President Trump and Premier Netanyahu, two strident opponents of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal (the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA) discussed the agreement during their recent meeting and may have sealed its fate. Trump must decide by mid-October whether to certify that Iran remains in compliance, as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) maintains, and to extend the deal for a further ninety-day period. Netanyahu, who viewed the deal as a sellout that virtually ensures Iran will attain nuclear weapons, has called for it to be “fixed or nixed.”
When a President who is monumentally unsuited for high office, whose personality mixes unbridled ambition with deep-seated insecurity, confers with a Premier of similar ambition and uncompromising bent, whose reach consistently exceeds his grasp, the outcome may be worrisome. This is especially true at a time when both face severe legal challenges to their political futures and have taken public stands against the deal that will be hard to reverse regardless of what their respective defense establishments advise—to say little of America’s more pressing nuclear crisis in North Korea (whose outcome is actually of great consequence for Israel as well).
In reality, the options they face are few and poor.
Simply reopening the deal and negotiating a better one is a fantasy. The co-signatories, including Britain, France, and Germany, have made it abundantly clear that they are opposed to this, and Iran certainly has no intention of doing so. U.S. attempts to reopen the deal would strengthen Iranian hardliners, who have long portrayed the agreement as subterfuge for malevolent American intent. Iran has already threatened to withdraw and renew the nuclear program, should the United States fail to recertify it. Since the IAEA has determined that Iran is in compliance with the accord, detractors’ claims to the contrary notwithstanding, international opprobrium would fall nearly universally on the United States. Moreover, Iran has already gained many of the economic benefits that accrue to it under the agreement and may thus have an even more limited interest in preserving it. In some ways, a U.S. attempt to reopen the deal would be a win-win-win for Iran.
The United States could abrogate the deal unilaterally, or try to push the Iranians to the point that they would do so. One way of achieving the latter is the recent spate of ideas, according to which the United States would decertify Iran but not renew sanctions, or decertify and threaten to renew sanctions if Iran fails to accede to various demands. In either case, the United States would lose the co-signatories’ support and Iran would be free not just to renew the nuclear program but also to rapidly cross the operational threshold.
Another option, which remarkably appears to have gained renewed traction in Washington recently, is regime change. This is a laudable goal in and of itself; if ever there was a regime that warranted change, it is Iran’s. All the same, there is absolutely nothing new in this idea. Indeed, regime change has been U.S. policy ever since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, pursued in the interim at varying levels but with zero success. In reality, the belief in externally fomented regime change in Iran is folly. The United States has not successfully fomented regime change anywhere in the world for decades, without a military invasion, and will certainly not succeed in the case of a regime that still enjoys considerable domestic legitimacy. If change comes at all in Iran, it will come from within, and it is not imminent. Public statements by the United States in favor of regime change and open support for opposition groups will merely serve to confirm the regime’s deepest fears and solidify the position of the hardliners, leading it to further hunker down.
A targeted military strike against the critical nuclear sites is easily within U.S. capabilities, and the potential downsides, including the danger of a broader regional deterioration and consequent need for greater American military involvement, are probably highly overblown. A military strike may prove necessary at some future point, when all other options have truly been exhausted, but we are nowhere near there today. It is important to recognize, however, that such an attack would likely lead the Iranians to reconstitute the program and attempt to rapidly cross the nuclear threshold. Military action could thus do no more than buy a limited amount of time—an important achievement in its own right—which could then be used to bring all of the other non-military options back into play once again and thereby further extend the period of time gained but probably not resolve the issue.
Only a diplomatic agreement may provide a long-term resolution, and there is already one in place. Like all compromise agreements, the JCPOA has significant flaws, but has so far proven effective. Instead of pursuing new options, which are no more than detours on the path back to a future diplomatic deal, we should focus on ensuring strict adherence to the existing one, while redressing its flaws.
This requires a painful recognition that the existing deal is the only realistic option and must remain the basis for the ongoing effort to prevent Iran from going nuclear. To this end, meticulous adherence to the deal by the United States and its co-signatories is a prerequisite, to justify ongoing and especially intensified supervision of Iran’s compliance.
Strict American adherence is also essential to maintain U.S. credibility as the leading international actor. If one American administration can simply walk away from commitments made by its predecessors, especially when the international body responsible for overseeing the agreement and virtually all credible observers agree that Iran is in compliance, U.S. credibility will be severely undermined. No country in the future would have the confidence required to reach agreement with the United States, and American foreign policy would suffer a severe blow. Israel, too—which is ultimately dependent on American negotiated agreements or at least intervention in a variety of areas, not just on Iran, but the Palestinian issue, conflicts with Hezbollah and Hamas, and more—would also be adversely affected.
The above should not be misconstrued as a call for passivity, or unquestioning acceptance of a flawed deal. It is, however, a call for realism. As any adult knows, life, whether personal or diplomatic, is all about the realistically doable given the world as it is, not merely as we wish it to be. A number of measures can, however, be taken to ensure strict implementation of the existing deal and to address its primary shortcomings.
First, in a lengthy and technologically complex legal document, which included both unavoidable ambiguity and some intentional obfuscation necessary to reach agreement, the room for conflicting interpretations is considerable. Furthermore, the Iranians are past masters at taking advantage of such ambiguities and will push the envelope to the best of their ability. Any country would do the same; the Iranians are just better at it than most. The United States and Israel, and even more importantly the United States and the European co-signatories to the deal, must thus reach agreement on those Iranian actions that would be held to constitute violations of the deal and the corrective measures to be adopted.
In a similar vein, action by the United States and European co-signatories, in at least some collaboration with Russia and China, the other co-signatories, is necessary to address some specific areas of ambiguity in the agreement. One such example is the recent request by the Secretary General of the IAEA for his agency’s supervisory role to be clarified in regard to one of the clauses.
Most importantly, however, agreement is necessary on the measures to be adopted once the existing deal expires, the so-called “sunset clause”, to ensure that Iran, one of the world’s most dangerous regimes, will never be allowed to cross the nuclear threshold. The primary means of achieving this should be a new follow-on agreement, hopefully negotiated with Iran but imposed unilaterally, if necessary, by all co-signatories and as much of the international community as possible upon the current agreement’s expiration. The administration has already begun actively pursuing this idea.
The attempts to promote a follow-on agreement may have begun prematurely; it might have been wiser to leave the issue to a later stage, say year seven of the deal (five years from now). Nevertheless, the Administration’s threats to walk away from it entirely may have had the salutary effect of increasing the willingness of the Europeans and others to pursue this now. Encouragingly, French President Macron has expressed support. If the follow-on agreement—an addition to, not a substitute for, the JCPOA—is also necessary for Trump and Netanyahu to claim that they lived up to their promises to replace the existing agreement with a better one, then so be it.
Containing Iran’s hegemonic ambitions will be a generational challenge, and we are still at the beginning. The 2015 deal wisely focused on the nuclear program, by far the greatest danger Iran poses to the United States and its allies and the only potentially existential threat to Israel. Having addressed the nuclear issue, at least temporarily, the deal enables us to redouble our efforts to curtail Iran’s missile program, support for terrorism, involvement in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen, and human rights violations. The way to do so, however, is not by weakening or scrapping the existing deal, nor by linking it to Iran’s other misdeeds. Addressing them is a vital, but separate, battle.
A comprehensive American strategy is needed to contain Iran, including a more effective anti-Iranian Sunni coalition. If we are to succeed in our efforts to consolidate international support against Iran’s nuclear program and other malign activities, they must be viewed as the will of the (responsible) international community, not as attempts to sabotage the deal by those who opposed it from the beginning.
Finally, it would perhaps be surprising to some to find that the resolution of the Iranian issue is closely linked to the outcome of the North Korean crisis. The Iranians have undoubtedly been deeply impressed by Pyongyang’s ability to defy the United States ever since it crossed the nuclear threshold, and it will closely monitor U.S. efforts, and success, in addressing the current crisis. Moreover, there have been several reports that North Korea has secretly helped Iran circumvent the limitations imposed by the nuclear deal and of mutual support for the two countries’ respective missile programs.
The art of the deal, as Trump should certainly know (but Netanyahu, too), is to seek outcomes that all sides can live with. Knockout blows may be desirable but are not always realistic. The nuclear deal remains the best of the bad options and should be renewed. Then we can address the other issues.