The United States decision to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), better known as the Iran nuclear deal, is one part of the current U.S. president’s strategy to dismantle the legacy of the Obama administration. The problem with this thinking is that his decisions do not make “America Great Again.” What it does is weaken the global credibility of the U.S. and lessens U.S. security. This deal is a “formal international agreement” with the complete backing of the United Nations Security Council. To walk away from this deal is not only an abdication of U.S. leadership, but it undermines the United Nations.
As the Financial Times correctly pointed out recently in a lead editorial, “The nuclear deal averted war. New US plans create conditions for one.” The Obama administration spent five years negotiating this deal and the current president quickly swept the work of his predecessor aside. Following U.S. withdrawal, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) head, Yukiya Amano, remarked that Iran was “subject to the world’s most robust nuclear verification regime” because of this agreement.
The U.S. president set forth the following rationale for withdrawal: “"It is clear to me that we cannot prevent an Iranian nuclear bomb under the decaying and rotten structure of the current agreement.” He further added, "The Iran deal is defective at its core. If we do nothing, we know exactly what will happen." The president remarked that any nation doing business with Iran would also be subjected to sanctions.
Upon receiving news of the withdrawal, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres issued a statement stating, “I am deeply concerned by today’s [May 8, 2018] announcement that the United States will be withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and will be reinstating US sanctions.” Moreover, he added, “I have consistently reiterated that the JCPOA represents a major achievement in nuclear non-proliferation and diplomacy and has contributed to regional and international peace and security.” He urged other parties to the agreement (Iran, China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the European Union) to abide by their commitments in the deal.
Inspectors were able to maintain a watchful eye on Iran 24-hours a day, seven days a week. Specifics contained within the deal limited their ability to develop a nuclear weapon by preventing them from expansion of its uranium enrichment of more than 5,060 centrifuges and disallowed any enrichment of uranium exceeding 3.67%. To make a bomb 90% enrichment capability is required. The actions taken by the president provide Iran a green light to proceed in increasing the number of centrifuges it possesses.
Jon B. Wolfsthal, the director of the Nuclear Crisis Group and a former National Security Council senior director for arms control and non-proliferation in the Obama administration, and a leading expert on nuclear matters, recently wrote in USA Today that other states in the Middle East have publicly expressed that “if Iran is able to build a nuclear weapon, they will too.” The U.S. decision to withdraw from the JCPOA could very well precipitate a nuclear arms race in the most volatile region in the world. Wolfstahl states that “when the war to end Iran’s nuclear program comes - the most likely outcome in the next few years – it won’t be Trump’s family that fights and dies.” Others will be left to deal with this matter.
The newly minted Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, recently laid out the administration’s strategy for dealing with Iran in a speech he gave at the conservative Washington-based think tank, the Heritage Foundation. The theme of the speech was the deal’s “fatal flaws.” Pompeo indicated that at the end of the “weak sunset provisions of the JCPOA,” Iran would move quickly to weaponize its nuclear capability.
Pompeo addressed the 12-point administration strategy for how they would deal with Iran. But as many observers have noted, it provides nothing new. It will be a three-pronged approach utilizing economic, military and diplomatic means using sanctions, deterrence of “Iranian aggression” and supporting and advocating for the people of Iran.
However, the data shows that sanctions hurt the people to whom the administration seeks to support. As part of the nuclear deal, sanctions were lifted. But high levels of unemployment have persisted, resulting in a significant reduction in Iranians’ earning power. The price of basic food items has risen exponentially causing an even greater strain on ordinary Iranians. Once the administration’s laundry list of demands is met sanctions be lifted. However, it is unrealistic to believe that the Iranian regime will meet each of the 12 points laid out by Pompeo. That leaves the people of Iran to continue to face the dire consequences of living under a sanctions regime.
The displeasure with the U.S. withdrawal was felt not only in world capitals, but in academic circles as well. International relations scholars were surveyed through the Teaching, Research, and International Policy Survey administered by the College of William & Mary which found that 83% of the respondents, identified as being conservative and thus more hawkish on such matters, believe the withdrawal from this agreement was not in the best interest of the U.S. The president’s isolationist mantra of “America First” is an outright rejection of multilateralism that specifically ignores the work of global organizations like the U.N. The scholars in the survey believe that such ignorance loses sight of the fact that the U.S. can advance its interests through a body such as the U.N. This shortsighted worldview, as withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal shows, damages U.S. standing in the world and does more harm to U.S. interests in the long run.