In his speech to the United Nations General Assembly last week, U.S. President Donald Trump’s contempt for the Iranian nuclear agreement was clear: The deal, he said, is “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into … an embarrassment.” He is reportedly preparing for U.S. withdrawal from the agreement or its renegotiation, a demand that Iran has flatly rejected. While critics of the agreement are correct — it is not perfect — neither the U.S. president nor anyone else has articulated a coherent and credible alternative that does not make the situation worse. That alone is reason to stick with the agreement.
After two years of tough negotiations, six countries — Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the U.S. — along with the U.N. agreed with Iran in October 2015 to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a deal that imposes constraints on Tehran’s nuclear activities in return for lifting some economic sanctions against that country. The deal was born of two sets of fears: first, that Tehran was committed to developing a nuclear weapon and second, that failure to reach a diplomatic solution would force countries to take military action to stop Iran and that would trigger a regional war.
The JCPOA caps Iran’s centrifuge operations and slows the stockpiling of uranium needed to make a bomb. In return, the West lifted sanctions that had been imposed and which strained Iran’s economy. Iran also got access to international oil and financial markets. Tehran’s compliance with the deal is confirmed by intrusive inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Critics are correct to claim that the JCPOA has two flaws. First, it is not a permanent solution to the nuclear problem. After 15 years, many of Iran’s nuclear activities will be unrestrained. Second, it is restricted to the nuclear problem and does not address other forms of Iranian behavior, such as supporting the Syrian government or backing the Islamic militant force Hezbollah. A third complaint is that Iran is not in compliance with the agreement.
All three complaints are correct. But, as far as the first and second go, the terms of the deal are the ones to which the signatories could agree. The so-called P5+1 countries may have wanted more constraints on Iran, limiting, for example, its missile tests — the latest on Saturday was a clear act of defiance — or its involvement in regional conflicts, but Iran would not agree (and in some cases there was no consensus among the six, either). As European Union Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini explained at the U.N. meeting, “The scope of the nuclear deal is related to the nuclear program of Iran. There are other issues that are out of the scope of the agreement.”
The charge that Iran is not in compliance is a little trickier. While there are indications that Iran is cheating on the margins, all parties to the JCPOA (including U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson) reaffirmed last week at a meeting on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly that the agreement is being implemented properly and that there are no violations. That has not mollified the U.S. president.
Trump and other critics like the governments of Israel and Saudi Arabia worry that the JCPOA rehabilitates Iran and legitimizes its role in the region. Tehran seeks to be a regional power and both Jerusalem and Riyadh are vehemently opposed to that prospect. They object to Iranian meddling in regional affairs, but their opposition reflects their respective national interests — not the larger interest embodied in the JCPOA. It is vital to differentiate between the two.
The U.S. president must certify in mid-October to the U.S. Congress that the deal remains in the U.S. national interest — a statement that is not the same as saying that Iran is violating its terms. If he does not, then Congress has 60 days to decide whether to resume sanctions that were in place when the deal was agreed. Trump insists that the deal is not in the U.S. interest.
The reimposition of sanctions by the U.S. will give Iran reason to claim that the U.S. has violated the terms of the deal. Unilateral decisions will make it harder for the U.S. to rally other countries to its side and impose stronger conditions on Tehran. As Mogherini noted, the world “cannot afford to dismantle an agreement that is working and delivering,” given the many other problems that exist.
Indeed, the precedent would be alarming and would undercut efforts to address those other problems. Why would the North Korean government ever agree to a deal with the U.S. knowing that a U.S. president could later decide it is “not in his country’s interest to honor it”? Trump and others may dislike the JCPOA, but in the absence of a real alternative — and not the bluster of some imagined better deal — it is worth keeping.