Trump’s Decision: the JCPOA or Something Else?

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. 

Option #1 is new sanctions, an option that seems even less feasible now than it did last fall. America’s European allies are largely unwilling to join new sanctions, particularly given Donald Trump’s likely role in blowing up the successful nuclear deal.

Option #2 is a regional military effort against Iranian proxies. Is already underway to some extent, as the Trump administration pursues military-focused policies in Syria and elsewhere. It’s risky for US troops and unlikely to be successful. Whether this effort is effective or not, however, it does nothing to curb Iran’s nuclear potential.

Option #3 is regime change “from within,” a favorite of Trump’s new National Security Advisor John Bolton. As we explored in the paper, there are no viable candidates for such support, and again, it does nothing to resolve the nuclear question.

Option #4 is direct military conflict. While the Trump administration doesn’t appear to be considering large-scale military action against Iran, this is still an option, and one with potentially disastrous consequences that should be clear to anyone who has watched the last two decades of American foreign policy.

In the report, we recommend a fifth option: continued engagement and the negotiation of additional agreements to strengthen and support the JCPOA’s existing parameters. This has by far the best likelihood of success. Yet it is this approach that Trump appears likely to discard, and this approach that Netanyahu today begged the President to ditch.

President Trump has only a few weeks left to make one of the most consequential decisions of his presidency. The JCPOA is not perfect. Yet ripping up the deal now based on old grudges will not improve the situation: the alternatives are far worse.

Read our report and see for yourself.