Giving up on the Iran deal does little to address conservative objections, while undermining America's ability to protect our interests.
Yesterday, President Donald Trump announced that he would instruct the United States government to no longer comply with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the "Iran deal." The announcement clears the way for the government to reintroduce a number of sanctions aimed at undermining Iran's economy and its ability to develop nuclear weapons. American conservatives, who have long argued that the deal was either insufficient or futile, have largely praised the President's decision. Unfortunately, abandoning the deal will do little to address their specific concerns, and may undermine our ability to police Iran's behavior moving forward.
There are some popular misconceptions about the JCPOA that color various interpretations of its merits. The first misconception is that former President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry negotiated with the Iranian government on their own, and that the decision to agree to terms arose from each man's desire to "get to yes" no matter what. (Some other critics strangely assign a lot of blame to several Obama Administration national security staffers.) A Washington-centric media environment, and Democrats' desire to claim credit for a significant diplomatic achievement, have admittedly fed this misconception.
The reality is that the deal was the result of a diplomatic process that pre-dated the Obama Administration by over two years and involved several countries. The negotiating parties remained consistent from 2006 to 2015 and included the governments of China, France, Germany, Iran, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, as well as the European Union. So many countries' governments were involved for so long that there has been a long-standing and silly diplomatic scuffle over what the negotiating group (minus Iran) should be called. The European parties refer to the arrangement as the E3+3 ('E' for European, or EU), while the United States refers to it as the P5+1 ('P5' refers to the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, which excludes Germany).
This all may sound silly, but this misconception reveals a real desire among conservatives to make the deal a referendum on the Obama Administration's foreign policy without engaging on its specific merits. It is easy for conservative commentators to rationalize the idea that their domestic political opponents were deceived or foolish. It is harder to contemplate why seven separate governments of widely varying ideologies would mutually agree that the deal is in their respective self-interest.
The second misconception about the deal is that Iran is cheating or otherwise not complying with its terms. There is simply no evidence available to the public that corroborates this claim. Even the Trump Administration has gone so far as to publicly confirm that Iran is in compliance with the agreement. At his own confirmation hearing, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated, “I’ve seen no evidence that they are not in compliance today.” Pompeo was serving as Director of Central Intelligence while delivering that testimony, so he was certainly in a position to have seen such evidence if it existed. More recently, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave a press conference claiming "bombshell" evidence of Iran's duplicity, but experts say its content was both outdated and irrelevant.
There are serious conservative arguments against Iranian diplomacy more broadly, but it takes a certain level of goalpost-shifting to tie these critiques to the JCPOA. Namely, conservatives point to the fact that Iran has continued developing missiles that could theoretically carry nuclear weapons, and that they continue to research nuclear centrifuge technology. Proponents of the deal do not dispute either fact, but the JCPOA does not cover these issues. The intended purpose of the deal was to prevent the Iranian government from producing military-grade nuclear material and to ensure that international inspectors would have unrestricted access to Iran in order to police those terms.
In his statement yesterday, former President Obama reiterated that "the JCPOA was never intended to solve all of our problems with Iran." The failure to understand this specific point explains much of the dissonance between Democratic and Republican national security analysts over the merits of the deal. It simply is not in Iran's interest to concede to all of Washington's demands, so the Obama Administration instead focused on minimizing the downside risks of a relationship with Iran that is likely to remain adversarial.
Even conservatives' most specific objections would be nearly impossible to resolve through a diplomatic process. Iran views its missile program as necessary to deter conventional military conflict with rival countries. After all, an otherwise "nuclear-capable" missile can deliver less deadly payloads in the same way that a "nuclear-capable" submarine or bomber need not carry nuclear weapons. How would you police suitcase bombs? When you dig into the details, it becomes clear that policing the specific delivery method of a nuclear weapon would be nearly impossible, and that doing so would be significantly less impactful than stopping development of the weapon itself.
Of course, beyond its weapons development programs, the Iranian government engages in a wide spectrum of deplorable behavior that both Republicans and Democrats rightfully condemn, such as sponsoring terrorism and political repression. The JCPOA will not force Iran to abandon its myriad atrocities, but its existence may allow the United States to exert greater pressure against these activities than we could against a nuclear-armed government. If conservatives believe in a diplomatic solution to all of the Iranian government's malfeasance, then I wish them luck, but believing this would require a much more starry-eyed perspective on Tehran's intentions than the Obama Administration ever adopted.
The JCPOA had many flaws but withdrawing now does not serve our national interest. Iran has already realized the benefits of sanctions relief and the release of frozen assets. Now they are let off the hook when it comes to honoring their nuclear obligations under the agreement.— Jeff Flake (@JeffFlake) May 8, 2018
What does Washington gain from undermining the JCPOA?
In the immediate term, the Trump Administration will now be able to reimplement a host of sanctions that the deal suspended in 2016. In theory, this gives the United States leverage over the Iranian government in some future negotiation, but it is unclear how that leverage would exceed that exerted by the Obama Administration during the JCPOA negotiations. (A small number of conservative critics smartly argue that Tehran has already reaped the benefits of sanctions relief in a way that would be impossible to pull back.) The Trump Administration is essentially dealing itself a worse hand and hoping for a better outcome.
What does Washington lose from undermining the JCPOA?
Most importantly, undermining the JCPOA may jeopardize our ability to know what Iran is doing with regard to its nuclear program. With the withdrawal of the United States, Iran could legally declare the JCPOA void and deny access to international inspectors tasked with investigating Iran's known and suspected nuclear facilities. It is foolish to believe that decision-makers in Washington will not have less information about the Iranian government's activities as a result of this decision.
Furthermore, Iran could legally resume nuclear activities that blur the line between what is permitted under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, but forbidden under the JCPOA. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has already threatened to resume such activities, which would bring their government closer to developing a nuclear bomb without any clear legal mechanism to undermine that progress.
Finally, withdrawing from this agreement undermines confidence in diplomacy with the United States beyond just our relationship with Iran. European diplomats, some of whom have been working on Iran diplomacy for over a decade, are reportedly reconsidering whether the United States is capable of being a reliable partner. Ironically, in just a few weeks, President Trump plans to attempt to negotiate a separate nuclear agreement with a far more unpredictable adversary in North Korea. By failing to honor the JCPOA, President Trump has undoubtedly weakened his own hand walking into those negotiations.
Was it worth it?
Missing from the potential advantages and disadvantages of abandoning the JCPOA are clear solutions to conservatives' articulated objections to the deal. As circumstances stand, Iran is free to continue developing long-range missiles. They are free to continue their nuclear enrichment activities and, potentially, to expand them beyond what was permissible under the JCPOA. Abandoning the deal does not leave Washington with more options to combat Iranian-sponsored terrorism, or provide dissidents with greater access to political freedoms. Abandoning a diplomatic arrangement with such a repressive government may feel good to some, but doing so has left our negotiating position weaker and Iran's stronger.
It is hard to see how our European allies' attempts to renegotiate a deal that could meet the President's liking can succeed in this environment. The state of play leaves me suspicious that the intention is not to get a "better deal" at all, but to pursue non-diplomatic options to compel the Iranian government's compliance with conservatives' demands. President Trump's new National Security Adviser John Bolton has long been an advocate of military intervention in Iran, just as he supported former President George W. Bush's ill-fated invasion of Iraq. Yet again, a Republican president elected by a minority of American voters appears headed, whether intentionally or accidentally, toward another unnecessary military confrontation. The consequences of Bolton's last war were disastrous, and we must fight against efforts to repeat that awful history.