Trouble in Tehran
"Axis of Evil." "The Great Satan." A hostage crisis. The shooting down of a passenger plane. A place on the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism. Accusations that the U.S. government was behind 9/11. Sanctions and setbacks. Embassy closures and embarrassment. By any barometer, American-Iranian relations have been frigid at worst and lukewarm at best for several generations. Any progression toward a détente has been glacial. When, under the leadership of President Barack Obama in 2015, the United States and the four other permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom) plus Germany agreed upon a landmark deal with the Iranian government that would result in an end to Iran's development of nuclear weapons in exchange for the repealing of UN sanctions and an agreement to a prisoner swap, a safer world and a brighter future for relations between the two nations seemed to be on the horizon.
For more than two years, the Islamic Republic of Iran has complied with the demands set forth in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, including agreed-upon limitations on uranium enrichment and its related activities, the phasing out of IR-1 centrifuges especially adept at enriching uranium, devoting its heavy water reactors to peaceful purposes (heavy water reactors allow for power and plutonium to be produced without enriching uranium), and permitting UN watchdog the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to monitor its progress. The UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office claims that Iran has ceded 95 percent of its uranium stockpile and two-thirds of its centrifuges since the implementation of the policy.
However, the Trump Administration does not see eye-to-eye with that assessment or the recommendations of the IAEA, the European Union, the Iranian government (President Hassan Rouhani called Trump's rhetoric full of "baseless accusations"), U.S. Strategic Command, the State Department, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Secretary of Defense, the National Security Adviser, and the UN Secretary-General. Trump announced on Oct. 13 that he would refuse to recertify the Iran Deal (publicly claiming Iran's compliance) at its third 90-day checkpoint of his term, throwing the deal's fate into the hands of Congress by opening a temporary 60-day window to reimpose sanctions. At its core, the decision is both an attempt to fulfill a campaign promise and boost the president's ego. If the president decertifies the deal but Congress refuses to act, the deal stays in place, but Trump does not have to publicly admit support. While the actions Congress could take are limited, each of them possesses the capability to be as destabilizing and damaging to American credibility as the rhetoric that put the ball in its court in the first place.
One possibility is that Congress decides not to reimpose sanctions within the next 90-day period following the president's decertification. In this scenario, the agreement would remain in place and President Trump's pride would not take as much of a hit as it would if he regularly certified that his public criticisms of the deal were not holding true. Yet the best possible outcome is merely temporarily agitating Iran, American allies in Europe, and the smaller non-nuclear American allies in the Middle East by publicly wavering on the agreement. Decertification undermines the international community's trust in America's willingness to uphold the agreement, an unnecessary threat to a functioning deal. President Trump put America's security and his agenda in a corner by handing Congress a set of options whose best-case scenario accomplishes nothing, yet inconveniences allies and partners.
The second course of action is that Congress reimposes broad nuclear sanctions, thereby terminating the deal, or renegotiates the deal. However, Iran is unwilling to renegotiate the deal (which could lead to the U.S. targeting its missile development) and, as stated earlier, Iran has complied with the terms of the agreement according to experts. Rash, unilateral action to reimpose sanctions would be the worst of all worlds. First, Iran has already received billions in sanctions relief, and a great deal of it cannot be revoked by the U.S. Secondly, even if the U.S. were to exit the deal, the involved European powers would likely not reimpose sanctions due to the fact that Iran is legally in compliance. Because the European states conduct much more trade with Iran (the EU was Iran's primary trading partner before the sanctions and is still its fifth-largest trading partner), they would be able to lay down more punishing sanctions on Iran. Ultimately, any damage the U.S. could do on Iran by unilaterally pulling out of the deal would be minor and insignificant, and greatly outweighed by the fact that the possibility of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons very soon to become a Middle Eastern hegemon is stronger than that of the new sanctions crippling the nation.
Defenders of renegotiating the deal (which, again, Iran would not agree to) or leaving it altogether claim that it is in the best interest of American ally Israel. They believe that the deal represents an attempt by the Obama Administration to appease a borderline nuclear nation in the same region as Israel, not to mention an incentive to a government that sponsors terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah. The problem with that notion is that under the JCPOA, Iran would remain merely a borderline nuclear nation at best, with the agreement's intense verification regime giving each country reason to believe that any violation would be discovered quickly. The agreement also provides America and its allies with valuable intelligence regarding targets that would be destroyed in an attack if Iran were to move swiftly toward a nuclear weapon. Put simply, Israel's greatest international fear for years has been Iran developing a nuclear arsenal. Any deal that halts or hinders Iran's nuclear development better ensures Israel's survival. And with the U.S. and Israel working together to help ensure that Hezbollah does not obtain advanced weaponry, the threat of an Israeli-Hezbollah conflict is not a one-sided fight. Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, public perception of the JCPOA is beginning to shift. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which opposed the Iran Deal's implementation, now opposes its decertification. Thus, the decision to maintain the deal is seen as more beneficial than scrapping it entirely, which remain the only two real options at this juncture.
The frightening part for the United States and global security is that the U.S. has been in a similar predicament before. In 2003, North Korea withdrew from the landmark Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which recognizes the U.S., Russia, China, France, and the U.K. as the only legitimate nuclear weapons states. However, in 2005, after admitting to possessing nuclear weapons, Kim Jong-Il's government vowed to shut down its nuclear program in exchange for economic aid and political concessions. However, the deal's implementation proved difficult and talks hit a wall soon thereafter. Fueled by anti-American sentiment and an economic boom despite sanctions (sound familiar?), the DPRK now is estimated to have 60 nuclear weapons and the capability to produce six additional bombs per year.
Iran also has a history of strong anti-American sentiment and authoritarian rule predicated on military strength. Yet a nuclear Iran could be much more of a threat to global security than a nuclear North Korea. While North Korea's economy floundered when it began to ramp up its nuclear development in the early millennium (kept alive by the life support provided by the legally questionable methods of its only true ally China), Iran's economy has recovered well in the aftermath of sanctions relief and has a strong oil sector. Thus, foreign dollars and trade are sure to be coming to Tehran for the foreseeable future, bankrolling the nuclear program. Plus, the government's close ties with Hezbollah allows for the possibility that terrorists could obtain and use nuclear weapons, a truly frightening thought. It is with these considerations in mind that the U.S. should continue to prevent Iran from securing nuclear status.
Given the potentially catastrophic results of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons, President Trump's decision to decertify and potentially dismantle the Iran Deal does far more danger than it does good. A word of advice to him: Mr. President, it is time to look for a new nickname in the mold of "Rocket Man," because if America pulls out of the JCPOA, a new Middle Eastern hegemon may emerge as one of America's great nuclear enemies.