President Donald Trump announced Tuesday that the U.S. would pull out of the Iran nuclear agreement.
The president has been a consistent critic of the deal negotiated in 2015 under Barack Obama’s administration, often calling it “terrible” and a “catastrophe.” On Tuesday, he said the agreement was “defective at its core.”
The U.S., United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China agreed as part of the deal to lift severe economic sanctions in exchange for curtailing Iran’s nuclear program. The agreement limits Iran’s uranium enrichment and enrichment-related activities for eight years, through 2023, restricts its uranium stockpile for 15 years, and monitors uranium ore concentrate produced by Iran for 25 years.
It also says Iran will not engage in activities, including research and development, that could lead to the development of a nuclear explosive device.
On Jan. 12, President Trump announced he would waive sanctions on Iran again, but that it was the “last chance” for European signatories to fix the agreement’s “terrible flaws.”
He mentioned those warnings in Tuesday’s announcement, adding: “The United States does not make empty threats.”
Trump has argued the deal was too lenient and that Iran has violated certain provisions, including exceeding the limits of heavy water used in nuclear reactors and having too many advanced centrifuges, which have since been corrected. Last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said his country had stolen documents from Iran that show it lied about its nuclear activity, which Iran says is for civilian uses. Critics say the U.S. can’t trust Iran, and supporters of the deal say that’s the reason why it’s needed: the agreement is the best way to stop the country from developing a nuclear bomb, they say.
“I am sure of one thing: every available alternative is worse,” British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson, who is in the U.S. this week for talks with Trump, wrote in a New York Times Op-Ed this weekend. “The wisest course would be to improve the handcuffs rather than break them.”
Before Trump’s announcement, we asked analysts about the president’s options and what’s next.
Should the U.S. stay in the nuclear deal?
The 2015 nuclear deal, called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, needs a “fundamental reset,” said Richard Goldberg, a senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, at a panel discussion Thursday at The Heritage Foundation.
At the time, the Obama administration felt that with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani perceived as more moderate, the international community could trust Iran to maintain control of facilities that could be used in the production of nuclear weapons, Goldberg said. But the agreement allowed Iran to retain the equipment needed to build future nuclear weapons while also giving it sanctions relief.
“We’ve been negotiating over the wrong things,” Goldberg added. “The idea we can trust Iran, and that it will come clean about what equipment it’s keeping to be able to make a nuclear weapon, are wrong.”
But other analysts think the U.S. should stick with the deal in order to manage at least one concern it has with Iran — its nuclear weapon capabilities — and to maintain credibility in the world, said Ali Vaez, the International Crisis Group’s Iran project director.
“I don’t see how reopening the nuclear issue would help the U.S. resolve other problems it has with Iran,” Vaez said, such as Iran’s proxy wars in places like Syria and Iraq, and its support for Hezbollah in Lebanon. In addition, if other countries see that U.S. commitments last only as long as the administration that implements them, “I think that’s a terrible thing for U.S. credibility.”
Former Secretary of State John Kerry, one of the deal’s lead negotiators, has for the past few months been quietly holding meetings and making phone calls with key players in the Iran nuclear deal trying to save it, as reported by the Boston Globe.
Trump slammed Kerry for his involvement on Twitter on Monday. “The United States does not need John Kerry’s possibly illegal Shadow Diplomacy on the very badly negotiated Iran Deal. He was the one that created this MESS in the first place!,” Trump tweeted.
Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said the current deal and past ones have always allowed Iran to control its own timeframe on suspending uranium enrichment – an authority it does not deserve, he said. In addition, he continued, the JCPOA gave the Iranians a “free pass” on ballistic missiles, the delivery system for any future nuclear weapons.
“The deal wasn’t perfect,” said Suzanne Maloney, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy. It could have been stronger and restricted Iran’s access to nuclear technology longer, she said, but without U.S. participation, there is no guarantee the Iranians will continue to comply with the agreement.
“Given the situation in the region, we’re better off with an Iran that is under constant monitoring and verification, an Iran that has agreed to ship out major elements of its nuclear fuel production, and an Iran that has put a number of aspects of the program on ice for at least a temporary period, than we would be with an Iran racing toward a bomb,” Maloney said.
What happens if the U.S. imposes sanctions again?
If Trump chooses to re-impose sanctions, it puts the U.S. in non-compliance with the agreement. Trump can officially withdraw from the deal through an executive order, according to the analysts.
Some say the U.S. already is in violation of the deal by not moving forward on licenses for civilian aircraft sales to Iran, which have been in limbo since the Trump administration came into office, Maloney said. And statements from Trump discouraging business with Iran also could be seen as a violation.
If the U.S. does re-impose sanctions, the Iranians could respond by taking down cameras that are monitoring its nuclear sites and kicking out U.N. inspectors, she said. “It would put everything that we have gained as a result of this agreement at risk if the United States somehow walks away.”
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said the agreement could still remain in place if it can “get what we want from a deal without America.”
“What Iran wants is our interests to be guaranteed by non-American signatories. … Getting rid of America’s mischievous presence will be fine for Iran,” he said.
But Rouhani also threatened to restore Iran’s nuclear activities with greater force if the deal is scrapped entirely.
All of the agreement’s European signatories have indicated they will stay in the deal. French President Emmanuel Macron has even proposed broadening it to address Iran’s long-term nuclear activities, ballistic missile program and regional military activity. Do they have any clout to keep Iran in the deal? Though European countries could not completely compensate the Iranians for the economic hit they would take from the U.S. renewing sanctions, they could offer a package of economic incentives for the Iranians to adhere to the agreement, Vaez said in a report issued by the International Crisis Group.
The Europeans could offer trade deals and energy agreements that provide Iran with green technology, in addition to supplying Iran with development aid, he said. “That could buy time until the U.S. changes its position on the JCPOA.”
The critical time period is between May 12, the deadline to extend a waiver on U.S. sanctions against the Central Bank of Iran, and July 11, the deadline for a different group of sanctions that target key elements of Iran’s economy, including transportation and oil exports. The deal could still survive even if Trump decides to renew sanctions this month; Maloney says this two-month period could allow some time for additional diplomacy.
What does this means for denuclearization talks with North Korea?
Trump plans to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in May or June in an effort to convince him to end his own nuclear program. Some analysts said the U.S. pulling away from the Iran nuclear deal will haunt those talks.
The North Koreans closely watched the JCPOA and saw Iran reap benefits, and now they want the same, said Ilan Berman, senior vice president at the American Foreign Policy Council. “What we decide on Iran is going to have tremendous implications for the nuclear negotiations with North Korea.”
Trump has shown a willingness to engage with North Koreans and a hostility toward the JCPOA, Vaez said. “The message [Trump] is sending to Iranians is to say that maybe the best way of dealing with the U.S. is from a position of strength with nuclear weapons in your hands.”