The Iranian nuclear deal (officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) is back in the news. The Washington Post reported that President Donald Trump is expected to declare that the nuclear deal is not in the national interest of the U.S. in advance of the October 15 deadline to recertify, passing the issue to a reluctant Congress. Per U.S. law, the President is required to report to Congress every 90 days about whether or not Iran is complying with the deal, therefore meeting the terms for sanctions relief. By decertifying the deal, Trump is not withdrawing the U.S., but rather he is sending its fate into uncertain waters. However, it appears as no final decisions have been made yet and Trump may decertify the deal without recommending the reintroduction of sanctions to express his dissatisfaction of the deal for political gain. However, several Senate Republicans have expressed a desire to strengthen the deal or scrap it all together, echoing a suggestion made by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel at the UN General Assembly meeting in September. Sources close to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell say that he is not eager to take on the issue, but Republican leaders are confident that they will be able to put together a legislative fix to the deficiencies of the deal.
But Iran is cheating on the deal, so the U.S. should withdraw now and reimpose sanctions, right? This is where things get tricky. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), has reported four times since January 2017 that Iran is fully complying with the deal. However, there is an argument that has been advanced by the Institute for Science and International Security in Congressional testimony back in April, that Iran has exceeded the number of advanced centrifuges and amount of heavy water agreed to under the deal. A centrifuge is a device that is used to enrich uranium and heavy water is an essential component used in some types of nuclear reactors, both those designed to generate power and those designed to produce isotopes for nuclear weapons. The testimony also alleges that the IAEA’s reports have declined in quality and that Iran is not fully in compliance with the deal. In a separate report on September 21, the Institute has now stated that, ‘we assume that Iran has come into compliance on this issue,’ but nonetheless still argues that Iran is violating the deal, although it points to no cases where concrete violations have been made. According to sources within the CIA, the intelligence agency’s analysts have concluded that Iran is in compliance with the JCPOA. However, in a briefing for CIA Director Mike Pompeo this past spring where analysts presented these findings, Pompeo responded with, ‘Good. But we know they’re [Iran] cheating anyway—we’re just not seeing it yet.’ The Executive Director of the International Institute of Strategic Studies—Americas, Mark Fitzpatrick, has made a strong point in arguing that any decision to deny certification would be purely politically driven, rather than facts based given that there is no evidence to suggest that Iran is not in compliance.
The Trump Administration’s argument for decertifying the deal centres around narrowing the lines between the pursuit for nuclear weapons and Iran’s other destabilizing activities in the region, such as support for Hezbollah in Lebanon or the Houthis in Yemen. The nuclear deal was specifically crafted to avoid these issues and only address the nuclear program, a fact which has become one of the chief complaints of the deal. U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley recently suggested in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) that Iran could also be violating the deal through its ballistic missile development. Haley argued that you cannot separate missile technology from the development of nuclear weapons. However, as AEI fellow J. Matthew McInnis has argued, UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which was corollary to the nuclear deal, only ‘calls for’ Iran not to engage in ballistic missile activity. That terminology makes it unlikely that the Security Council will designate launches as a violation. Iran has stated that previous restrictions on their ballistic missile program were illegal and they will never negotiate on their legitimate defensive rights to ballistic missiles. This points to a key point missing from the debate on linking ballistic missiles to the nuclear program. Iran views its ballistic missile program as key to its defence and as a necessary deterrent to the U.S., Israel, and the Arab Gulf States. Without a strong conventional military, Iran is forced to rely on the threat of retaliation to deter any potential aggressor. While ballistic missiles could serve as a delivery mechanism for a nuclear weapon, they are currently the primary method for Iran to deter its enemies. As a result, the U.S. must stop thinking that limiting the missile program is the same as stopping the nuclear program. As noted above, the deal was narrowly tailored to avoid touching other issues. Decertifying and potentially withdrawing from the deal because of other issues will damage the U.S.’ reputation as a reliable partner. If the U.S. wants to address the other issues, such as the ballistic missile program or support for Hezbollah, the best way to do so is to prove that it is a reliable partner.
If the U.S. does decide to decertify or withdraw from the deal the most immediate consequence would likely result in Iran partially or completely withdrawing. In an interview with Al Jazeera, Iranian Foreign Minister Jawad Zarif said just this, in addition to condemning both Israel and Saudi Arabia for their efforts in pushing the U.S. to withdraw from the deal. In absence of the deal, Iran may begin to renew its efforts to acquire a nuclear weapon. A nuclear-armed Iran would upset the delicate regional balance in the Middle East, possibly triggering a nuclear arms race. Israel is currently the only power in the Middle East that possesses a nuclear weapons arsenal, although it has maintained a policy of nuclear opacity and has never admitted to possessing nuclear weapons. In the face a nuclear-armed Iran, it is uncertain as to what the Israelis would do. It is possible that they may conclude that a nuclear or conventional strike on Iran is the only way to prevent an Iranian nuclear strike. Iran may conclude that it needs to strike Israel first with its nuclear weapons before it loses them. On top of this, there is a chance for nuclear proliferation in Saudi Arabia. Back in 2013, it was reported that Saudi Arabia had invested in nuclear weapons projects in Pakistan and could obtain nuclear weapons from Islamabad should it find it necessary to so. This is a worst-case scenario, but there are a host of other potential drawbacks to decertifying or withdrawing from the deal. First, Iran will not be willing to engage with the U.S. on issues related to its support for terrorism in the region or its development of ballistic missiles. Second, the decision to not certify the Iran deal could effectively close the door to negotiations with North Korea on its own nuclear weapons program. Third, the deal stipulated that international arms sanctions on Iran would be lifted, but until 2020 the Security Council would have to approve all deliveries of conventional weapons. Should the U.S. unilaterally withdraw, it seems likely that Russia would have no incentive in following this guidance. The Russian arms industry stands to profit from Iran. Iran has not had access to advanced military equipment since the time of the Shah, thanks to international sanctions. Having access to Russian military equipment would allow Iran to modernize portions of its armed forces that are sorely lacking, such as its air force. Russia has already delivered the S-300 air defence system to Iran in 2016 and would likely stand to gain by selling the new S-400 air defence system, in addition to other weapons systems, such as the T-90 tank.
There is no good evidence available to the public to support the argument that the Iran deal is not in the national interest of the U.S. For deals of this nature to work, some amount of faith must be put in the other party. While U.S.-Iranian relations do not have the best track record, the U.S. must be willing to put faith in Iran that they will continue to abide by the nuclear deal. However, if hard evidence comes out that they are in violation, then the U.S. should withdraw from the deal. The U.S. must also realize that staying in the deal allows them better leverage to address Iran’s other activities as opposed to withdrawing or decertifying without sound evidence. Decertifying or withdrawing from the deal will only continue to sour relations with Iran and leave the Middle East an even more dangerous place.