NEW York – The decertification of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) by U.S. President Donald Trump is most unfortunate. It seems he was not swayed by either French President Emmanuel Macron or German Chancellor Angela Merkel to preserve the deal. Instead, he appears to have taken Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s advice to decertify the deal, even though Iran continues to fully adhere to all of its provisions. It is dangerous that neither Trump nor Netanyahu appears to fully grasp the dire regional and international implications of the unilateral decertification of the deal by the United States.
In January, Trump gave Britain, France and Germany an unrealistic deadline — May 12 — to fix what he considers the deal’s defects, including the sunset clauses under which some of the terms expire, Iran’s ballistic missiles program (which was not part of the deal), and the monitoring of suspected Iranian nuclear sites. This was mission impossible without the support of Russia and China, not to speak of the short period of time.
Netanyahu’s public stunt, displaying thousands of documents to provide further proof that Iran has been conducting a secret nuclear weapons program, is not new. His claim that the Iran deal was based on information that was not known before does not justify the decertification of the deal, especially because Iran has been fully adhering to all the provisions of the deal.
The fact that Iran was pursuing a nuclear weapons program was the main reason behind U.S. President Barack Obama’s effort to strike the deal. As EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said in Brussels, “the deal was put in place exactly because there was no trust between the parties. …” U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis echoed the same sentiment, adding that “the verification [procedure] … is actually pretty robust as far as our intrusive ability to get in.”
The deal is certainly far from perfect, but withdrawing from it and starting from scratch may be impossible, especially in light of Iran’s vehement refusal to modify the deal. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said, “We will neither outsource our security nor will we renegotiate or add onto a deal we have already implemented in good faith.”
The decertification of the deal will force Iran to choose one of two options. The first is to exploit the division between the U.S. and the other signatories. In this case, Tehran could continue to adhere to the provisions of the deal, even though Iran will still suffer from unilateral (but not as severe) U.S. sanctions. Under U.S. law, Trump must wait at least 180 days before imposing their most severe consequences, which includes targeting banks of countries that fail to appreciably cut their oil purchases from Iran.
The second option for Iran is to withdraw from the deal altogether, restart its nuclear weapons program and potentially even withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty to prevent the monitoring of its nuclear program by the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is the worst thing for Israel and other American allies in the region.
Decertification has severe disadvantages. First, most observers agree that Iran would resume its nuclear weapons program, which could lead to the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Middle East. This would also increase regional tension and a growing sense of insecurity by other countries in the area, which is a recipe for sparking new and intensifying current violent conflicts.
Second, given the intense enmity between Israel and Iran, the former might decide to pre-emptively attack Iran’s nuclear facilities before Tehran reaches the breakout point. This would more than likely lead to an Iranian-Israeli war and pull other countries, including the U.S., into the fray, which could have dreadful consequences in the Mideast.
Third, such development would also deepen Iran’s resolve to further entrench itself in Syria, which is precisely what Israel wants to avoid. This, too, will prompt Israel, as it has done in the past, to attack Iranian military installations in Syria, which could also escalate into a regional conflagration.
Fourth, Iran will have every reason to accelerate its ballistic missile program, which poses a greater danger not only to Israel but to U.S. allies throughout the region. In addition, Iran will have further incentive to increase its financial support of extremist groups to destabilize the region, which it has and will continue to exploit.
Fifth, the unilateral withdrawal by the U.S. from the deal will undoubtedly create a schism with its allies as well as Russia and China, and could foreclose any opening to modify the deal, which Trump failed to consider.
Finally, U.S. credibility will be seriously tarnished with both friends and nemeses, especially at this juncture when the U.S. is preparing to work out a deal on denuclearization with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who would be given a legitimate reason to doubt any American commitment to adhere to future agreements.
Maintaining the deal had several advantages. Iran’s threat perception originates from its sense of encirclement. Thus, I believe that Iran would have been willing to renegotiate various provisions of the deal to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons now or at any time in the future, only if it was assured that the new deal would preserve the regime.
Given that (other than Iran) there are six signatories to the deal and seven years to go before the first sunset clause expires, Trump along with European allies could have made every effort to enlist Russia and China to fully cooperate. Both powers would have supported a revised deal, as neither wanted the U.S. to withdraw from the deal, nor Iran to acquire nuclear weapons.
This would have compelled Iran to take seriously the collective demand, fearing that otherwise joint crippling sanctions will be reinstated, which Tehran wants to prevent at all cost. Collectively, they could have exerted far greater influence on Iran to modify the deal and mitigate U.S. concerns.
New talks would not have been limited to fixing the current deal, but to offering Iran a path for normalization of relations with the West. Iran exists and will continue to exist indefinitely. The U.S. and the rest of the international community have every right to demand that Iran end all of its mischievous activities in the region. Similarly, Iran has also the right to govern itself as it sees fit, without fear and intimidation.
Revisiting the Iran deal would have provided a golden opportunity to change the regional dynamic, as long as Iran is ready and willing to play a constructive role to stabilize the region. This should have been the larger goal behind the search for a comprehensive and permanent new deal.
To that end, Tehran could have been required to commence talks about its ballistic missile program as a separate deal or in conjunction with the new talks to modify the current deal. Iran would have been under pressure to temper its bellicose rhetoric, support of extremist groups, hacking campaigns, and end the building of a network of partners and proxies — the “axis of resistance” — which raises regional tensions and could lead to military confrontations.
Moreover, Iran would have been compelled to ease the regional tension in the countries where it is directly or indirectly involved, by taking the initiative to bring an end to the horrifying wars in Yemen and Syria, and keeping Hezbollah and other extremist groups at bay. Iran could have also been induced to stop threatening Israel’s existence to reduce the tension and prevent direct confrontation between the two countries, which in fact both sides want to avoid.
Notwithstanding the dreadful mistake of decertification, Trump can keep the deal on life support if he does not immediately reimpose the sanctions and gives the other five powers the time needed to work collectively with Iran and reach a new agreement — one that will chart a new course in the Middle East and potentially mitigate the multiple conflicts in which Iran plays a pivotal role.
Otherwise, we should all brace ourselves for intensified turmoil in the Middle East, thanks to the utter recklessness of Trump and Netanyahu, who failed miserably to realize how horrifying the consequences will be.
Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at New York University.