May 8, 2018
The decision to leave the JCPOA is a blunder. The deal has significant flaws, notably a relatively brief duration and a failure to compel Iran to make a complete and correct declaration of all relevant nuclear activities—the bedrock of any effective verification system. Withdrawing from the agreement, however, only compounds those problems, shortening the duration and abandoning mechanisms to investigate and respond to compliance issues.
Ironically, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent bombshell revelation of Iranian deceit regarding its nuclear weapons development program offered an opening to improve and enforce the JCPOA. The United States and its allies could have taken Israel’s intelligence coup to the Joint Commission established by the deal, seeking a reinforced mandate for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). So armed, the agency could have investigated the revelations of undeclared equipment and facilities and, if confirmed, required them to be removed or rendered unusable.
Instead, the US withdrawal may lead to the worst of all worlds: an unconstrained Iranian enrichment program; a debilitated sanctions regime; and, a NATO Alliance riven by yet another fracture.
Where we go from here is unclear. The United States cannot expect much help from Russia or China, Tehran’s biggest oil customer. Last week in Washington, President Trump snubbed personal appeals by leaders from Britain, France, and Germany, so allied enthusiasm for restoring sanctions may well be limited. Iran has already announced that it will try to undermine the case for sanctions by continuing the deal with the remaining signatories. President Trump declared a willingness to deploy secondary sanctions against foreign companies that trade with Iran. Some will comply; others, with limited US interests or sovereign protection, will not. All will chafe at the unilateral US action.
Israel’s late foreign minister Abba Eban famously observed that his adversaries “never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” Sadly, the United States seems to be embracing that style of opportunism.
William H. Tobey
Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs