Philip Gordon is the Mary and David Boies senior fellow in U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was White House coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf Region from 2013 to 2015.
Despite having promised during his election campaign that his No. 1 priority was to “dismantle the disastrous nuclear deal with Iran,” President Trump has so far refrained from doing so. Indeed, during his nearly eight months in office, Trump has twice certified to Congress that Iran is in compliance with that deal and has continued to waive the economic sanctions on Iran that the United States agreed to lift as part of the agreement. On Sept. 14, the next deadline for considering those waivers, the president is expected to again renew them, lest the United States be blamed for destroying an agreement that the rest of the U.N. Security Council, the European Union, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and just about every other country in the world agree is working.
At the same time, however, Trump and some of his senior officials now are reported to have a new plan in mind — not to blow up the deal but to renegotiate a better one. According to Bloomberg’s Eli Lake, administration officials think this could be achieved by punting the issue to Congress for action and using the threat of renewed sanctions as leverage to get the Iranians to agree to fundamental changes in the agreement. These revisions would include changes to the duration of limits on Iran’s uranium enrichment capacity, greater constraints on its ballistic missile development and greater access for international inspectors to Iran’s military sites.
As attractive as such an outcome would be, the notion that it can be achieved in this way is a fantasy. There is virtually no chance the other parties to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action would agree to insist on such changes (even under the threat of U.S. “secondary sanctions”) and virtually no chance Iran would agree to the changes even if new talks somehow took place. Instead of a new and better agreement, we would quickly be back to a place where Iran was advancing toward a potential nuclear weapons capability, and the United States had to decide whether to accept it or prevent it with military force — this time with virtually no international support and while dealing with an urgent nuclear crisis in North Korea at the same time.
The administration’s potential approach, promoted by sanctions expert Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and hinted at in a speech by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley last week, would consist of Trump reporting to Congress in mid-October that he could no longer certify that Iran was in compliance with the deal. He could pin this “decertification” on some minor technical violations Iran has been accused of, or if that seemed like too much of a stretch given repeated IAEA reports to the contrary, simply declare that the deal was not in the U.S. national security interest, another of the criteria mentioned in the congressional legislation that allowed the deal to go ahead. Congress would then feel free to tee up the sanctions that, according to the plan, would force everybody back to the table.
Unexplained is what happens if that rosy scenario somehow does not come about. The United States will be seen as having violated a deal that was working, the Iranians will feel free to resume their nuclear activities, and the strong international coalition that forced Iran to the table in the first place with its global sanctions will be impossible to put back together.
The concerns about Iran’s ballistic missile development and its destabilizing activities throughout the Middle East are hardly misplaced. U.S. and international sanctions can and should be used to punish Iran for such activities and are not inconsistent with the nuclear deal. It also makes sense to undertake discussions with our key international partners about how to handle Iran after some of the current agreement’s nuclear restrictions expire. But trying to suddenly conjure up a brand-new deal that addresses every problematic aspect of Iran’s foreign policy and blocks its path to a nuclear weapon is a recipe for achieving neither set of goals.
Critics of the Iran nuclear deal like to point to North Korea as the case against “flawed” agreements. But the North Korea precedent actually carries a different message. Not long after the Clinton administration had negotiated an agreement in 1994 to stop Pyongyang’s nuclear program, a newly elected Republican majority in Congress withdrew support for that agreement, insisting that the Clinton administration negotiate a “better deal.” In part as a result, and not surprisingly, we ended up not with a better deal but with no deal at all — and the paranoid, nuclear-armed North Korea that we are dealing with today. Congress and the administration should keep that precedent in mind before they make the same mistake.