nuclear deal

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. 

The Paris Agreement and the Future of Nuclear Nonproliferation Efforts

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.

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