The historic 2015 nuclear deal with Iran could collapse. A key deadline is approaching on October 15, and all eyes are on Washington, where the Trump Administration called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action an ‘embarrassment’ to the United States on the campaign trail and at the United Nations General Assembly. The JCPOA was welcomed by an overwhelming majority of the global community and was called a landmark deal by the Obama Administration. Now, it looks like the deal might fall apart given the strong opposition within the political elite of Washington, which includes people within the military, the intelligence community, the Republican establishment, and in various foreign policy think tanks throughout the beltway. President Trump needs to certify that Iran has been complying with the deal according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and a U.S withdrawal from the deal will not only hurt U.S ambitions in the Middle East, but it will hurt Washington’s reputation as a trustworthy world leader within the global community.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has called President Trump’s allegations of Iran being a rogue state, and an exporter of terrorism ‘baseless’ at the UN General Assembly in New York and warned of a decisive and resolute response if Washington violated the deal. If the United States does abandon from the deal, Iran could also walk away and this is a worst-case scenario that could lead to further escalation between Tehran and Washington. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was signed in 2015 by the United States, Iran, the European Union, the four other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, and Germany to lift sanctions on Iran in exchange for Iran to curb its nuclear program. The deal restrains the amount of nuclear fuel Iran can keep for the next fifteen years and prevents Tehran’s ability to use uranium and plutonium to create weapons. In order to do this, Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium needed to be reduced by 98% and two-thirds of its installed centrifuges cut. The deal also calls for sanctions to be imposed quickly if the JCPOA is violated, and inspectors from the United Nations can access Iran’s nuclear sites at any time. President Trump must certify that Iran is complying with the deal every ninety days and the next deadline is next week. If President Trump does not certify that Iran is in compliance with the deal, it is up to Congress to reimpose the old sanctions on Tehran which will once again hurt the Iranian economy.
It is incredibly difficult to get Americans, Iranians, and Europeans on the same page, but this is what the JCPOA agreement did.
President Trump has made it clear throughout his presidential campaign and his time in office that he does not like the Iran deal and Trump’s intention was to find a way out of the deal by pushing his national security and foreign policy advisors to get the U.S to walk away from the JCPOA. The problem for Trump is that there is no easy way out and there is no feasible alternative to the current framework. In addition, the IAEA has released eight reports that have not shown Iran violating the agreement, and it leaves Trump’s team with very little to work with. There are no technical violations on the Iranian side, and there is no alternative to the current deal. Up until now, President Trump has essentially been forced to certify Iran’s compliance and continue waiving the sanctions. However, Trump may not cite any violations by Iran, but he could simply say that the deal does not align with U.S interests, and then Congress can decide to reimpose sanctions, which would take the United States out of the JCPOA.
It is incredibly difficult to get Americans, Iranians, and Europeans on the same page, but this is what the JCPOA agreement did. Many Obama officials have continued to back the JCPOA, and Rouhani along with Zarif have worked very hard to save the deal. So far, there is still a consensus from Iranian, European, and some American observers of the Middle East that want to preserve the JCPOA. The problem lies within President Trump’s campaign promise to break up the agreement and there are also a small number of hawks in Tehran that don’t like the agreement either. One of the objectives of the JCPOA was to reduce sanctions, and only increasing the sanctions will put the nuclear agreement in serious jeopardy.
The Trump strategy is to build a united front between the White House and Congress to work with the Europeans to build in a pretext to force Iran to commit some sort of violation of either the deal or a U.S-European consensus. This may seem strange, but the Trump Administration has kept Congress at bay telling them not to reimpose sanctions right now, but the Trump team has been working with the French and the British to find a way to create a supplemental agreement where the U.S could renegotiate the JCPOA, and the Europeans could call the agreement a supplement that would address other issues like Iran’s missile program and its role in the region. The U.S has been pushing Iran not to accept the JCPOA and to have Iran violate the deal. This has been the strategy all along, and this will be something that will continue into next week. Washington is challenging Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA in two ways. One is to frame a consensus with the Europeans on forcing Iran to negotiate on other areas outside the deal and the other way is to push the IAEA to inspect other sites like military sites for the U.S to gain more leverage on creating ground rules to Middle East foreign policy.
The European Union has made it clear that the Iran deal is the only way forward and there is no more room for renegotiation to tweak the deal. If Congress imposes new sanctions on Iran that are not nuclear related, European businesses investing in Iran would be affected, and the E.U would eventually have to decide if they want to stick with the agreement or pull out as well. If Congress pushes for sanctions that are U.S specific and do not penalize European businesses and banks, then the Europeans will continue to stick with the JCPOA even though they will feel the chills coming out of Washington. The Iran deal was also a major foreign policy accomplishment by the European Union to diversify markets and bring European business to Iran. The Europeans will also continue to support the implementation of the deal even if the U.S backs out.
Right now, all eyes are on Washington for the next week to see if President Trump will either keep the JCPOA in place or simply walk away. The United States should be a world leader who negotiates through strength, and that strength is using diplomacy to resolve global issues that create bridges with former foes, and not barriers. We can only hope that Trump certifies with the deal, but if he doesn’t, Washington, as well as the other signatories to the agreement could ultimately pay the price for making the wrong decision.