TEL AVIV – U.S. President Donald Trump has decided to decertify the nuclear agreement with Iran, launching a process by which the U.S. Congress could re-impose sanctions on the country. Fortunately, it seems likely that Congress, rather than pulling the plug on the deal, will seek some alternative that allows Trump to save face with his supporters, to whom he has long promised U.S. withdrawal from the Iran deal. Nonetheless, decertification is a serious mistake.
Like many Israelis, I agree with Trump that the international agreement reached with Iran in 2015 is fundamentally a bad deal. But it is also a done deal. Even if the United States does decide to withdraw from it completely, none of the other parties — not China or Russia or even the Europeans (France, Germany and the United Kingdom) — will follow suit. Iran would continue to reap the agreement’s benefits.
At the same time, however, Iran could view the U.S. decision to renege on the deal as justification for reviving its halted nuclear program. After all, the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act authorizes the U.S. president to decertify the deal if Iran violates its terms. And, at least technically, Iran has done no such thing.
Of course, Iran’s behavior — developing powerful ballistic missiles, helping to spread terror across the Middle East and running intensive cyber warfare campaigns — is deeply troubling and measures should be taken to apply pressure on Iran to address these issues. But none of them was part of the nuclear deal.
In this context, Trump’s move to decertify the Iran deal undermines America’s credibility when it comes to reining in another nuclear threat: North Korea. If the U.S. can default on its international commitments for no reason, why would Kim Jong Un bother to engage in negotiations?
Kim might be an extremist of the first order, but his motivations are easy to discern. He views nuclear weapons as the ultimate insurance against a steep and ignominious fall, like those of Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. Moreover, however mighty the U.S. military is, it cannot destroy North Korea’s nuclear arsenal without provoking a counterattack inflicting untold destruction on South Korea and perhaps also Japan — both close U.S. allies. That gives Kim substantial leverage.
The only possible way to deter Kim is through coercive diplomacy that compels him to freeze his nuclear program at something like its current level. And it was just this sort of coercive diplomacy, backed by sanctions and a united position among major international actors, that compelled Iran to sign its own deal.
If such diplomacy loses its credibility, Kim will inevitably continue to expand his nuclear weapons program and global risks will rise exponentially — not least because neighbors like South Korea and Japan will be increasingly eager to develop their own nuclear weapons. With that, the cause of nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament — a goal that the U.S. has pursued for almost 70 years — will be all but dead.
The most immediate threat would be a decision by Iran to relaunch its own nuclear-weapon program. Should that happen, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey would be virtually certain to pursue nuclear breakout. In fact, any third-rate dictator in the world watching these developments might decide to pursue nuclear weapons. The entire global order would be fundamentally changed.
North Korea is the proverbial horse that has broken the stable door and bolted. But, thanks to the current agreement, the Iranian horse remains in the barn. The U.S. should be attempting to corral North Korea, not giving Iran reason to bolt, too.
This does not mean that the U.S. needs to be passive. In fact, the U.S. should be preparing for a potential future Iranian nuclear breakout — a distinct possibility, even if the current deal is upheld. Iran would be unlikely to pursue nuclear breakout immediately, because the deal still affords it substantial benefits. A few years from now, however, those benefits would be largely secured, giving Iran less reason to stick to its promises.
Given this, rather than parting ways with the other parties that helped to negotiate the agreement, the U.S. should be seeking a consensus on what would constitute an Iranian breakout, in order to help guide the inspections conducted by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The U.S. should also coordinate with the agreement’s other signatories regarding the sanctions and other punishments that would be meted out if Iran actually did breach the deal.
For any of this to work, however, the “big American stick” must be present. The U.S. must be prepared, in terms of intelligence, weapons and political will, to intervene — unilaterally, if needed — to stop Iran, should it try to follow in North Korea’s footsteps.
Deal or no deal, Iran represents a serious threat — to Israel, of course, but also to the stability of the Middle East and, in a sense, of the whole world. But, as of now, that threat is not existential. Preventing it from becoming so should be a top priority today. We in Israel who have been thinking seriously about this challenge for some time — not to mention working hard to prepare ourselves for various contingencies — recognize that, for now, our security is best served by maintaining the current deal.
Over the last 25 years, six countries have tried to turn themselves into nuclear states. Two of them — Libya and South Africa — gave up. Another two — Syria and Iraq — were stopped. And two — Pakistan and North Korea — succeeded, in defiance of the international community. We must ensure that Iran is not allowed to join their ranks. And, so long as Iran remains compliant, the nuclear deal — however bad it is — remains our best chance to do just that.
Ehud Barak is an Israeli politician who served as prime minister of Israel (1999-2001) and minister of defense (2009-2013). © Project Syndicate, 2017 www.project-syndicate.org