The Trump decision: dangerous, irresponsible, and full of implications for North Korea

May 9, 2018

Trump’s decision to reimpose sanctions on Iran clearly violates the multilateral Iran nuclear deal, known officially as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). While the move is unsurprising—given Trump’s failure to recognize the nonproliferation value of the deal and frequent threats to walk away—it is dangerous and irresponsible, and it risks manufacturing a nuclear crisis that the international community cannot afford.

There was no legitimate reason for Trump to reimpose sanctions. For the past two years, the nuclear deal has verifiably restricted Iran’s nuclear program and subjected it to intrusive monitoring and verification. Even critics of the deal, such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have admitted that there is no evidence that Iran is in violation of the agreement.

Trump’s main criticism—that the deal paves the way to an Iranian nuclear weapon in 10 years—is based on a flawed analysis that discounts the value that the permanent monitoring mechanisms and prohibitions put in place by the deal possess. They are a bulwark against nuclear weapons development.

By violating the deal, Trump has only isolated the United States and undermined Washington’s credibility. His “plan B” —to negotiate a “better deal” with Iran— is completely unrealistic. After this clear demonstration that the United States cannot be counted on to implement an agreement in good faith, Trump will be hard pressed to gain any support for sanctions, let alone new talks. As a result, Trump is inciting a proliferation crisis, rather than working with allies to develop a long-term diplomatic strategy that would build on the agreement in the years ahead and address Iran’s malignant activities outside of the accord.

Despite Trump’s reckless decision to reimpose sanctions, it would be premature to declare the nuclear deal dead. The JCPOA is a multilateral agreement endorsed by the UN Security Council and Washington’s P5+1 partners—China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom—which have pledged to implement the deal, irrespective of US actions. And these states and the European Union have powerful tools at their disposal to block the secondary effects of US sanctions.

It will be critical that these states move quickly to insulate legitimate business from US sanctions, demonstrating to Iran that there is still an incentive—trade with Europe and other developed economies—to continue abiding by the nuclear commitments made under the accord. Failure to ensure that Iran has international trading opportunities will make it more likely that Tehran will respond to Trump’s violation by breaching the nuclear limits. While Iran is unlikely to dash for a bomb, Iranian officials have left the door open to restart uranium enrichment to 20 percent uranium 235, a level of fissionable material currently prohibited by the deal. If Iran choses this path it would destabilize the region and increase the risks of conflict.

Trump’s decision has nonproliferation consequences beyond Iran. Trump is about to sit down at an important summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to discuss denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. Violating the Iran deal undermines US credibility in those negotiations and sends a message to Kim Jong-un that even if an agreement is reached and North Korea abides by its terms, there’s no guarantee that Washington will fulfill its commitments. This is a dangerous precedent to set and risks this historic opportunity to de-escalate tensions with North Korea.