In April 2015, the Obama administration and five other world powers reached an agreement with Iran to lift economic sanctions in exchange for reductions in the Iranian nuclear weapons program. Negotiating with the United States, Russia, China, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, Tehran agreed to reduce centrifuge activity and surrender portions of its nuclear material so as to secure the eventual end of United States and European sanctions that were severely damaging its economy.
Given that Iran was willing to negotiate on the status of their nuclear program, it was clearly preferable for the US to attempt a deal rather than to engage in immediate military action. However, the Obama administration and its European partners failed to secure an agreement that created a permanently stable nuclear situation in the region. Instead, they relinquished the pressure of a united sanctions regime in exchange for nothing but a delay in Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The provisions of the accord allow the limit on enriching uranium to sunset in 2023, no doubt leading to a renewed Iranian push to create nuclear weapons.
For the United States to find a permanently successful deal with Iran, negotiations must begin and end with the principle that the Islamic Republic never acquire or seek to build nuclear weapons. Any ambiguity or loophole allowing this result must be seen as unacceptable, including the construction of weapons facilities disguised as civilian installations (a common tactic used by Iran to alleviate international scrutiny). The US must take a hard line on this provision; a nuclear Iran would not only gain military leverage against the US and its allies, but also set off a chain reaction around the Middle East and Central Asia, leading to an atomic arms race in the world’s most volatile region.
The Trump administration rightly decided this week that the 2015 deal will not lead to a permanently denuclearized Iran. In his speech declaring his refusal to certify Iran’s compliance with the deal, President Trump noted that that “the deal allows Iran to continue developing certain elements of its nuclear program. And importantly, in just a few years, as key restrictions disappear, Iran can sprint towards a rapid nuclear weapons breakout. In other words, we got weak inspections in exchange for no more than a purely short-term and temporary delay in Iran’s path to nuclear weapons.” The deal secures neither a complete deconstruction of current Iranian facilities nor future bans on Iranian proliferation.
Criticisms of the Trump move follow two major lines of argument. First, European heads of state and foreign affairs officials have claimed that the US president lacks the authority to dissolve the multinational accord. While Trump may lack the technical power to void the entire international document, he most certainly has the authority to dissolve the US executive agreement that lays out American responsibilities under the deal. Such an action, combined with the imposition of sanctions by Congress, would constitute the end of US participation. Second, proponents of the agreement argue that it has been effective and that attempting to make modifications could lead to its collapse. Unfortunately, no matter how effective the deal is under its current paradigm, its omission of permanent bans on Iranian proliferation make it a disaster waiting to happen.
The president and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also took a wise path for addressing their issues with the agreement. Instead of immediately rejecting the deal and moving to reimpose sanctions, which would have made further diplomatic efforts almost impossible, they have made clear that they wish to add a second-level agreement in addition to the current deal. This new agreement would lead to a permanent ban on Iranian proliferation and address connected issues like continuing ballistic missile tests. With a resolve to negotiate but a foundational principle rejecting the legitimacy of an Iranian nuclear state, the Trump administration has established the correct posture to secure a lasting resolution to the conflict.