President Donald Trump is expected to announce this week that he’ll scrap the Iran nuclear deal, former President Barack Obama’s compromise with Tehran not to pursue nuclear weapons in exchange for access to the global economy.
Trump has long derided the 2015 deal as “one-sided” and poorly negotiated. Key members of his administration, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary James Mattis and his own White House chief of staff, John Kelly, disagree.
To help us understand what is at stake, The Root spoke with three nuclear weapons and regional security experts to break down how important this deal is and what could happen if Trump decertifies it.
Officially called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the Iran deal was negotiated in 2015 to ensure that Tehran’s nuclear program is used for peaceful purposes. Over the years, Iran has been hit with stiff economic and political sanctions from the United Nations, United States, European Union and others because it was engaged in enriching uranium and other proliferation activities that would help it make a nuclear weapon. The ban included arms exports, bank account freezes against key individuals and companies, and bans on Iranian oil and natural gas exports. Keep in mind nuclear-specific sanctions are not the same as other forms of sanctions against the country.
The sanctions caused economic pains on Iran, which harms the country’s general population.
Indefinite isolation, former President Barack Obama believed, was not the best approach to punishing Iran. So he decided to make a hard choice: Face a nuclear Iran in a few years and have to deal with the Iranians as well as a nuclear North Korea, or make a tough deal that was bound to piss off most of the hawks in the GOP and regional U.S. allies who have legitimate grievances about Tehran destabilizing their countries by supporting terrorism. The logic was that if America has to face Iran in a military standoff, Tehran would not have nuclear weapons at its disposal—unlike North Korea.
Every 90 days, the U.S. president has to certify that Iran is honoring the deal. Trump certified the deal earlier this year.
It depends on whom you ask. Generally, the thinking is that Iran is a bad regional player that is already menacing its neighbors by supporting Hezbollah. Hezbollah has supported rebels in Yemen, sent fighters to Syria and trainers to Iraq. It is also the nemesis of Israel, America’s top ally in the region.
Iran is causing plenty of regional problems with conventional weapons and well-funded terrorism. If it has nuclear weapons, Tehran will be even more of a problem because, if it has to, it can always threaten to nuke its enemy out of existence. If, say, Israel struck nuclear facilities in Iran, that would still cause a chain reaction in which Tehran could deploy fighters throughout the region to destabilize it. It would be a terror campaign that would never end.
The idea behind the Iran nuclear deal is to get Tehran to see the benefits of engaging the global community. Over time, the hope is that its leadership will lose interest in a nuclear program.
Saeid Golkar, a nonresident scholar for Iran policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, said another less-discussed factor is that many young Iranians are very pro-American and support the deal’s framework—even though Americans did not do much to earn their respect, he added.
“During Obama’s presidency, because of his behavior towards Iran, he was more popular than Trump because of the travel ban and his undermining of the deal,” Golkar said. “Right now, there is a very [combative attitude] towards the U.S., but generally Iranians are still very pro-American. Because they are afraid of the strain the sanctions will impose on Iran, which will lead to a harsh economic situation and high inflation.”
Pretty much every one of Iran’s enemies. The deal may ensure that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon, but it does nothing to punish Tehran for sponsoring terrorism and destabilizing the region.
Asha Castleberry—a national security expert who served as the Kuwait desk officer for international military affairs, U.S. Army Central, for 30 months during her 10-year career—said the Obama administration decided to settle with Iran by letting it continue to support such groups in exchange for its not having a nuclear program. She brought up the example of North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, whose country has an estimated 20 nuclear weapons or 60, depending on whose estimates you use. Negotiating with a nuclear enemy is far tougher than dealing with a nonnuclear one, she said.
Of course, some of Iran’s neighbors were opposed to the deal for very legitimate reasons.
“In their neighborhood, they feel they are being threatened by proxy groups that are supposedly funded by Iran,” Castleberry said. “In the south of Saudi Arabia, you have Iran propping up the Al Houthis in Yemen that are a threat to [Riyadh]. In Syria, you have Iran working with the Bashar al-Assad regime forces that are also a threat to Saudi Arabia. Then you have them working with Hezbollah, that’s a threat to Saudi Arabia and Israel and other places. So, yes, in their eyes, [the Iran deal] is uncomfortable and something they did not want because they felt Iran was going to use that money [that would be freed after sanctions dropped] to support those groups.”
Congress will have up to 60 days to decide if it will restore pre-Iran-deal sanctions against Tehran. If Congress does slap Tehran with sanctions, that would technically violate the deal, and Iran could pull out and resume its nuclear weapons program. But that likely will not happen. As Michael Wilner over at FiveThirtyEight notes, the likely approach Congress will take is a symbolic vote against Iran without jeopardizing the practical functions of the deal.
So, what, then, does Trump have to gain from pulling out of the deal? Optics.
“A lot of it’s perception,” said Bonnie D. Jenkins, former U.S. ambassador for threat-reductions programs. “He really doesn’t like a lot of stuff that Obama has done, so there doesn’t have to be a lot of rationale for what he does. His rationale is that this is something that is associated with Obama, so he’s trying to find a way to get out of the [Iran deal], but he doesn’t have the evidence to do it.”
Another point is that Trump does not have unilateral power to dismantle the deal, either, since the United Kingdom, France, China, Russia and Germany are all parties to the deal, too. Even if the U.S. wants to play the rogue player, the rest of the parties can maintain their commitments to the deal without disrupting its main purpose: to keep Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
“The agreement won’t end because the U.S. decides not to certify it, Jenkins, an Obama appointee, said.
No one with common sense wants that. Of course, Trump has neither common sense nor an appreciation for how limited American options are in the region. Indeed, the U.S. military is the best in the world, and could defeat Iranian forces in a conventional war situation. The problem is that it would never be a military-to-military scenario that some will neatly map out in their minds (think Iraq). Besides deploying Hezbollah forces and other terror groups against U.S. forces, Iran would be no cakewalk.
“Iran is not Iraq. It is not Afghanistan. It’s much bigger. Much stronger militarily, and it is very difficult to fight in Iran,” Golkar said. “You cannot change the Iranian regime because as soon as you fire the first missile in Iran, the people will support the regime. [A military strike] will help the regime consolidate the power and suppress any kind of reform. Nationalists will rally behind the regime and they will have a good alibi: ‘We reached a deal and the United States just threw it away.’”
The Iran nuclear deal is not perfect. America has very limited options in the region, which makes conservatives hungry for war unhappy. But it is the best option Washington, D.C., has. With the State Department in disarray and the chance that Tillerson may not be in his position for long, a stable deal needs to be in place. Washington doesn’t need the stress of dealing with a nuclear North Korea and a nuclear Iran.
Castleberry added that neither Trump nor the GOP has better ideas.
“He’s not proposing a better alternative,” she said. “That was the problem with him and the Republicans. If we have a deal with Iran that stops them from building a nuclear weapons program and you want to get rid of it, give me a better alternative that can stop them. They don’t have one. So are you going to allow them to proliferate?”