Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps shot down a U.S. surveillance drone over the Strait of Hormuz on Thursday, claiming it had entered Iranian airspace, which the U.S. military disputes. This was the most alarming incident in a week of increasing tensions — until the moment President Trump called in a retaliatory strike, which he canceled at the last minute.
On Monday, a spokesman for Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization threatened that within 10 days, Iran might breach the nuclear-enrichment restrictions imposed by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and major world powers from which the Trump administration has withdrawn. In response, the United States announced the deployment of an additional 1,000 American troops to the Middle East. On Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Trump “does not want war” but warned that U.S. troops would respond with force to Iranian aggression. At a campaign rally that night, Trump bragged about getting out of the “disastrous” nuclear deal and imposing “the toughest-ever sanctions” on Iran before saying he’s “charting a path to stability and peace in the Middle East.”
But if the president really wants peace and stability, he should make a deal with Iran a lot like the one that President Barack Obama negotiated and that Trump was so quick to abandon upon taking office. That agreement was designed to forestall exactly the kind of confrontation the United States and Iran find themselves in now.
When Iran, the United States, Britain, France, Germany, China, the European Union and Russia signed the JCPOA in 2015, none of the parties were under any illusions about what the deal would accomplish. Neither Obama nor his counterparts expected it to eliminate the range of threats posed by Iran’s aggressive foreign policy, especially in the Middle East. As Obama stated that year, the deal “does not resolve all problems; it certainly doesn’t resolve all our problems with Iran. It does not ensure a warming between our two countries. But it achieves one of our most critical security objectives.”
The aim was to effectively manage Iran’s nuclear threat, and that was achievement enough. The other dangers Tehran presented — its missile program (the means to deliver conventional and nuclear weapons), support for terrorist groups waging war with Israel and destabilizing the region, full-fledged assistance to the brutal regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and consistent meddling in the internal affairs of the Iraqi government — would be dealt with separately. And the agreement itself was temporary; implicit in the deal’s 15-year term was the suggestion of future renegotiation.
In exchange for relief from sanctions imposed by the United States and our European allies, the Iranian government agreed to cut its stockpile of uranium suitable for weapons production, lower uranium enrichment levels, restrict enrichment to one facility rather than two, and grant the International Atomic Energy Agency regular access to its nuclear facilities to monitor and verify compliance with the agreement. Although the name JCPOA has the word “comprehensive” in it, it was — as most international agreements ultimately are — a compromise. Iran’s nuclear program wasn’t totally frozen, and all aspects of the deal expire by 2031.
The deal was designed like other nuclear agreements before it, most notably the 1994 Agreed Framework on nuclear arms between the United States and North Korea. The JCPOA allowed some nuclear activity for energy production and medical research, as permitted under international law. But it also aimed to bring Iran into compliance with the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, to which it is a signatory.
Most critically, it was designed to buy time.
It extended Iran’s “breakout” time — how long it would take to build a nuclear weapon — from a few months to a year or more. And it left room for the possibility that domestic and international events, including continued diplomacy, could slowly effect change in the Iranian government’s nuclear, domestic and foreign policies so that they would no longer run counter to U.S. interests.
But the agreement has been on rapidly abating European life support since Trump pulled the United States out of it last year and began pressuring the international community to reimpose sanctions on Iran, including a ban on purchasing Iranian oil. Abandoning the deal means eliminating Iran’s economic incentives to comply with the agreement. This is why Iran has responded with such belligerence — the new sanctions are hurting its economy, and Tehran wants to scare us and our allies into lifting them.
Autocratic rogue states like Iran and North Korea seek nuclear arms to deter other countries, especially the United States and its allies, from attempting to intervene in their domestic affairs, up to and including regime change. For these nations, nuclear weapons are a potential existential guarantee. At the same time, such weapons could be used to blackmail or threaten neighbors: to force Saudi Arabia, Israel or South Korea to make concessions toward Iranian or North Korean policy objectives, for instance. In recognition of this danger, and not to be outdone, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister said last year that “if Iran acquires a nuclear capability, we will do everything we can to do the same.”
The Iran deal, however imperfect, was doing its job of containing the nuclear threat from Tehran. Now that it’s falling apart, the likelihood of a regional nuclear arms race has increased.
To avoid a wider confrontation, the Trump administration must choose its response carefully, but so far it’s been unrealistic. Last year, Pompeo outlined 12 demands for Iran’s regime to meet if it wanted to avoid conflict with the United States, including stricter limitations on its nuclear program than those in the JCPOA, the release of several U.S. citizens detained in Iran and abandonment of its support for groups including Hezbollah, Hamas and the Houthi rebels in Yemen . It’s an effort, effectively, to dictate a complete transformation of Iran’s foreign policy — on terms Iran’s leaders wouldn’t have agreed to when they signed the JCPOA and almost certainly won’t accept now. Pompeo’s aims are worthwhile, but he’s gambling that he can win much bigger concessions, even though the administration has put the significant progress we already had at risk. He’s giving Iran an excuse to accelerate its stalled nuclear weapons program and making it harder to avoid war — something that the president says he does not want and that the American public doesn’t support.
The best option, then? An Iran nuclear deal. We either rejoin the old one — unlikely, given Trump’s penchant for rejecting all things Obama — or sign a new one that looks a lot like the old one. If Trump could be persuaded to adopt this policy, a deal wouldn’t be hard to imagine: a time frame that extends well beyond 15 years; stricter missile development and production bans; an insistence that Iran release American, allied and partner-nation prisoners (including freelance journalist Austin Tice, held in Iran-influenced Syria); and a measurable commitment to an international peace process to end Syria’s civil war.
The Iranian government desperately seeks relief from sanctions, especially the ban on oil sales, because of the squeeze on the country’s economy; the regime had promised prosperity to its citizens in exchange for freezing its national nuclear achievements. The Trump administration wants to stave off war, keep Iran’s nuclear weapons program indefinitely frozen, and prevent Iran from increased or additional destabilizing activity. The most realistic compromise for both sides would be an agreement that is, in essence, JCPOA 2.0.
Trump may prefer an alternative, but there aren’t many. One is to ease the pressure without reducing the threat to the international order, as we’ve seen in the administration’s approach to North Korea. But that’s tantamount to a green light for Iran to build a nuclear weapon capability within months. Another option is to respond to Iranian escalation with escalation of our own, which only hardcore regime-change proponents might favor and for which Europe, Russia and China are already blaming us. Washington “created this mess, and now they have to find a way to get out,” said one German official. The easiest way to clean it up is to rush our diplomats to the scene with copies of the JCPOA and then have Trump, in a familiar hail of tweets, tout the promise of a “beautiful” (if not comprehensive) “new” (all of his own making, of course) Iran deal.
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