The White House is correct in pointing out the weaknesses of the JCPOA, some of which have even been candidly acknowledged by former U.S. officials who worked on the agreement. Yet, the question is not whether the agreement is perfect – but whether the alternatives would better serve the interests of Washington and its allies. Trump has been bashing the agreement for years, and now he has set out to prove he can do better.
When considering the national security implications of withdrawing from the agreement for the U.S. and Israel it is critical to remember that the JCPOA is not an end in and of itself, rather a means to achieve certain long-term goals. It is also important not to lose sight of four strategic goals vis-a-vis Iran: keeping Iran as far from a nuclear weapon as possible, preventing war, halting Iran’s ambitions for regional domination, and ultimately altering the fundamental character of the Iranian regime.
The 2015 deal achieved the first two aims by distancing Iran from the nuclear threshold, leaving it one year’s time from a bomb until 2025, and preventing a war over the nuclear issue. However, in the long-term, the agreement grants legitimacy for Iran to build a full-scale nuclear program that leaves it with a minimal breakout time to a nuclear weapon when it decides to do so. Absent from the agreement were the issues of Iran’s malign activity in the region, nor did it resolve the issue of Iran’s ballistic missile development program. At the same time, it directs considerable resources to the Iranian regime.
Instead of moderating its behavior as the advocates for deal had hoped, Iran has only become more belligerent and aggressive on all fronts – Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and Iraq. By deploying advanced weaponry against U.S. allies in the Middle East, Iran has significantly increased the threat against them and likelihood for a potential military clash.
The impressive Mossad heist from Tehran also highlighted several points that deserve consideration. First, given their incriminating nature, why weren’t those documents destroyed? The obvious answer is that the regime sought to preserve them for future use and had not relinquished its nuclear ambitions – it just sought to do so via the slow and steady route of the JCPOA. Second, the trove of documents also highlighted the extent of the Iranian programs to both build nuclear weapons and deceive the world about their actions. In reference to nuclear agreements, the documents accentuate the need for permanent nuclear restrictions and more intrusive inspections.
The hope in Washington today is that the renewal of sanctions will deliver a kick to the Iranian economy when it is down, and that could force the regime to return to the table to discuss parameters of a new agreement including the issues that the previous agreement neglected. And there are even some in Washington who are hopeful (perhaps beyond what evidence would support) that increasing economic pressure on the regime will destabilize it.
But hope is not a strategy.
Assuming that the Europeans side with the Russians and Chinese and refrain from reinstating sanctions and continue to invest Iran, Teheran will likely remain in the agreement in the initial stages following U.S. withdrawal.
Nevertheless, it is incumbent upon decision-makers in Washington and Jerusalem to examine possible policy responses to more dangerous Iranian reactions.
Even if it does not happen immediately, it is not difficult to envision an Iranian return to enrichment levels of the pre-2013 era. In Natanz, if Iran installs 60,000 centrifuges, including advanced models, then it can produce tons of enriched uranium and that can be used in the production of dozens of atomic weapons (today they are restricted to 300 KG). In that scenario, Tehran might even return to 20% enrichment as is permitted according to the NPT. Thus, under the Iranian cover story of building a civilian nuclear program, Tehran might achieve in a few years what only would have been possible in a decade under the agreement.
A more radical Iranian response would include leaving the NPT and breaking out to the bomb – in essence, an adoption of the North Korea model that seeks to acquire nuclear weapons as soon as possible in order to ensure regime security.
If there is not enough international support for biting sanctions against Iran to build leverage and bring it to the table, then the only option will be military in nature. President Trump, like his predecessor, is not interested and will not have the public’s support to launch another military intervention in the Middle East. Even if the White House succeeds in calming tensions on the Korean Peninsula, it is difficult to envision him taking the necessary steps to halt the Iranian nuclear program.
At the same time, he will not obstruct Israel from taking such actions as his predecessor did, but that means that Israel will bear the sole military responsibility for stopping Iran.
Maj. Gen. (ret.) Amos Yadlin was chief of Israeli military intelligence from 2006 to 2010 and is now the director of the Institute for National Security Studies. Co-author Ari Heistein is the special assistant to the director of the Institute for National Security Studies.