U.S. President Donald Trump has, after months of threatening to do so, signed a memorandum instructing the U.S. government to begin pulling out of the controversial deal over Iran's nuclear programs. His administration has outlined a number of steps it plans to take in the next six months, but it is still not entirely clear when certain provisions will end and what impacts that may have in the near- and long-term with regards to Iran or other international engagements, such as America's ongoing negotiations with North Korea.
Trump made the announcement from the White House on May 8, 2018. As a presidential candidate, president-elect, and then president, he has continually railed against the deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, pledging to either negotiate a new one, or, failing to do that, withdraw from the agreement entirely.
The biggest issue, as we at The War Zone have noted before, is that the JCPOA focuses on Iran's nuclear activities to the exclusion of everything else. Iran is, by the U.S. government's own admission, abiding by the letter of the deal. At the same time, however, the United States, as well as Israel, accuse Iranian authorities of violating the spirit of the agreement by not using relief from international sanctions and other tangible benefits to pursue stabilizing policies in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Trump outlined this basic argument in his remarks on May 8, 2018:
"In theory, the so-called 'Iran deal' was supposed to protect the United States and our allies from the lunacy of an Iranian nuclear bomb, a weapon that will only endanger the survival of the Iranian regime. In fact, the deal allowed Iran to continue enriching uranium and, over time, reach the brink of a nuclear breakout.
The deal lifted crippling economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for very weak limits on the regime’s nuclear activity, and no limits at all on its other malign behavior, including its sinister activities in Syria, Yemen, and other places all around the world."
Many have argued that the JCPOA is therefore inherently unworkable and that the U.S. government should discard it, which the Trump Administration has now chosen to do. At the same time, many criticisms of the deal are based on either honest or deliberate misunderstandings of its mechanisms, which appears to have informed Trump's final decision at least to some degree.
So, here's a quick overview of what Trump said and did not say:
- Instead of using sanctions relief as a springboard to pursuing stabilizing policies, Iran has to continued to develop increasingly longer-range ballistic missiles, sponsoring terrorists and other militant groups in countries such as Syria and Yemen, committing gross human rights violations against its own people, and calling for the destruction of Israel, which are all true.
- Iran negotiated in bad faith from the beginning since it had previously concealed a nuclear weapons program from the international community despite denying it had ever done so, which is at best partly true.
- Though Iran did have a covert nuclear weapons program, recent Israeli intelligence, which Trump cited, seems to support the conclusions of the U.S. Intelligence Community and the United Nation's International Atomic Energy Agency that this work had effectively ceased by 2009, years before the JCPOA came into effect.
- Trump claimed Iran has an active nuclear weapons program in his remarks, despite there being no indication that this is the case.
- Trump said that Iran can continue enriching uranium under the terms of the JCPOA, but did not note that it can only do so to a very low level, far less than what is necessary to produce a nuclear weapon.
- He also did not note that under the terms of the JCPOA, Iran agreed to physically give up its existing stockpiles of highly enriched uranium and put the facilities where it could do so in the future under strict international supervision.
- Trump noted that Iran retains the knowledgebase and basic infrastructure necessary for a "nuclear breakout" to produce nuclear weapons in the future, which is true.
- Of course, Iran will retain those capabilities no matter what and it is difficult to understand how it would be possible to eliminate them entirely, especially when it comes to the specialized technical skills of individuals involved in the previous programs.
- Trump raised the issue that the JCPOA has not prevented the continued development of ballistic missiles that could carry either conventional or nuclear weapons, which is another matter of legitimate concern.
- Separate United Nations Security Council Resolutions do prohibit Iran from pursuing nuclear weapon delivery systems, but since it says it is not developing a nuclear weapon, it asserts that its missile programs are exempt.
- The United States has long disagreed, saying that many of these weapon systems, especially intermediate-range and intercontinental ballistic missiles, are inherently strategic and have no military utility without a nuclear warhead.
- Trump accused Iran of potentially hiding continued nuclear work in dual-purpose military facilities, which is a significant and legitimate concern.
- Though he did not name it specifically, one base, at Parchin, has been at the center of a significant debate between the United States and Iran about what the JCPOA does and doesn't cover.
- International inspectors are supposed to be able to access sites such as Parchin if they can provide strong evidence of a violation, but the IAEA says that the United States has refused to provide sufficient information to substantiate its claims.
- "Sunset provisions are totally unacceptable," Trump said, which refers to various scheduled decisions and is only a partly accurate description of the agreement.
- In 2023, the then President of the United States will have to ask Congress for approval to eliminate sanctions against Iran's nuclear enterprises, which remain in force under the JCPOA.
- In 2026, absent any negotiated agreement to extend the provisions, Iran could begin enriching and reprocessing fissile material without restrictions.
- What Trump didn't say was that neither of these "sunsets" is automatic when it comes to sanctions for the United States, which has already reserved the right to maintain the nuclear sanctions if it does not feel it is appropriate to eliminate them.
- In addition, as with most arms control agreements, expirations of certain provisions are usually dealt with by either extending the deal or negotiating a new one based on circumstances at the time.
- Though perhaps not the best example now, the United States and Russia signed the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) in 2010 as a follow-on to previous agreements.
- That deal could also "sunset" in 2021, which would remove agreed-upon restrictions on both countries' nuclear arsenals and is supposed to serve as the impetus to negotiate an extension or a new deal.
Regardless, this is what his administration now plans to do:
- "We will be instituting the highest level of economic sanctions. Any nation that helps Iran in its quest for nuclear weapons could also be strongly sanctioned by the United States," Trump said.
- According to the Department of Treasury, there are scheduled plans for economic and other restrictions to "snap back" within 90- and 180-days.
- After 90-days, the U.S. government will reimpose sanctions related to Iran's currency, precious metals, aluminum and steel, coal, and automotive sectors.
- Sanctions relating to the purchase or other transactions dealing with Iran's sovereign debt will also return.
- In addition, the United States will once again ban on Iranian carpets and certain foodstuffs, as well as limitations on certain financial transactions.
- After 180-days, the U.S. government will restore sanctions against Iran's shipping and shipbuilding, oil and petrochemical, civil energy, and banking sectors.
- The U.S. government will also reimpose limits on various activities by Iranian nationals in the United States, as well as blocking the entry and activities of certain individuals and entities entirely.
- It is worth noting that in October 2017, the United States already designated Iran’s powerful quasi-military Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization and imposed a host of new sanctions on it, industrial and business entities connected to it, and its personnel.
- "If the regime continues its nuclear aspirations, it will have bigger problems than it has ever had before," Trump also said during his speech.
- This appeared to be a threat to potentially use of military force, but he offered no additional details.
- "We will be working with our allies to find a real, comprehensive, and lasting solution to the Iranian nuclear threat," added.
- "This will include efforts to eliminate the threat of Iran’s ballistic missile program; to stop its terrorist activities worldwide; and to block its menacing activity across the Middle East," he explained, but gave no more concrete details on the U.S. government's specific policy objectives.
It is without a doubt worth considering whether Iran should be penalized for continuing the various aforementioned malign activities. It's also worth asking whether or not the Iran Deal, which was serving its stated purpose, was worth getting rid of entirely in pursuit of that goal.
"The fact is they are going to want to make a new and lasting deal, one that benefits all of Iran and the Iranian people," Trump declared in his remarks, which you can watch in full below. "When they do, I am ready, willing, and able."
However, the Iran deal is a multi-national affair and the other parties, Iran, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany have already made it clear they intend to continue within the JCPOA framework for the foreseeable future. The trilateral statement from the U.K., French, and German governments perhaps represent the greatest immediate challenge for the United States, given that Trump pointedly threatened anyone who continued to deal with Iran with additional sanctions.
Russia and China have both reiterated their support for the deal, as well. The Israeli government, especially Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is a long time critic of the deal, has openly embraced Trump's decision.
Iran already appears willing to try and use the Trump Administration's decision to drive a wedge between it and some of its oldest allies, saying that it will continue to work with the remaining parties to continue with the JCPOA. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani did say he was ordering the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran to begin preparations for restarting enrichment and processing work if the deal completely collapses.
"This is a psychological war, we won’t allow Trump to win... I’m happy that the pesky being has left the Barjam," Rouhani said in his own statement after Trump's announcement, using the Farsi acronym for the JCPOA. "Tonight we witnessed a new historic experience... for 40 years we’ve said and repeated that Iran always abides by its commitments, and the US never complies, our 40-year history shows us Americans have been aggressive towards great people of Iran and our region."
Trump's decision also comes literally right before newly appointed U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was set to meet with North Korean representatives in that country to iron out the final details about a historic meeting between the American president and premier Kim Jong Un at a still undisclosed location. A central goal of those discussions will be the elimination of North Korea's nuclear arsenal and ballistic missiles, which will already be a tall order. The United States has also been looking to immediately secure the release of three Americans that North Korea is holding hostage.
It's not clear how the Trump Administration's decision vis-a-vis Iran might impact the geopolitical situation in the Middle East or elsewhere more broadly, but we might not have to wait long to see the second- and third-order effects. We will have an additional report on the many interconnected issues at play coming soon.
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