It was a heroic last-ditch effort to save an agreement that President Trump has called the “worst deal ever” (2). On April 23, President Macron of France met President Trump at the White House to discuss the Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) (5). Knowing his American counterpart’s deep antipathy toward the agreement, Mr. Macron lobbied for the U.S. to continue to fulfill its side of the deal, and Prime Minister Merkel of Germany would follow soon after. The deadline for the U.S. decision on whether or not to continue its participation in the treaty was May 12; the result will determine not only the future of U.S.-Iran relations, but also the fate of the entire Middle East.
The Obama administration negotiated the JCPOA with Iran, as well as Germany, France, Britain, China, and Russia, back in 2015. The deal, meant to be a “pragmatic arms-control agreement,” established that Iran would halt its nuclear development program in exchange for the U.S. and other powers lifting their economic sanctions (1). So far, the agreement seems to have worked. For instance, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has conducted eleven reports that have all declared Iran in compliance with the agreement (2).
At the same time, however, President Trump and many others have long decried the JCPOA, and not without some warrant. The deal allows the Iranian government to classify certain areas as military facilities, making them off limits to the IAEA investigators. In addition, in the area of ballistic missile development, the agreement merely “calls upon” Iran to cease its activities, without any real enforcement. Critics also point to the aptly named “sunset” clauses, which provide for the phasing out of aspects of the agreement after a set amount of time; for example, the limit on faster-spinning uranium-enrichment centrifuges will be reduced after 2023 (2).
Skeptics of the deal’s effectiveness scored a victory when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel recently claimed his government possesses intelligence regarding a secret trove of Iranian nuclear plans, including 55,000 pages and 183 compact discs. The discovery supposedly points to covert efforts by Iran to develop its nuclear weapons despite the protocol of the JCPOA. According to Netanyahu, Israeli agents obtained this information during an overnight raid on a secret warehouse in Tehran in January. Naturally, the Iranian deputy foreign minister denounced Netanyahu’s claims as “a very childish and even a ridiculous play.” If this intelligence is true, however, the success of the nuclear agreement with Iran may be nothing more than a mirage (4). Hardliners also rejoiced when President Trump recently appointed Mike Pompeo and John Bolton as the new secretary of state and national security advisor, respectively. Both Pompeo and Bolton have decidedly pro-military and realist foreign policy views, from the North Korean crisis to the Iran deal (2).
Despite the shortcomings of the nuclear agreement, the alternatives appear far more costly. Because the European powers support the agreement, increasing sanctions on Iran would isolate the U.S. on the international stage, driving France, Britain, and Germany into the camp of China and Russia on this issue (3). Furthermore, the U.S.’s reputation as a fair negotiator would be severely tarnished. If the U.S. does not continue to uphold its side of the bargain, other countries such as Palestine or North Korea will have little incentive to begin negotiations with a country that will not fulfill its obligations. Most importantly, according to The Economist, a withdrawal from this agreement will have “increased the chances of both a big new war and a nuclear-arms race in the Middle East” (2). Ultimately, the wisest course of action seems to be that of the middle ground: the U.S. should continue to refrain from imposing sanctions, but it should also push for needed reforms, including penalties for ballistic missile development and an adjustment of the “sunset” provisions. Only time will tell whether the Trump administration has the prudence and expertise to tread a path of such delicate balance.