Will The US Walk Away from the Iran Nuclear Deal?

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by Dennis Ross*

There has never been any doubt about how President Donald Trump views the JCPOA, the Iran nuclear deal. He has called it the worse deal ever made. He has said if the Europeans don’t address his concerns about ballistic missiles, inspections of military facilities, and the sunset provisions, he will walk away from the deal in May. On the sunset provisions, which refer to the limits the JCPOA imposes until 2030 on Iranian centrifuges (both number and type) and the output of enriched material they are permitted, Trump wants these limitations not to end but to be ongoing.

The president’s concerns are legitimate. And, the European desire to preserve the JCPOA does give the British, French and Germans an incentive to address the issues that Trump is raising. One of them, the inspections on military facilities, can already be pursued if the administration identifies suspect sites, with supporting justification for the suspicions; if the Iranians deny access to the site in question, the Iranians would then be in breach of their obligations. From this standpoint, it is up to the Trump administration to raise the sites it wants inspected. And, the Europeans are likely to make this point.

As for the other two issues, the effort to limit Iran’s ballistic missiles and the sunset provisions, both were part of the negotiations that produced the JCPOA. On the ballistic missiles, the Iranians rejected any limitation and the US and the other members of the 5+1 decided to conclude the deal anyway, believing the limits on Iran’s centrifuges and enriched material as well as the verification of the entire Iranian nuclear infrastructure were too important to give up. Similarly, the sunset provisions were agreed upon, and no doubt the Iranians will demand compensation for any adjustment to them—presumably access to dollar accounts in the United States which would make financing foreign investments significantly easier.

The question becomes how far the Europeans are willing to go in trying to address President Trump’s concerns. They clearly want to preserve the JCPOA and they know the administration is not going to accept compensation to the Iranians for lifting or amending the sunset provisions or for gaining Iranian agreement on rolling back their ballistic missile testing. And, yet, the Europeans also understand that neither Russia nor China will support their efforts to come up with supplemental arrangements without compensation to the Iranians. Hence, the Europeans have a dilemma.

However, there could be an interesting alternative. Rather than trying to reach supplemental agreements that require Iranian (and Russian and Chinese) acceptance, the Europeans could propose a US-British-French-German agreement in which we would collectively commit to observing the JCPOA as it currently is, while also putting the Iranians on notice that we will reserve the right to impose new sanctions after 2030 if the Iranians are increasing their output of enriched uranium and building their stockpile of enriched material in a way that reduces Iran’s break-out capability to less than a year. No doubt, the Iranians would cry foul. They would argue that their concessions were based on the 15 year timetable for these limitations, and their readiness to continue to accept other intrusive verification measures for up to an additional ten years were also part of the broader understandings. But the US and its allies could say that they are not walking away from the deal, simply putting Iran on notice about their collective views and that the Iranians need to be aware that the reduction in their break-out time will be seen as a threat. And, the US and Europeans may respond at that time.

Because such an approach would not necessarily mandate new sanctions after 2030, the Trump administration could decide that it is not tough enough and demand more. The problem is that it is unlikely to get more from the Europeans.

Of course, there is another very different option. For example, the administration could seek agreement now on new sanctions related to Iran’s de-stabilizing behavior in the region and say in return for those it will not walk away from the nuclear deal. Such an approach offers a different kind of trade-off, seeking to use the European desire to keep us in the deal not to produce moves on the sunset provisions or the ballistic missiles but to counter the Iranians in the region. Precisely because what Iran is doing in the region—especially in Syria and Yemen—is raising the risk of wider conflict and escalation, the Trump administration could decide the more immediate danger must be dealt with and its leverage with the Europeans should be used for this purpose.

Whatever the Trump administration decides to do, it needs to consider the consequences of walking away from the nuclear deal without an understanding with the Europeans. Absent an understanding, the US walk away will be alone. The US will be isolating itself and not the Iranians. The Iranians will present themselves as the victims and use it as leverage to get the Europeans to offer them more to stay in the JCPOA. And, the Europeans fearing the collapse of the deal are likely not only to do more economically with Iran but also to resist all US attempts to get the British, French and Germans to join us in raising the price to the Iranians of their aggressive policies in the Middle East.

Ironically, now is the time, given the anger the Iranian public recently expressed over the monies spent in Syria and Lebanon, that the US and its allies should be raising both the awareness and the costs of Iran’s adventurism in the region. If the European desire to keep the Trump administration in the JCPOA could be used to produce British, French and German support for sanctions on Iran for what it is doing in Syria and Yemen (where it is actually violating UNSC resolutions 2216 and 2231), it would be a smart use of American leverage.

Time will tell whether the Trump administration will use or squander its leverage.

*American Middle East envoy Dennis Ross has served in the Administrations of Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama, and is counselor and Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington.