By Daniel DePetris
After a nine-month Iran policy review that was riddled with leaks and shrouded in mystery, President Donald Trump is expected to introduce a more aggressive U.S. approach against Tehran. Tomorrow, President Trump will deliver a speech announcing his decision to decertify the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) as not in the U.S. national security interest.
By expressing his formal disapproval of the JCPOA, Trump is in effect acting on his long-held desire to delegitimize the agreement entirely. He is viscerally opposed to the agreement, viewing it as a bad deal with bad terms for the United States. At the same time, however, the president appears to accept the arguments from his national security team that to fully abandon the JCPOA now would only make the situation worse by removing the one mechanism that has given the international community on-the-ground access to, and first-hand knowledge of, Tehran's nuclear capacity.
Assuming that the administration will stick with its current approach, the future of the JCPOA will now be in the hands of the U.S. Congress.
Under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015, passed overwhelmingly by Congress, a decertification from the president enacts a 60-day congressional review leading up to a vote on whether a re-imposition of nuclear sanctions against the Iranian government (lifted as part of the JCPOA) is appropriate.
There are a number of lawmakers who would love to kill the JCPOA, both to demonstrate displeasure about Iran’s recent past with nuclear research and to punish Iranian leaders for the litany of non-nuclear, destabilizing behavior in the region. Many national security analysts in Washington chafe at some of the JCPOA’s language, most notably the sunset provisions that allow Iran to enrich as much uranium as it would like after the year 2030. Indeed, like all arms control agreements, the JCPOA is an imperfect mechanism with an imperfect inspection regime built in. In hindsight, the accord should have been far clearer on the IAEA’s inspection process with respect to Iran’s military sites, facilities the Iranian government continues to insist are off limits to foreigners.
And yet with all of those caveats in mind, maintaining the JCPOA is still in the U.S. national security interest for three main reasons.
First and most important, the JCPOA has averted—and continues to avert—a military conflict between the United States and Iran that before the agreement was too close for comfort.
In the years preceding the P5+1 negotiations, Tehran’s nuclear program was developing to such an extent that a preventive U.S. military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities was promoted as the least bad option on the table.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was reportedly so serious about a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities that Israeli military and intelligence officials had to block those plans from being executed. The Saudis were so concerned about Iran’s nuclear behavior that then-Saudi King Abdullah urged U.S. leaders to “cut off the head of the snake,” a not-so-subtle reference to a U.S. military regime change operation. A military confrontation between Washington and Tehran no longer seemed like a distant prospect, and the retaliatory options for the Iranians were so many that the regional costs of a military attack would have been unpredictable and deadly.
The JCPOA had the effect of preventing all of this from occurring. The deal was in many ways a win-win situation resulting from a relatively successful diplomatic process. Tehran received partial sanctions relief to begin rebuilding its economy, and the international community received unprecedented access and insight into a nuclear program that was previously limited to a few routine visits. And Washington managed to achieve this through principled, hard-nosed diplomacy.
Second, all of the alternatives to staying in the nuclear agreement are based on half-baked assumptions.
Proposals circulating in Washington policy circles that aim to pressure Iran to renegotiate the JCPOA—either through threats of a U.S.-imposed naval embargo or a return of U.S. secondary sanctions on foreign banks and businesses engaging in financial activity with Iran—are dependent on the theory that European governments are interested in a renegotiation. A cursory glance at the comments from European leaders shows how dubious that proposition is. French, British, German, and European Union officials remain highly reluctant to fiddle with a nonproliferation agreement that has in fact successfully mothballed much of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and capacity. Because the JCPOA is a multinational accord, Washington would be unable to renegotiate aspects of the JCPOA without European support. That support, to say the least, is not forthcoming.
Finally, the JCPOA is working on the merits.
Despite the Trump administration’s public statements that the Iranian government is not living up to the spirit of the accord, the IAEA has issued eight reports concluding that Tehran has yet to violate the agreement to such an extent that it would constitute a material breach.
The Trump administration’s own Director of National Intelligence has assessed that "Iran’s implementation of the JCPOA has extended the amount of time Iran would need to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon from a few months to about a year.” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, no dove when it comes to Iran, wouldn’t have publicly recommended the president stick with the agreement if he didn’t believe it were in the U.S. national security interest. Nor would some of the very same lawmakers who voted against the JCPOA two years prior—Sen. Rand Paul, Sen. Bob Corker, and Rep. Ed Royce—now recommend that the Trump administration continue implementing the JCPOA. Nor would the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the commander of the U.S. strategic nuclear arsenal, and the Secretary of State publicly stated that Iran is in technical compliance of the JCPOA.
Congress will be the ultimate decider on this issue. Before lawmakers think about threatening the integrity of a nonproliferation accord that is keeping Tehran’s nuclear behavior in check, they ought to analyze the facts, drown out the invective, and answer critical questions: Is the United States better off with the JCPOA and all of its inspection provisions? Or is the U.S. security interest served by withdrawing from the agreement and going back to a situation where the world is confronted with an unenviable choice between recognition of a nuclear-armed Iran or a preventive military strike that could spiral into a costly and harmful regional war?
Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities, a D.C.-based foreign policy organization focused on a strong military to ensure security, stability, and peace.
This piece was originally published by The Hill on October 11, 2017. Read more HERE.