In the coming days, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is slated to issue its report on the state of Iran’s compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, the Iran nuclear deal). If, as seems likely, the IAEA declares Iran to be in compliance with the deal, that will set them at odds with President Trump. Against the recommendations of his own national security advisers, President Trump said in interview with the Wall Street Journal last month that if it were up to him he would have declared Iran non-compliant at the start of his Administration and expects to declare them non-compliant at either the sanctions waiver in September or the compliance certification in October.
Before he departed the White House, former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon asked former U.S. Ambassador to the UN John Bolton to prepare a strategy to abrogate the deal, which was published yesterday by National Review. Former intelligence officials say that the Administration is pressuring the intelligence community to find evidence of Iran’s non-compliance. And today, Iran rejected one of the administration’s key desiderata, as Reuters reports:
Iran has dismissed a U.S. demand for U.N. nuclear inspectors to visit its military bases as “merely a dream” as Washington reviews a 2015 nuclear agreement between Tehran and six world powers, including the United States. [….]
The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, last week pressed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to seek access to Iranian military bases to ensure that they were not concealing activities banned by the nuclear deal.
“Iran’s military sites are off limits … All information about these sites are classified,” Iranian government spokesman Mohammad Baqer Nobakht told a weekly news conference broadcast on state television. “Iran will never allow such visits. Don’t pay attention to such remarks that are only a dream.”
All of this suggests Trump will get his way, and the U.S. will be abrogating the deal within the next two months. What would that mean? The Trump Administration declaring that Iran is non-compliant with the deal would involve some combination of three components. First, it could cease waiving sanctions, most notably related to oil exports. Second, a statement of non-compliance, per the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015, would then shift the burden to Congress to craft appropriate legislation to respond to Iran’s transgressions. Lastly, the Administration could take the issue to the UN Security Council and initiate the so-called “snap-back” sanctions provisions of the deal.
Under those provisions, the Security Council would need to affirmatively pass a resolution stating that Iran is compliant with the deal. Crucially, the United States would then have the power to unilaterally veto that resolution, and thus unilaterally re-impose the previous UN sanctions.
We’ve written extensively about the flaws of the Iran nuclear deal. But taking this unilateral approach poses overwhelming risks. First, even the Bolton plan for abrogating the deal makes clear that first and foremost it would require a major diplomatic effort to get our European and other allies onside. As we’ve written before, there is no indication that this Administration has made even a preliminary effort to do so. If anything, it is Iran that is making the most concerted diplomatic effort to make clear that the United States would be responsible if the deal fails. The head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, said over the weekend that if the U.S. withdraws from the deal but the other parties to the JCPOA (i.e. Russia, China, France, the UK, Germany, and the EU) remain committed, that Iran will remain committed to the deal as well.
There are certainly ways that the United States could try to re-engineer aspects of the Iran nuclear deal, or to otherwise tailor sanctions to confront Iran’s other non-nuclear bad behavior. But without the support of our regional or European allies, and without an independent IAEA or U.S. intelligence community assessment that Iran is substantively violating the nuclear deal, unilateral abrogation could be disastrous. Absolved of its obligations, Iran claims that it could resume production of highly enriched uranium in a matter of days. In an atmosphere of profound distrust between European leaders and President Trump, there’s reason to doubt that they would resume sanctions, let alone follow the United States into any military action needed to destroy Iran’s enrichment capacity.
The Iran deal remains a bad one. But without that diplomatic groundwork of co-operation from our partners and allies, it’s a deal that the United States should not simply throw away.