Supporters of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) are worried that President Trump is determined to withdraw the U.S. from the nuclear deal with Iran. Coming up on May 12 is the next deadline by which the president must sign the nuclear-related sanction waivers. U.S. withdrawal could have serious international security ramifications.
Last December, President Trump threatened to pull the U.S. out of the deal if the EU-3 (Germany, France, UK) did not meet his demands for “fixing” the deal. More recently, he replaced Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who supported the deal, with one of the staunchest critics of the agreement Mike Pompeo, the current director of Central Intelligence Agency. In another potential blow to the deal, Trump replaced his National Security Advisor General McMaster with the hawkish former Ambassador John Bolton, who has repeatedly advocated war with Iran.
The gloomy future of the Iran nuclear deal is further evident in the recent statement of Senator Bob Corker (R-TN). The chairman of powerful Foreign Relations Committee said on March 16 that he doesn’t expect the president to extend the waivers in May. These are all very dangerous signals for the future viability of the JCPOA, an agreement already on life support.
Yet, despite constant attacks by its opponents, the Iran deal has delivered on its specific purpose to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Middle East. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN body in charge of verifying the implementation of the JCPOA, has confirmed Iran’s compliance with the deal in 10 consecutive reports. Thanks to the JCPOA, the threat of a disastrous military conflict in the region has further been reduced by legitimizing Iran’s civilian nuclear program.
A decision to withdraw from the deal, would be a public-relations victory for the Islamic Republic, because it will be the U.S. who’d be at fault for the collapse of JCPOA. Iran seems to be playing what John Von Neumann dubbed “game theory.” The essence of this theory is that one player (Iran) is playing according to the best strategy of its opponent (the U.S.), which is to threaten to withdraw from the deal. According to Von Neumann, this strategy may not guarantee a maximum gain, but it will prevent a maximum loss. To put it simply, by outmaneuvering the U.S. in the game, Iran seems to have calculated that by patiently staying in the deal, it can protect itself and put the blame for the collapse of the deal on the U.S. This explains Iranian officials’ repeated statements that Iran will not be the first country to withdraw from the JCPOA.
The collapse of Iran nuclear deal will leave the U.S. with two simultaneous nuclear crises. North Korea’s overture to meet with President Trump, which ironically is supposed to take place by May, could resolve one of the most longstanding problems of U.S. foreign policy. However, as administration officials have pointed out, denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula remains on top of the agenda. North Korea will not likely accede to nuclear disarmament in the absence of a negative security guarantee, which the U.S. has been reluctant to provide. Further, by “tearing up” the JCPOA, President Trump will not get a better deal with North Korea, which is probably already capable of delivering nuclear weapons. In fact, a unilateral withdrawal from the Iran deal, could jeopardize talks with North Korea by convincing its leadership that U.S. commitments are unreliable.
Critics of the Iran nuclear deal argue that the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” policy on North Korea will work on Iran as well. But this sort of linkage is inherently flawed. First of all, this argument assumes that North Korea has already agreed to dismantle its nuclear arsenal. However, North Korea’s offer for talks with the U.S. may simply be a tactical move to buy some time. Further, the negotiations may never take place. The JCPOA, however, is an existing international agreement, endorsed by the United Nations Security Council, and its implementation is binding for all member states. Additionally, those who are familiar with Iran understand that “maximum pressure” policies might only reinforce Persian nationalism and Shia defiance, which are both embedded in the Iranian culture.
The experience of former President Mohammed Khatami’s doomed overture to the U.S. in the early 2000s is instructive. Back then, George W. Bush’s hardline stance on Iran, encouraged by Bolton, not only contributed to the failed rapprochement between the two countries but also helped Iranian hardliners by undermining the proponents of engagement with the world. More than a decade later, Trump’s intransigent policies are once again setting the stage for the return of Iran’s hardliners. Indeed, Iranian hardliners and their American ideological partners are in an unholy alliance to undermine the possibility of any dialogue between the two countries.
A unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA can also undermine America’s partnership with its European allies, who played a significant role in establishing the sanctions regime and reaching the final deal. The EU-3 countries believe that, despite its flaws, the JCPOA is delivering on its promise, and there is no need to scrap a working nonproliferation agreement without a valid reason. In the event of a U.S. withdrawal from the agreement, Iran and other signatories to the deal might continue implementing it. Nevertheless, it is not clear how faithfully they will abide by it, or how the potential deal would be enforced. However, under this scenario, the U.S. will have no say in any proceedings, including the Joint Commission meetings. Further, if the collapses, Iran will no longer be obligated to implement and ratify (as required by the JCPOA) the voluntary Additional Protocol, which imposes intrusive inspection regime on Iran’s nuclear program.
In the absence of alternatives, and Iran’s flat-out refusal to renegotiate the JCPOA, it is simply illogical to withdraw from a deal that’s working. The collapse of JCPOA may be a minuscule tactical victory for Trump, but it will pave the way for a dangerous crisis in the Middle East, which could even lead to a regional military conflict. President Trump has the authority to decide whether the U.S. will stay in the JCPOA, but he can’t control the repercussions of abrogating the deal. As Machiavelli once said, wars begin where you will, but they do not end where you please.