The Iran Nuclear Deal: To Leave or Not to Leave

The future of the Iran nuclear deal—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—hangs in the balance as the May 12 deadline set by US President Donald J. Trump to “fix” the deal or to walk away from it approaches.

French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have preserving the JCPOA at the top of their agenda in meetings with Trump in Washington this week.

In an interview with Rachel Brandenburg, director of the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Security Initiative, the Atlantic Council’s Matthew Kroenig, deputy director for strategy in the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, and Aaron Stein, senior fellow in the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, offer different perspectives on whether the deal has worked and the possible consequences should Trump decide to pull out of the multilateral agreement.

Here are excerpts from our interview.

Q: What were your views on the JCPOA when it was first negotiated? How have your views changed, if at all?

Kroenig: I was a critic of the JCPOA when it was negotiated in 2015. I understand the Obama administration’s rationale for striking the deal, but I thought it was a mistake to allow Iran to keep a uranium enrichment program with limits that expire over time (the so-called sunset clauses).

The vast majority of countries in the world with peaceful nuclear programs, including our own allies, are not permitted to enrich uranium. Rather, they have nuclear fuel services provided by other, more advanced, nuclear states. 

Moreover, we had much leverage going into the negotiations, and I believe we could have used it to push for tougher terms. Subsequent events have reinforced this assessment. Even former defenders of the agreement in the United States and abroad now acknowledge that we need follow-on negotiations to address the gaps in the deal.

Stein: I was a supporter of the JCPOA and continue to be. I think the rationale for striking the deal was quite clear: a change in regime in Iran allowed for the two sides to seriously begin discussing how best to compromise over Iran’s nuclear program.

During the negotiations, I was concerned that the United States and international negotiators would focus only on Iran’s “breakout” time, or the basic mathematic formula that allows for outsiders to make an educated assumption about how long it would take Iran to enrich uranium to weapons grade. I thought this metric was useful back in the early days of the enrichment program, between 2003 and 2010, which was before Iran demonstrated that it could enrich to 20 percent. Once Iran did this, and the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] confirmed it, I thought the focus of US and international efforts should be on managing Iran’s enrichment program, placing restrictions on where Iran can enrich and thinking creatively about how to monitor the entirety of the fuel cycle. The JCPOA did just that. So, when it came out, I was happy to see that it focused on break-out and the fuel cycle. I gave it and US diplomatic efforts to reach it a solid A.

Q: In your view, what has been accomplished since the JCPOA was signed? Is the deal working?

Kroenig: Many argue that Iran is complying with the terms of the deal, therefore, the deal is working. But this only follows if the terms of the current deal are in the US interest. They are not. In fact, if Iran continues to comply with the deal, we will be in big trouble.

As Obama himself said, when the limits in this deal expire, the time it will take Iran to build nuclear weapons would have “shrunk almost down to zero.” So, again, for this deal to work, we need a sustained international effort to pursue follow-on negotiations toward a supplemental agreement to address the weak points in the JCPOA, including the sunset clauses. 

Stein: Yes. Iran is complying with the deal and the IAEA has verified that Iran is abiding by the JCPOA’s commitments. The critics want to make this about the so-called sunset provisions, and drill down on the expiration of limits on enrichment in year ten of the agreement.

I think this is the wrong way to look at the agreement. Yes, the overall restrictions on centrifuge numbers expire in year ten of the agreement. In parallel, restrictions on research and development (R&D) expire in eight and a half years, giving way to the worst-case scenario whereby Iran can test more advanced centrifuges and then face no restrictions on installation just one and a half years later. These twin events, then, will bring the break-out time to less than a year, giving way to a scenario where Iran could have the capability to rapidly enrich uranium to weapons grade.

All of this is true. And it is irrelevant. Iran would have been able to do this without the JCPOA. The P5+1 were able to get secondary restrictions, like on monitoring the fuel cycle and centrifuge manufacturing, that still gives the IAEA incredible visibility into the program until 2040. I think of it like this: Do I want a world where Iran can conduct R&D and enrich with basic IAEA safeguards, or do I want a world where Iran has extra limits imposed on its program until 2040, when it will then simply have to follow the same rules as everybody else? I choose the 2040 option every day because I trust that the IAEA or the international community would detect the diversion of material for non-peaceful use. Why? Because we discovered that Iran had a clandestine nuclear weapons program between 1987 and 2003 and were able to stop it.

Q: How has the deal contributed to regional or international security, if at all? What about to US national security interests?

Kroenig: The deal succeeded in its major goal of postponing the Iranian nuclear crisis. Before the deal was struck, the Obama administration faced an imminent choice between bombing Iran or letting Iran have the bomb. This deal, therefore, bought us time.

But it has not been without costs. We had to give up our major sources of leverage, including sanctions pressure, which will make it harder to strike a follow-on deal that permanently solves the problem. It has also set an undesirable precedent. Allies and partners, such as South Korea and Saudi Arabia, are saying that if Iran can operate sensitive nuclear facilities, then they can too.

I also believe it has given Iran a freer hand to pursue its ambitions at the expense of our regional partners. It is notable that all our regional partners publicly opposed the deal. 

Stein: I think core US national security interests rest on a strong transatlantic relationship and strong cooperation with Europe. The JCPOA has widespread support in European capitals, including in Paris, London, and Berlin, the United States’ three closest allies. I think the way the deal is portrayed is often incorrect. It is true that Saudi Arabia has made some noises about enrichment, trying to tie the JCPOA to its own efforts to reach agreement with the United States and a civil nuclear cooperation agreement. The two agreements could not be more different. I often laugh when I hear Saudis saying they want the same deal as Iran. I think, sure, why not, a twenty-five-year set of inspections in excess of what regular IAEA safeguards require could help set a useful precedent. So, yeah, go for it.

I think the real issue is that countries refuse to abide by the so-called gold standard,  the very unique agreement the United States reached with the United Arab Emirate (UAE) to forego enrichment as part of their civil nuclear agreement. The UAE is the outlier globally.

I think a better comparative case study is Vietnam, where the country refused to include binding language on enrichment and reprocessing in the agreement. Iran is another outlier. It is the only country with all these extra restrictions because it got caught trying to build nuclear weapons.

Q: What do you make of President Trump’s efforts to “renegotiate” the deal?

Kroenig: Many scoffed when Trump first promised to “renegotiate” the deal, but some effort at renegotiation will be inevitable due to the sunset clauses in the deal. The Trump administration’s strategy, as I understand it, has been to persuade the EU-3 (United Kingdom, France, and Germany) to agree in principle to follow-on negotiations to address the sunset clauses, ballistic missiles, and inspection rights.

According to some reports, an announcement from these four countries may be coming before May 12, 2018. Over time, it is hoped that Russia and China, and finally Iran itself, can be brought on board to discuss a “supplemental” agreement that fills the gaps in the JCPOA. This strikes me as the right approach. 

Stein: It is a unilateral abrogation of terms. The United States can try and reach a separate, missile-related deal or on the sunsets, but renegotiating the deal is just fancy language for a US violation.

Q: Many fear that with John Bolton as national security advisor and Mike Pompeo as secretary of state, Trump might pull out of the deal altogether. What would the consequences of that be? 

Kroenig: First, I should point out that there is a difference between attempting to renegotiate the deal and pulling out altogether. The consequences of the latter depend on the Trump administration’s strategy for dealing with the day after. If there is no a plan in place, the consequences could be disastrous. With a clear strategy, the consequences can be managed and may allow for the resumption of pressure that can pave the path toward a better agreement.

Stein:  Iran has told the world what it will do: it will begin enrichment to levels that the JCPOA now governs and the country will simply revert to the pre-2015 status quo. The US position will be weaker and Europe will be divided. I think it is a fair assumption to say that Russia and China will blame the United States for violating the agreement and refuse to work with Washington again.

The United States needs to be honest with itself—the JCPOA worked because it was a consensual political arrangement where the United States traded sanctions relief and enrichment for extraordinary inspections until 2040, which then turn into regular inspections. If the United States did not compromise, we would not have extraordinary inspections, just simply sanctions and an Iran that enriches and does what it wants independent of the United States.

Q: If the Trump administration does pull out of the deal, what do you recommend the United States do next?

Kroenig: I would recommend a four-part strategy. First, the Trump administration should clearly articulate its goals. The purpose is not to punish Iran, but to get it to agree to a truly peaceful nuclear program along the lines of the programs operated by our closest allies and partners.

Second, it should return to the pressure track and increase economic and political pressure on Iran.

Third, it should place a credible military option on the table to prevent Iran from dashing to build nuclear weapons.

Fourth, and finally, it should give Tehran a sharp choice between keeping an unnecessary enrichment program that is threatening to the region and the world and remaining under international sanctions or accepting a truly peaceful nuclear program and be welcomed back into the community of nations.

Stein: Be honest about US limitations. I don’t mean to be flip, but the toolbox will be very limited. Europe will be divided and US equities in Iraq and potentially Syria would place serious restraints on how aggressive Washington could be in “pushing back” to challenge Iran.

The president should be very forthright with the American people about the consequences and risks, including to top US priorities like the war against Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham [ISIS] and the stability of the Iraqi state, which would be affected by a return to looming conflict.

President Trump should also clearly articulate how he would get “tough with Iran” and explain how that comports with other elements of US policy, particularly in Iraq, where Iran is a co-combatant in the counter-ISIS war and a challenger for influence with the Iraqi central government.

I would also counsel honesty about the limits of US leverage, challenging assumptions about whether US forces deployed in large numbers in Iraq and Syria actually increase American leverage over Iran, or vice versa.

The strategy, as I understand it, would be to reapply sanctions and wait. Wait for the regime to collapse and hope that the next guys give up on enrichment. I’m not a fan of hope as a main driver of US foreign policy.

Matthew Kroenig is deputy director for strategy in the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. Follow him on Twitter @kroenig.

Aaron Stein is a senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter @aaronstein1.


Related Experts: Aaron Stein, Matthew Kroenig, and Rachel Brandenburg

Image: US President Donald J. Trump (right) and French President Emmanuel Macron left after addressing a joint news conference at the White House in Washington on April 24. (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)