Kill the Iran Deal, Open Pandora’s Box

This afternoon, Donald Trump made an announcement regarding the future of the Iran nuclear deal. Ahead of a self-imposed May 12th deadline, the President announced that he will not be waiving the sanctions. This decision places the United States in violation of the deal. But while it may not kill the JCPOA completely – European states and Iran could decide whether to keep some version of the deal going without the United States – it will start a period of profound uncertainty about the future of U.S-Iranian relations.

In some ways, this uncertainty is the most concerning thing about the current administration’s approach to the JCPOA. Trump’s speech included no realistic alternate strategy, other than “get a better deal.” His decision probably won’t be followed by public debate over whether conflict with Iran is desirable, a proposition that many in the administration seem to favor, but which most Americans would undoubtedly oppose.

Instead, by blowing up the nuclear deal today without offering any clear strategy or plan for an alternative, Donald Trump is opening Pandora’s Box, increasing the risks of escalation and bringing us gradually closer to conflict with Iran.

Initially, it probably won’t look that bad. Sanctions penalties will not kick in for 180 days. Iran has said it will take a few weeks to decide on its response, and discuss the issue with European signatories of the JCPOA. These countries may well try to keep some form of the deal running without the United States. 

Yet the act of refusing to waive sanctions itself will deter companies from investing in Iran, and places European governments in a very difficult situation. There is little chance that Iran will agree to the additional sanctions and restrictions that the Trump administration is now proposing as unilateral amendments to the deal. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has given no indication of any diplomatic follow-on steps they will take with regard to Iran’s nuclear program.

Nor has the administration given any indication that they intend to have a broad public discussion on military action against Iran, though it is clear that many members of the administration -  from new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to National Security Advisor John Bolton – favor such an approach. Instead, the steps that Trump has already taken, such as increasing troops in Syria, and his decision to withdraw from the deal generally raise the risk of escalation and conflict with Iran or Iranian proxies throughout the region.  

Conflict between the US and Iran may not happen; we could get lucky. But Trump’s choice to violate the JCPOA today – and his choice to move to a more confrontational approach to Iran – raises that risk substantially. If US troops come into conflict with Iranian proxies inside Syria, broader conflict could easily result. Likewise, escalation is possible if US allies like Israel decide to take matters into their own hands and strike Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Put simply, Trump’s decision today doesn’t mean we’re about to have a public discussion like the one in 2003 that helped to set the US on a course to war in Iraq. Yet his administration’s choices and actions are nonetheless raising the likelihood of small-scale conflict that could easily spiral into something bigger. The President’s decision today may well end up counted among the worst blunders in recent U.S. foreign policy.