given the extremely hostile climate that currently exists between Washington and Tehran, this will be a very difficult conversation to have. Even getting a dialogue channel up and running could be an arduous task, one that Iran hawks both on and off Capitol Hill will find distressing given Iran’s behavior in the region. But if a subsequent nuclear deal is to evolve from an intellectual exercise to a realistic goal, the U.S. cannot avoid talking with the Iranians forever.

Thirdly, Congress must be far more involved than it was when the original JCPOA was negotiated between 2013-2015. At that time, the American people’s elected officials and Congress as an institution were largely treated as sideshows, a legislative body of government to be ignored instead of the co-equal and independent branch of government it really is. To this day, a good portion of the House and the Senate remain upset that President Obama’s failed to submit the JCPOA as a treaty, a process mandated by the Constitution that demands lawmakers debate, amend, and ratify the deal before it was implemented.

The Trump administration must take those lessons to heart and do what its predecessors did not: involve Congress from the very early stages. What action Congress takes is ultimately up to its members to decide.

The JCPOA is far from perfect. But it’s not the unquestioned disaster its opponents make it out to be.

The Trump administration has a prime opportunity to start the long journey of negotiating an improved text with its allies and giving Congress more of a role that befits its status under the Constitution. Just as walking away from the Iran nuclear deal, or blowing it up, would not serve the U.S. national security interest, letting its clauses expire without something to replace it would be irresponsible.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

This piece was originally published by The Hill on January 26, 2018. Read more HERE