In his surprise speech today, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presented what he described as Iran’s "nuclear files," promising to show proof that Iran has cheated on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the 2015 diplomatic agreement better known as the Iranian nuclear deal.
Instead, what he presented was a curious mix of details on the extent of Iran’s nuclear weapons program prior to 2003—all the major components of which were already publicly known and presented by the United States or the International Atomic Energy Agency—with a series of unfounded assertions about Iran wanting to continue with its nuclear program.
The presentation thus appears to have been far more about politics than anything else, with Netanyahu trying to use details of Iran’s past nuclear activity to argue that it cannot be trusted to comply with the JCPOA today. This is particularly ironic given that these details were among the key reasons which led to international sanctions and the eventual negotiation of the deal itself.
Nonetheless, with President Trump rapidly approaching another key decision point on May 12th, this presentation will only add fuel to the fire. The president is widely expected to refuse to waive sanctions as required under the JCPOA, despite ongoing Iranian compliance with the deal confirmed and certified by the IAEA, the State Department, and members of his own administration.
This all raises a key question: What comes after May 12th? Assuming the president does refuse to reissue sanctions waivers, the United States will technically be in default of the deal, regardless of whether we formally withdraw or not. And it remains unclear whether the Trump administration has any coherent follow-through plan.
Last fall, John Glaser and I explored this question in a Cato Policy Analysis, “Unforced Error: The Risks of Confrontation with Iran.” We looked past the JCPOA to ask what other policy options—if any—would be an improvement on the deal. Unfortunately, the four options we examined were all problematic: none resolved the nuclear problem, and several were astoundingly costly and dangerous. Nothing has changed to make these options more palatable in the meantime.
Late on Thursday afternoon, the Washington Post reported that President Trump plans to undermine American involvement in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) by “decertifying” Iranian compliance with the deal and kicking the issue to Congress.
This move is hardly unexpected: when he last certified Iranian compliance with the deal 90 days ago, President Trump reportedly told staff “he wants to be in a place to decertify 90 days from now and it’s their job to put him there.” Yet as that quote suggests, the President’s decision is not based on any reality‐based assessment of the deal. Iran is in fact complying with the deal, a fact verified repeatedly by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Many of Trump’s own advisors disagree with his decision. On Tuesday, Secretary of Defense James Mattis told Congress that he believed it was in the U.S. national interest to remain in the deal. They are undoubtedly aware that the President’s choice will most likely undermine or end U.S. participation in the nuclear deal, split us from our European allies, reduce the constraints on Iran’s nuclear program, and reduce America’s global credibility and negotiating power.
In a newly published Cato Policy Analysis, my colleague John Glaser and I examine the grounds for retaining the nuclear deal, and explore the alternatives that the Trump administration could decide to pursue. Our analysis suggests that the prospects for a better approach are bleak.
We examine four key alternatives to the JCPOA:
- Increased or Renewed Sanctions: Though the United States possesses an impressive and far‐reaching sanctions infrastructure – including so‐called ‘secondary sanctions’ – it is highly unlikely that new sanctions will force further concessions from Tehran. European allies will push back strongly against any new sanctions, and neither Russia nor China is likely to cooperate in creating a new sanctions regime when the United States is responsible for destroying the current deal.
- Challenging Iranian Influence in the Region: The United States could instead choose to push back against Iranian proxies across the Middle East, such as Hezbollah. But there are few groups or states that are practical partners for such a strategy, meaning the burden would fall most heavily on U.S. troops. The risk of blowback – endangering the lives of U.S. forces in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere – is a serious concern. This option also does nothing to prevent Iranian proliferation.
- Regime Change “from Within”: A popular idea among some anti‐Iran hawks, this strategy would see the United States use sanctions and funding for pro‐democracy groups inside Iran to destabilize the regime. The lack of any good group to support is one key problem with this strategy. Yet the bigger problem is simply that research shows that regime change rarely works, and even when it does, it tends to produce worse outcomes.
- Direct Military Action: Targeted strikes on Iranian nuclear or military facilities is perhaps the most extreme option we examine. Put simply, there are no good options for a military strike on Iran; this was a key aspect of the Bush and Obama administration’s decisions to pursue diplomacy. Any military strike would likely escalate to a costly, large‐scale war, further destabilizing the region and ironically most likely encouraging other states to seek a nuclear deterrent.
Contrary to the Trump administration’s statements, the nuclear deal with Iran is working. Though it has not solved – and was never intended to solve –every problem in the U.S.-Iranian relationship, the deal has halted Iranian proliferation and opened lines of communication and negotiation which can be exploited to defuse future tensions and improve relations over the long‐term.
By decertifying Iran, President Trump is starting down a dangerous road towards a strategy which is far more uncertain, risky, and costly.
You can check out the whole report on alternatives to the JCPOA here.
In an address at the American Enterprise Institute today, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, laid out an assertive and fundamentally misleading case against continuing U.S. participation in the Iranian nuclear deal.
Though Haley was careful to note that she was not calling for the United States to actively withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), she offered a selection of ‘alternative facts’ and carefully phrased arguments clearly aimed at justifying President Trump’s desire to do just that.
Haley’s arguments carefully skirted around the actual facts. The key problem for the Trump administration’s desire to withdraw from the JCPOA is simple: Iran is actually adhering to the terms of the deal. Rather than attacking the deal head on, therefore, Haley instead argued that the United States should consider factors outside the legal scope of the deal when deciding its future.
Indeed, though she cited many different reasons to take a harder line against Iran — including a litany of Iran’s past bad behaviors, the regime’s actions in Syria and elsewhere, and its missile testing – none of these are actually covered by the nuclear deal. Haley even suggested that Iran could have hundreds of covert nuclear sites which cannot be inspected under the deal, but offered no evidence for her assertion.
Her portrayal of the nuclear agreement was also misleading. As she described it: “the deal he [President Obama] struck wasn’t supposed to just be about nuclear weapons. It was meant to be an opening with Iran; a welcoming back into the community of nations.” In Haley’s account, these broad goals justify the use of a broader lens in deciding whether to stick with the deal or not.
There’s just one problem: the Obama administration was always clear to stress that the JCPOA was first and foremost a nonproliferation agreement, focused on preventing an Iranian bomb, not on fixing every problem in the U.S.-Iranian relationship. Though she never stated it so bluntly, Haley’s remarks amount to an argument that these broader issues are worth jettisoning even a successful nonproliferation agreement that is preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon.
Perhaps the most misleading statement in the Ambassador’s remarks was her assertion that Trump’s choice to decertify the deal would not actually amount to U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA, but would merely allow congress to debate the issue. Yet it would also result in a congressional vote on re‐imposing nuclear related sanctions on Iran, potentially withdrawing the United States from the deal and splitting us from European allies.
Unusually for this administration, Nikki Haley’s arguments today were well‐crafted, clearly delivered and plausible‐sounding. But listeners should not be fooled: they nonetheless embraced the Trump administration’s universe of ‘alternative facts.’
U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA could easily set Iran back on the path to a nuclear weapon, and re‐open the debate over military action which occurred prior to the finalization of the nuclear deal. By ignoring the risks and eliding basic facts, Haley’s arguments are likely only to undermine U.S. foreign policy.
President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord was the latest in a steadily expanding list of actions that highlight his contempt for multilateral diplomacy in U.S. foreign policy. This does not mean that Trump is an isolationist. He clearly favors bilateral engagement with other countries and doesn’t mind using American military power to wage war in the Middle East and apply pressure to North Korea. The question is, what does Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement mean for other areas of multilateral engagement?
A preference for bilateral over multilateral diplomacy may be appropriate in some cases, but the bilateral approach is not ideal for combating, for example, nuclear proliferation. Trump’s disdain for multilateral diplomacy is especially worrisome when combined with the deepening militarization of U.S. foreign policy. These two emerging trends simultaneously endanger the Iran nuclear deal, a major success for multilateral diplomacy and nuclear nonproliferation, while increasing the probability of armed conflict should the deal fail.
The Iran deal is a triumph of multilateral diplomacy, involving the United Nations’ Permanent Five (United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China), Germany, and the European Union. This level of international involvement enhances both the legitimacy and strength of the agreement, which Iran has complied with since implementation began in January 2016. If the Trump administration wants to successfully renegotiate the deal, it would need the buy-in of the partner countries, a condition that becomes harder to achieve as Trump alienates many of our Iran deal partners with actions such as withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord.
If Trump truly wants to renegotiate the Iran deal (and not just unilaterally withdraw from it), then he will need the support of the very countries that he is repeatedly frustrating with his characteristically undiplomatic actions on the world stage.
In an op‐ed for the Boston Herald last week urging the Trump administration to uphold the Iran nuclear deal, I noted that the precise posture that the Trump White House will have toward Iran is not yet known. Today, we got our first insight into just how confrontational that posture will be. And it doesn’t look good.
Trump National Security Advisor Michael Flynn said in a White House briefing that, “As of today, we are officially putting Iran on notice.” According to Flynn, Iran’s recent test of ballistic missiles, which he said is “in defiance of UN Security Council Resolution 2231,” along with an alleged attack on a Saudi naval vessel “conducted by Iran‐supported Houthi militants” in Yemen, serve as evidence of “Iran’s destabilizing behavior across the entire Middle East” and make clear that the nuclear agreement signed by Iran and the P5+1 has “emboldened” Iran to act nefariously in the region, “plac[ing] American lives at risk.”
Flynn’s statement amounts to heated, combative rhetoric over rather trivial issues. Only one of the incidents cited by Flynn was an Iranian action. While it’s true that Iran supports the Houthi rebels in Yemen, it has never been clear exactly how much support they give and it is doubtful Iran has the kind of leverage over the militants that make them qualify as strategic proxies. At the end of the day, whatever instability is caused by Iranian support for the Houthis, it doesn’t hold a candle to the regional instability caused by Sunni jihadists, like al‐Qaeda‐linked groups and ISIS, that have been supported with funds coming out of Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf states. Rather than berate the Saudis with threatening bombast in a White House briefing, though, Washington continues to aid the Saudi military as it relentlessly bombs Yemen, killing thousands of civilians, putting millions at risk of starvation, and committing acts that a United Nations panel said could amount to crimes against humanity.
With regard to Iran’s ballistic missile test, the reality is far less alarming than Flynn’s words suggest. The nuclear deal itself doesn’t prohibit these missile tests. And as Dan Joyner, professor of international law at the University of Alabama School of Law, explains, “the assertion that Iran’s ballistic missile tests…violate UN Security Council resolutions is incorrect because, as of Implementation Day, all UNSCR’s adopted prior to that date regarding Iran are terminated except for Resolution 2231. And the language that Resolution 2231 employs in addressing Iran’s ballistic missile activity is legally nonbinding language…[T]here can thus be no violation of a legal obligation that doesn’t exist.”
As The Wall Street Journal reports, “UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorsed the deal, ‘called upon’ Iran to avoid any activity related to missiles designed to be capable of carrying nuclear warheads.” It’s hard to confirm one way or the other, but for what it’s worth Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told the Journal that none of Iran’s missiles are designed to carry a nuclear warhead and the tests involved “conventional warheads that are within the legitimate defense domain.” Given that Iran has verifiably rolled back its nuclear enrichment program over the past year, it makes sense that they would have little interest in designing missiles that can carry nuclear warheads, especially given the added international scrutiny it would needlessly attract.
Flynn’s statement indicates an eagerness to stir up tensions with Iran over relatively innocuous issues. This will undoubtedly be perceived in Tehran as threatening, thereby bolstering the more hawkish voices in Iran and undermining the future viability of the Iran nuclear deal, despite the fact that, as the International Crisis Group recently reiterated, “It has delivered so far on its narrow objective: effectively and verifiably blocking all potential pathways for Iran to race toward nuclear weapons.”