Within the next few days, the Trump administration will decide whether to continue to waive nuclear sanctions on Iran, which were lifted as part of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Given that the International Atomic Energy Agency has repeatedly confirmed that Iran is complying with the agreement, a failure to renew the waivers would amount to a unilateral U.S. violation of the deal.
President Trump has argued for a better deal — one in which, for instance, Iran accepts permanent limits on its enrichment program or its missile development. But is that realistic?
A look at past nonproliferation diplomacy with Iran suggests that any U.S. effort to win still more concessions would fail. Three factors made the 2015 concessions possible: an uptick in Iranian nuclear provocations, a powerful multilateral coalition to stop those and domestic receptivity in Iran. None of those conditions exists now.
Iran’s increased nuclear activity in the 2000s got the world’s attention
As I examine in my recent book, the United States has been trying to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons for more than 40 years. In the 1980s and 1990s, the United States tried and failed to halt Iran through sanctions and preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear technology. Because the U.S.-Iran economic relationship was already limited, U.S. sanctions had little bite. And the lack of clear-cut Iranian violations of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which it had signed, made it hard to build a strong international coalition.
Then in 2002, Iranian dissidents revealed that Iran was secretly constructing a nuclear enrichment facility at Natanz, which could produce highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon. Subsequently Iran admitted to the IAEA that it had been involved in a variety of clandestine nuclear activities. After diplomacy failed, in 2006 Washington prodded the United Nations into imposing multilateral sanctions on Iran.
However, these sanctions, and more imposed in 2007 and 2008, focused primarily on constraining Iran’s nuclear industry and did little damage to Iran’s broader economy — partly because Russia and China worked to water down the provisions.
Then in 2009 the United States discovered that Iran had secretly constructed another enrichment facility at Fordow. Iran argued that it needed the plant to supply fuel for its nuclear reactors — but rejected a diplomatic bargain that would have guaranteed a supply of nuclear fuel in exchange for shipping much of its low-enriched uranium out of the country.
The sanctions that pushed Iran to negotiate were strongly multilateral
Washington then organized the most powerful multilateral sanctions regime in the history of nonproliferation efforts.
In June 2010, the Security Council passed Resolution 1929, which imposed not just an arms embargo on Iran but also, for the first time, broader financial restrictions. After obstructing strong measures in the past, Russia finally agreed to impose enhanced sanctions. That change came largely because of the Fordow revelation, Iran’s rejection of a diplomatic deal and Russia’s short-lived desire to improve relations with Washington.
Over the next few years, the United States and European Union tightened the noose on the Iranian economy. The European Union banned investment in much of Iran’s oil and gas industry, imposed an oil embargo and cut off Iran from the SWIFT financial network. Meanwhile, the United States imposed sweeping secondary sanctions, which effectively cut off entities that did business with Iran or did not reduce purchases of Iranian oil from using the U.S. financial system.
Collectively, these measures had a crushing effect on the Iranian economy, reducing Iranian oil exports by more than 50 percent and causing the Iranian economy to contract.
But it still took Iranian domestic politics to get a deal
Even then, it’s unlikely that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would have reached a deal. But in June 2013, Iranian voters replaced Ahmadinejad with Hassan Rouhani. Unlike his predecessor, Rouhani favored greater engagement with the West and supported compromising on the nuclear issue to end international sanctions. With the implicit backing of Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, Rouhani quickly reached an interim agreement with the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany, signed in November 2013.
What this means for Trump’s decision
Not one of the three crucial factors that helped produce Iranian concessions in the deal is present today.
Iran has not violated the agreement or restarted its nuclear weapons program; rather, the IAEA has repeatedly confirmed Iran’s compliance with the agreement. Despite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent efforts to muddy the waters, there is no evidence that Iran is currently engaged in a nuclear weapons program.
Thus, it would be exceedingly difficult for the Trump administration to rally a strong multilateral effort to impose sanctions. Unless the United States is willing to force the “snapback” of sanctions through the JCPOA dispute resolution process — which would be difficult, given the lack of evidence of any Iranian violations — U.N. sanctions will not return. European countries have made clear that they intend to stay within the agreement and maintain economic ties with Iran. While the United States could reimpose secondary sanctions, the Trump administration would not be able to get the broad international cooperation that existed before the JCPOA.
Finally, Iran’s domestic politics would not support making greater concessions. Given that the United States would be violating the agreement, Iran would have strong nationalist motivations to stand firm. Iranian hardliners would be sure to seize on this as evidence that the United States cannot be trusted, and would push more aggressive policies. Iranian officials have said repeatedly that they are not open to renegotiation — and have threatened to respond to U.S. withdrawal from the deal by ramping up Iran’s enrichment program or even withdrawing from the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
It took 30 years of diplomacy and an unlikely confluence of factors to get Iran to agree to the JCPOA’s limits on its nuclear program. Attempting to achieve a better deal without any of these favorable conditions would be quixotic at best.
Nicholas Miller is an assistant professor in the department of government at Dartmouth College. His book, “Stopping the Bomb: The Sources and Effectiveness of U.S. Nonproliferation Policy,” was recently published by Cornell University Press.