Decertifying Would Not Increase U.S. Leverage
It is no secret that President Donald Trump does not like the Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). He has twice certified Iranian compliance with the agreement. He must decide whether to do so again by Oct. 15.
Two years after its negotiation, the agreement is working. Every other signatory, including our European partners, believes Iran is adhering to its side of the bargain. The agreement is not perfect, but Iran is no longer on the brink of being able to produce a nuclear weapon as it was just over two years ago. The International Atomic Energy Agency has issued multiple reports confirming Iranian compliance, and credible nuclear nonproliferation experts are in agreement. Even Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Iran is in compliance, despite his continued valid concerns about Iran’s regional behavior
But the JCPOA was not about changing Iran’s overall behavior — it was about stopping Iran’s ability to produce nuclear weapons. To recap, the basic contours of the agreement required Iran to reduce significantly its enriched uranium and plutonium capabilities (the possible pathways to a bomb) in exchange for the United States and other world powers removing nuclear-related economic sanctions
The agreement has not made Iran a responsible regional player. It continues to meddle in regional politics. Iran’s support for Hezbollah is a particular concern. But imagine how much worse it would be if Iran, like North Korea, were nuclear-armed. Decertifying the JCPOA will do nothing to improve Iranian behavior, and it might even make it more difficult to rally international support to counter troubling Iranian activities. Indeed, one result of Trump’s bellicose rhetoric at the United Nations was to convince the world that, if the agreement were to fail, it would be America’s — not Iran’s — fault.
Some argue that the agreement can go on without the U.S. But over the long term, the agreement is unlikely to survive decertification. If the president fails to certify, Congress must decide whether to reimpose nuclear-related sanctions on Iran, which would violate the agreement. Maybe the administration could convince Congress to withhold sanctions, but it would be a strange case to make after claiming the deal isn’t serving the U.S. interest and Iran is in violation. The congressional record of voting overwhelmingly in favor of sanctions against Iran would not instill confidence that Congress would pass up the opportunity to punish Iran once again if given the opportunity.
Even if Congress did not reapply nuclear-related sanctions, the spectacle in Washington would create such economic uncertainty and political pressure within Iran that its incentives to continue adhering to nuclear restrictions would decrease. If Iran responds by failing to adhere to the strict safeguards of the JCPOA, putting global sanctions back in place would be almost unimaginable, particularly if the international community perceives the U.S. as responsible for unraveling the agreement.
This would be the worst outcome — Iran’s returning to a troubling nuclear program with weakened international resolve to challenge it. The advantages of the JCPOA, particularly regular and intrusive inspections and monitoring, would be lost. With the United States out of the picture, the possibilities are either the end of the JCPOA or a weaker agreement.
The suggestion that decertifying would increase U.S. leverage to renegotiate and strengthen the agreement is unrealistic at best. The Europeans, Russians and Chinese oppose renegotiation. Europe may be willing to discuss areas of concern like Iranian missile development and sunset clauses, but only if the administration accepts the JCPOA as the starting point. Continuing to adhere to the JCPOA will put the U.S. in a better position to lead such efforts; bolting from the JCPOA will ensure that negotiations for add-on agreements are dead in the water. Why would European partners, let alone Iran, discuss new agreements if they don’t believe the Americans lived up to the initial deal?
In 2015, fears and predictions about how things might unfold were speculative. Today, we know that the JCPOA is achieving its only stated aim: to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear-armed state. This is the judgment of nearly the entire international community. Why would the U.S. want to needlessly isolate itself, generate new risks of nuclearization and create a crisis of its own making with no clear return?
Dalia Dassa Kaye is the director of the Center for Middle East Public Policy and a senior political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan Rand Corp.