The Iran Deal: If You Can’t Fix It, Don’t Nix It
In the coming weeks, the Trump Administration will decide whether the United States will remain in or leave the Iran nuclear agreement. The agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), is undoubtedly deeply flawed. Its sunset clause will permit Iran to enrich weapons-grade uranium in about a decade. It fails to address the ballistic missile issue, there are no “anytime, anywhere” inspections as the Obama Administration originally promised, and it has provided Tehran with billions of dollars in unfrozen assets and sanctions relief, which has helped finance its destabilizing activities in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and elsewhere. There is nothing wrong with threatening to walk away from such a deeply flawed agreement. In fact, a credible threat to withdraw is what is needed to improve it. However, leaving the agreement would be not only illogical but potentially dangerous.
Despite being deeply flawed, the deal does buy time. If both sides abide by the agreement, it essentially tables the Iranian nuclear issue for about a decade. This is not an abundance of time, but it is better than nothing. Last month, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot was quoted saying, “Right now the agreement, with all its faults, is working and is putting off realization of the Iranian nuclear vision by 10 to 15 years.” Since Iran already received billions of dollars in unfrozen assets and sanctions relief up front, we would not receive any of the benefits we paid for if we were to walk out.
Furthermore, our regional allies have already made military preparations assuming the JCPOA remains a reality. In the same interview, Eisenkot stated, “If the Americans decide to withdraw from the agreement on May 12, we will have to rethink our strategic risk management.” Thus, pulling out of the JCPOA may not only potentially push Iran closer to a nuclear weapon, but also force our regional allies to change their strategic calculus.
It would also weaken American credibility. Pulling out of the JCPOA would send the wrong signal to allies and adversaries alike. To allies, it tells them that the United States does not care about their security concerns and does as it likes for political purposes. To adversaries, it tells them that the United States is not to be trusted and fails to remain true to its word. Why would you make a tough agreement with a country when its next president could nullify the agreement just because he or she feels like it? The answer is you would not, and actors even outside of the region, like North Korea, would learn that lesson very quickly.
Lastly, pulling out of the agreement accomplishes almost nothing beneficial. If the U.S. were to re-impose nuclear sanctions unilaterally against Iran, it would not have the teeth of the previous multilateral sanctions regime to incentivize Iran to change its behavior or return to the negotiating table. Assuming the other parties of the JCPOA continue to abide by the agreement, Iran might stay in, which would accomplish one of its goals of making the U.S. look bad. If Iran were to instead withdraw from the agreement after the U.S. pulls out, it would likely ramp up its nuclear activities. This would be disastrous and could accelerate regional nuclear proliferation. Just a few weeks ago, Muhammad Bin Salman, the young Saudi Crown Prince commonly known in Washington as MBS, said that the Kingdom does not want to acquire a nuclear weapon, “But without a doubt, if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible."
Thus, despite the major drawbacks of the JCPOA, it would be unwise to leave the agreement, which the Iranians have yet to materially breach if it cannot be fixed. Furthermore, keeping the JCPOA as is does not require the Trump Administration to be soft on Iran. The United States could and should impose more non-nuclear sanctions that do not violate the agreement, make the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) miserable in Syria, bolster regional missile defense in the Persian Gulf and launch a large-scale campaign in support of Iranian protest movements to destabilize the regime at home. While none of these recommendations violate the nuclear accord, they would certainly do far more to tighten the vice on Tehran than a withdrawal. If that’s the goal, then there’s no good reason to walk away from the JCPOA. To make a long story short: if you can’t fix it, don’t nix it.
Blake Fleisher is pursuing graduate studies in computer science at The University of Chicago and is a member of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Previously he was a policy analyst at a Washington-based think tank, where his research focused on Iran and its nuclear program, Middle East strategy and cyber conflict. His foreign policy analysis has been published in The Wall Street Journal, The National Interest, The Hill as well as other leading publications. Follow him on twitter @BlakeFleisher