When President Trump walked away from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA — he called it “disastrous,” saying that at “the heart of the Iran deal was a giant fiction that a murderous regime desired only a peaceful nuclear energy program.” He had long complained the agreement was “the worst deal ever negotiated,” and that he could get a better one. This week, the president found a new target in the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty or INF, an agreement that helped defuse Cold War nuclear tensions on the European continent by obligating the United States and Russia to eliminate all land-based missiles with ranges between a few hundred and a few thousand miles. On the sidelines of a political rally, Trump said “Russia has violated the agreement,” and added “I don’t know why President Obama didn’t negotiate or pull out.”
If his point is that these agreements are less than ideal, he’s right. What he doesn’t seem to get is that there’s no such thing as a perfect nuclear deal.
Following the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it took 17 years and a near-nuclear catastrophe in the form of the Cuban missile crisis for world leaders to get serious about implementing controls over the world’s most destructive weapons. From the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty to the 2011 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, progress has come in fits and starts. Some agreements, like the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, have sought to deal comprehensively with the nuclear threat and focused on universal adherence. Others, like the 1974 Threshold Test Ban Treaty, have focused on technical capabilities between smaller groups of nations. All these agreements have been part of a larger drive to save ourselves from ourselves, and all were imperfect.
The leaders and countries with whom U.S. leaders have negotiated these agreements have not always been ideal partners. A few years ago, in contravention of international law and consensus, Russia invaded and occupied Crimea; it provides cover for a Syrian regime that has used chemical weapons against its own people; and it interfered in America’s 2016 election. Iran underwrites violent extremist groups in the Middle East; it threatens its neighbors and represses its own citizens; it has held Americans hostage.
We may consider these countries adversaries, or reject their actions on the world stage, but we deal with them, anyway, because it’s in our national security interest to do so. Maybe the goal of a trade deal is to wrangle a competitive economic edge, but in a world with more than 14,000 nuclear weapons — over 90 percent of which are in the hands of the United States and Russia — the primary goal of an arms agreement isn’t scoring wins, it is reducing nuclear threats.
That is why the United States, partnering with Britain, China, France, Russia, Germany and the European Union, pushed for a nuclear deal with Iran. The objective of the negotiators was to slow and roll back Tehran’s pursuit of a nuclear capability in a verifiable manner. Would the United States have preferred to completely strip Iran’s nuclear capabilities? Perhaps, but that was never a possibility, nor was it advertised as such. Why? Because Iran would never have agreed, and our allies and partners were not interested in forcing them to. American negotiators didn’t secure everything we wanted, but — according to the Department of Energy’s website — “The Iran deal is working,” and “blocks four possible ways” of leveraging fissile materials for a weapon.
One of the principal criticisms of the JCPOA was that it does nothing, as Trump said earlier this year, “to constrain Iran’s destabilizing activities, including its support for terrorism.” That is true, but it was never designed that way. With full knowledge of Iran’s overall misconduct, world leaders agreed that nuclear weapons in the hands of Iranian leaders was a danger that took precedence over all others and proceeded on that basis.
Oddly, in the case of North Korea, the president seems to accept the idea that you do not always have the luxury of making deals with friends: Since last year, he’s gone from hurling Twitter insults at North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to saying in recent weeks that the two of them “fell in love.” There has been little tangible progress toward a substantive nuclear arms agreement with Pyongyang, but it is clear Trump wants to be viewed as a great dealmaker.
The key to that, though, is proceeding with the understanding that no party to a nuclear arms negotiation will get everything they want. The underpinning of any nuclear arms agreement is mutually acceptable restrictions, restraints and compromises.
Trump should also understand that, yes, countries sometimes cheat on nuclear deals — but that’s not necessarily a reason to abandon those deals. Ronald Reagan’s famous aphorism, “trust, but verify,” is a starting point, not an end.
The Trump administration avers that Russia has violated the INF Treaty by deploying its Novator 9M729 missile. Moscow denies this and has leveled its own accusations, further complicating the process of addressing the violations in question. Still, the preservation of the agreement is worth the fight. By requiring dismantlement of missiles that could have delivered nuclear weapons to European capitals in just minutes, the INF Treaty helped draw the Cold War to an end and set the stage for further progress in U.S.-Russia nuclear reduction agreements. In abandoning the deal, Trump would free Russia from the INF’s constraints, freeing the Kremlin to openly deploy missiles and accelerate a brand-new arms race in Europe.
When the INF Treaty was signed, there was certainly an expectation that its terms would be adhered to. Trump is right to call out the Russian violation, and the U.S. government is justified in its efforts to consider countermeasures. But the notion of abandoning INF before we have exhausted all other options is diplomatic malpractice. We have fixed treaties before and we can do it again. In the early 1980s, the United States voiced concerns that a Soviet early-warning radar near a town called Krasnoyarsk was in violation of the Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty. It took years of consistent diplomatic pressure, but the Russians finally acquiesced and agreed to destroy the radar. In the midst of that dispute, the Cold War rivals still managed to get other work done — specifically, the negotiation of the INF treaty.
To be sure, there’s a point past which cheating on a nuclear treaty becomes intolerable, rendering the deal pointless. We haven’t reached that point with INF. Members of Congress have raised said fact that they “have seen no validated military requirement for withdrawing from the INF Treaty and deploying INF-range missiles.” And importantly, the very allies that are most threatened by the Russian missile in question have expressed their desire that diplomatic efforts to continue.
Decades worth of arms agreements between Washington and Moscow have stabilized the risk of nuclear war. They have not always worked the way that we wanted them to, but they have included inspections mechanisms, data exchanges and regular consultations that helped us to understand each other’s strategic nuclear forces. That kind of oversight provides predictability and without it, we may blindly stumble into an unnecessary nuclear buildup. That’s why any decision to withdraw from an arms agreement should be balanced against potential consequences and how those consequences affect national security.
If Trump’s default tactic is withdrawal or threatened withdrawal from deals that he doesn’t like, we’re all potentially at risk. He should take a cue from President Reagan and accept there are no winners in a nuclear war. Because of that, he must learn to embrace imperfection.
Correction: The INF treaty’s unabbreviated name is “Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty,” not “Intermediate-range Nuclear Force Treaty.”