Donald Trump’s address to assembled world leaders at the United Nations last week raised new doubts about his willingness to renew waivers for Iran and continue with the Iran nuclear accord, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Until then, there had been encouraging signs that senior cabinet officials and White House advisers might be swaying him toward continuing the waiver. But his harsh UN rhetoric, though such quarrelsome and bellicose language has become standard fair for him, suggests he is still undecided.
Despite the president’s campaign statements, continuing the waivers – provided Iran complies fully with the terms of the JCPOA – is the president’s only real option. As imperfect as the JCPOA is, reneging on it without sound evidence of Iranian violation, which is still lacking, would be a grave mistake. If we are to preserve any hope of a diplomatic solution to the North Korean nuclear crisis and maintain a convincing argument to our allies in the region and China, all of whose cooperation will be indispensable, the U.S. must be able to credibly demonstrate it keeps its agreements, and especially this one. To do otherwise, would vitiate any case for negotiations with North Korea.
It is important to note that agreement we signed is not just with Iran. We also signed an agreement with other major nations. Those partners in the P5+1 – the UK, France, Germany, Russia, China and the EU – have no appetite for reopening the JCPOA, especially as long as they and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) affirm Iran’s compliance. Were the U.S. to abrogate, we would be alone, placing our closest allies in the P5+1 – the UK, France and Germany – in the unavoidably uncomfortable position of disagreeing with the U.S. That would further cool an already chilled mood among our most critical NATO allies. Russia would delight at such a prospect, rushing to defend these NATO nations against the “reckless” Americans. Most of the rest of the world would likely blame the U.S. for any agreement failure. We will have surrendered the moral high ground and, with the exception of Israel, would stand alone.
In Iran, it would play directly into the hands of hardliners, convincing them that we had no interest in abiding by the agreement and rather were determined to provoke regime change. Iran’s development of nuclear weapons would become inevitable, short of the far-from-desirable American military option. As we wrestle to confront a more serious and immediate nuclear threat from North Korea, this clearly cannot be the road anyone would want to see the U.S. take.
None of this is meant to suggest that the JCPOA is an ideal or even good agreement. Far from it – it allows Iran to continue to develop the technology and maintain the infrastructure necessary for an eventual nuclear weapons program in as soon as 10-15 years; it does not adequately address Iranian ballistic missile testing; military facilities are effectively off-limits for inspections by the IAEA; it says nothing about Iran’s state sponsorship of terrorism or terrorist groups such as Hezbollah, or its destabilizing activities in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain, Lebanon, and elsewhere; there is no mention of Iran’s abysmal human rights record; and detained Americans in Iran are not included.
What it does do is exactly what it was intended to do: extend the breakout period in which Iran could potentially develop a nuclear weapon from several months to 10-15-years. The hope – granted, not always useful in negotiations of this sort – was that relations would improve to the point where further discussions might take place to address shortcomings. Because the priority in the negotiations was so overwhelming, namely to stop Iran’s nuclear program immediately, incorporating these other highly problematic issues would have doomed any prospect of getting what was most important.
So, if the Trump Administration should not reject the agreement, what can be done? There are actions that can be taken to demonstrate firm U.S. resolve and still comply with the terms of the JCPOA.
First, the president must state unambiguously and make it an essential component of U.S. policy in the region that we can never accept an Iran with nuclear weapons.
Then, he should name an ambassador for – versus to – Iran, who would report to the president through his national security adviser. The ambassador would be responsible for coordinating all U.S. activities – diplomatic and intelligence – related to the JCPOA and Iran’s actions and policies on other matters. This person would work closely within our own government, the Congress, the IAEA, and our European allies in order to establish, inter alia, a rigorous program for monitoring and enforcing the agreement, especially regarding re-imposing sanctions if Iran falls short of its obligations.
Importantly, the ambassador would also be responsible for diplomatic outreach to Iran, which this administration should initiate in order to begin a constructive dialog and demonstrate goodwill to our JCPOA partners and the world community. Moreover, the ambassador should reach out to all like-minded nations – as President Trump should have done in New York last week – to redouble their efforts in urging Iran to comply fully with this agreement and cease its support for terrorism.
The president must devote more resources and effort to intelligence collection on Iran’s activities. We should strengthen our cooperative intelligence and monitoring arrangements with our closest allies in Europe, the IAEA, and the region, especially Israel, which has the most to lose from Iran’s non-compliance. All should make clear our intent to take seriously, and act on, Iranian infractions.
The Trump Administration, backed by Congress and our allies in the P5+1, should make it clear that we will take any Iranian weaponization effort, regardless of how small, to the UNSC for immediate action.
Working with allies around the world, the U.S. should lead a campaign to impose harsher sanctions on Iran for its support of terrorism. We should aim to end Iran’s support for terrorist organizations as well as Syria’s Assad regime. Additionally, our actions should include working closely with allies in the region, including Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and others, to end Iranian interference in their affairs. It will also mean a comprehensive policy to address the threat posed by Iran’s Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah. Iran has armed the latter to the extent that it now poses a significant threat to the entire Israeli population.
The president has established a positive and constructive relationship with his Israeli counterpart. He may now wish to consider elevating our strategic dialogue with Israel, including potentially offering the Jewish state defense equipment not previously considered as well as coordinating actions against Hezbollah.
The U.S. will need to ramp up our strategic dialogue with our Arab allies in the region, including stepped up military and intelligence cooperation. It will also mean some challenging but necessary diplomacy to address issues that threaten to divide the Arab Gulf states. That means ending the economic blockade of Qatar by Saudi Arabia and the UAE and resolving the horrific Yemen crisis. As in the past, the U.S. must look for ways to play the role of unifying moderator among GCC and other Arab states.
In any complex diplomatic exercise, risk and reward must be carefully calculated. The U.S. and other P5+1 states negotiated a necessary, if imperfect, agreement with Tehran. The U.S. is now well positioned politically, morally, and diplomatically. The risk, which can be mitigated with increased vigilance and supervision as suggested above, is one that was needed to ultimately halt Iran’s dash toward producing a nuclear weapon.
Whatever one may think about the JCPOA, we are left with it and must find a way to make it work.