President Trump announced Tuesday that the United States “will withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal.” Here at the Monkey Cage, we have covered the Iran deal from many different angles.
Here are five things to know about how we got here, what the U.S. pullout means and what happens next.
1. It’s very, very unlikely a new deal can be reached.
As Nicholas Miller explained Tuesday, a unique set of circumstances came together in 2015 to produce the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the formal name for the Iran nuclear deal.
Drawing on the history of U.S. nonproliferation policy, Miller noted that it took 30 years to get to the JCPOA, with many stalled efforts to rein in Iran’s nascent program along the way. As he summarized, “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.”
On the first point — an uptick in nuclear provocations — some pointed to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s revelation of Iran’s “nuclear archive.” But as Or Rabinowitz noted, although the documents confirm what Iran wanted to do in the past, they do not violate the JCPOA.
2. Iran might have been willing to change the “sunset” provisions Trump dislikes.
Recently, Dinshaw Mistry examined the “sunset” provisions in the JCPOA that the Trump administration criticized. Some JCPOA provisions might allow Iran to resume enriching some uranium in 10 to 15 years unless renewed, although there are other, permanent barriers in the JCPOA to Iran again pursuing a nuclear weapon. The West has worried about those expiration dates for parts of the JCPOA from the beginning, as Amy Nelson explained in a December 2015 post. But Mistry argued that Iran might be willing to agree to extend or renew the enrichment restrictions.
Why? First, Iran might agree if it has gotten reliable deliveries of fuel for its nuclear reactor, as it has thus far from Russia. And second, by limiting its own program, Iran would make it less likely that Saudi Arabia would pursue a nuclear program, for example.
Of course, Trump’s action Tuesday makes such a diplomatic fix less likely, unless the deal’s European partners step up.
3. Iran might be happy to get out of nuclear limbo.
As Rupal Mehta and Rachel Whitlark explained last year when Trump was toying with scuttling the JCPOA, the deal was not so great — for Iran. They noted that Iran is a “latent” nuclear power — they have “some technical and material ingredients for a bomb, but have not gone all the way to produce a nuclear weapon.”
But nuclear “latency,” as their research shows, imposes costs on countries that exist in this “state of technological limbo,” with few benefits. Thus, “Iran gets no major security or bargaining advantages by retaining some nuclear capabilities under the terms of the JCPOA. Indeed, Iran is arguably worse off now for having historically pursued enrichment and reprocessing capabilities, given the bite of the sanctions regime (and the international isolation).”
What does this mean going forward? Iran’s response so far has been to cautiously suggest it will negotiate with the remaining JCPOA partners to stay in the deal.
But as Mehta and Whitlark concluded, “If there are renewed threats of military force and sanctions, Iran may seek to cut its latency losses and reap the benefits of being a full-fledged nuclear state.”
4. Even if it acquired nuclear weapons, Iran might not become more aggressive.
Okay, so what would actually happen if Iran got the bomb? In this 2015 piece, Mark Bell argued that although some states become more aggressive when they acquire nuclear weapons, Iran does not seem likely to be one of them. As a “reasonably powerful state surrounded by weak and unstable neighbors,” Iran is “less likely to use nuclear weapons to become more aggressive,” Bell argued.
What’s more likely is that Iran would “steadfastly defend the status quo and resist challenges” to its position. That might not be great from the U.S. perspective, but it’s also not a particularly dramatic departure from today’s world, either.
5. But reneging on the deal also has negative consequences for dealing with Iran — and for making other agreements.
Even if Iran sticks to the deal or doesn’t drive for a nuclear weapon, Trump’s action Tuesday creates problems for dealing with not only Iran but also the country next up on Trump’s nuclear agenda: North Korea.
As Jane Vaynman explained last year, the JCPOA’s inspection provisions, which “go further than U.S.-Russia agreements and indeed most arms control cases,” come with a trade-off for Iran. It got the benefits of signaling its compliance but at the cost of letting outsiders get access to its military capabilities and potential targets in a conflict.
Vaynman concluded in October 2017 that a “U.S. violation” of the JCPOA would make “future agreements more difficult to negotiate.” If the U.S. demands even more information to prove countries like Iran (or North Korea) are not cheating on any future deal, those countries might balk, because “opening up to greater foreign observation would create additional safety concerns for a state’s other military capabilities and even regime survival where autocrats fear assassination or coup.” U.S. demands for a more stringent deal might therefore mean that “the need to maintain secrecy is likely to outweigh the benefit of such openness.”
More broadly, Trump’s action on the JCPOA makes it harder for the United States to signal it will uphold its international agreements, muddying the waters ahead of the North Korea talks Trump mentioned at the end of his Iran deal announcement.
As William Spaniel wrote when Trump was still a presidential candidate in July 2016, deals like the JCPOA rely on a simple logic: the potential proliferator gets some benefit from giving up its nuclear program. As he wrote, “There’s no incentive to uphold an agreement if rivals might capriciously cut concessions, restore sanctions, or otherwise skip out on their end of the bargain.”
Consider the message this sends to Kim Jong Un, a leader whose dedicated program has already defied the odds to produce a fairly advanced nuclear capability, as Malfrid Braut-Hegghammer explained in January.
Will North Korea’s Kim believe that Trump will hold up his end of any bargain? That remains to be seen. But Kim is probably very glad he can bring a nuclear capability to the table.
Elizabeth Saunders, one of The Monkey Cage’s senior editors, is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of “Leaders at War: How Presidents Shape Military Interventions.”