Volume 8, Issue 7, December 13, 2016
When President-elect Donald Trump takes office Jan. 20, he will inherit an array of foreign policy challenges. But unlike his predecessor, the list will not include the risk of a nuclear-armed Iran—unless Trump pursues a reckless plan to dismantle the nuclear deal or allows it to fall apart.
As a result of the historic agreement negotiated between the United States, its partners, and Iran in July 2015, Tehran’s nuclear activities are strictly limited and subject to intrusive monitoring for over a decade. The comprehensive set of restrictions in the deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) has increased the time it would take for Tehran to obtain enough enriched material for a bomb from 2-3 months in 2013 to over 12 months today. In return, Iran received relief from nuclear-related sanctions imposed by the United States, the European Union, and the United Nations.
Though Trump has not to date provided specifics on how he will approach the nuclear deal and relations with Iran, his rhetoric on the agreement during the campaign was dangerous and ill-informed.
In a March 21, 2016 speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Trump said his “number one priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.” On the campaign trail, Trump frequently called the agreement the worst deal ever negotiated and said he would seek to renegotiate it.
Possible cabinet members and advisers who have strong views on the agreement could also influence Trump’s policy toward the nuclear deal. The presumptive National Security Advisor, former Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, and presumptive CIA Director, Congressman Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.), have both been critical of the Iran deal.
On the other hand, former General James Mattis, Trump’s pick for Secretary of Defense, described the deal as an “imperfect arms control agreement,” and said in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in April that “there is no going back” on the deal “absent a clear and present violation” by Iran. Mattis stressed that the United States would be alone if we did so and “unilateral economic sanctions from us would not have anywhere near the impact of an allied approach.”
The Deal At Risk
There are two plausible scenarios by which Trump could unravel the nuclear deal with Iran.
First, the new president could pull the United States out of the deal by unilaterally renouncing the agreement, ceasing U.S. implementation of its commitments under the deal. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has said Iran's commitment to the deal will not waiver, despite any action by Trump to threaten the agreement. But it remains unclear if the deal can survive without the United States.
A second scenario, which is perhaps more likely, is that Trump and the Republican-led Congress could slowly chip away at the agreement and create an escalatory dynamic that eventually provokes Iran into taking action that leads to the deal’s collapse. In this scenario, Washington would rigorously enforce the deal, leveraging legitimate ambiguities in the text against the spirit of the agreement, and prejudicially declare technical issues to be intentional violations.
Separately, Washington could impose sanctions apart from the deal under the label of human rights violations, ballistic missile activity, or support for terrorism. If such sanctions were imposed as a means of skirting U.S. commitments not to impose new nuclear sanctions under the deal, Iran would likely respond by challenging provisions of the agreement more aggressively or by taking steps in other areas that would heighten tensions between Tehran and Washington. This escalatory spiral could eventually cause the agreement to collapse.
Before putting the United States on one of these paths, President-elect Trump should evaluate the potential loss of nonproliferation benefits ensconced in the deal that contribute to U.S. security interests, and the likely obstacles to renegotiation.
Loss of Nonproliferation Benefits
When fully implemented, the nonproliferation benefits of the Iran deal are clear—the combination of limits and verification measures block Tehran’s pathways to nuclear weapons. If the deal is dismantled, and the United States no longer feels obligated to its implementation, it is safe to assume that Iran may no longer feel the need to adhere to its limits either.
The deal created a multilayered inspection regime that covers every step of Iran’s fuel cycle. When combined with national intelligence means, it provides the highest possible guarantee that any deviation from the limits would be quickly detected.
If the deal falls apart, the losses in the enhanced monitoring and verification of Iran’s nuclear activities would be particularly significant. The international community would lose the following tools for verifying that Iran’s nuclear activities are peaceful:
- Continuous surveillance of key sites. The deal put in place continuous surveillance at Iran’s uranium mines and mills (25 years) and centrifuge production areas (20 years). This additional transparency would be lost if the deal falls apart.
- Real-time monitoring of Iran’s enrichment activities. The agreement provides real time monitoring of Iran’s uranium enrichment levels for 15 years to ensure that Tehran is enriching uranium only to reactor-grade levels, or 3.67 percent uranium-235.
- Provisional application of the additional protocol. Under the deal, Iran is applying the additional protocol to its safeguards agreement. This gives the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors enhanced access to information and nuclear sites in Iran. Without the additional protocol, inspectors will have access to fewer sites and lose their ability to conduct shorter-notice inspections.
- Oversight of Iran’s procurement of materials applicable to nuclear activities. The deal puts in place a procurement channel that provides approval or denial of Iranian requests to import materials or technologies relevant to nuclear development.
- Time-bound access to military sites to investigate concerns. Under the deal, if IAEA inspectors have concerns about illicit Iranian behavior relevant to developing a nuclear weapon and Iran refuses to grant access, the Joint Commission—created by the deal to resolve compliance concerns—can direct Iran to comply with the request or be found in violation of its obligations.
Since the deal's adoption, the enhanced monitoring and verification system has already demonstrated its effectiveness. IAEA inspectors have unprecedented access to Iran's nuclear facilities and report quarterly on Iran's compliance. On two occasions Iran slightly exceeded the limit on its stockpile of heavy water, a material produced by Iran to moderate certain types of reactors. This did not pose a proliferation threat, but inspectors noted the breach nonetheless and the Joint Commission was able to quickly deal with the issue.
Since the nuclear deal was adopted, it has significantly rolled back and restrained Iran’s nuclear program. If the deal ends, Iran could:
- Move over 13,000 centrifuges, including 1,008 advanced IR-2 centrifuge machines, from monitored storage and begin using them to enrich uranium. When combined with the 6,104 first generation IR-1 centrifuges Iran was allowed to keep under the deal (of which 5,060 are operating), Iran could operate nearly 20,000 centrifuges.
- Build up its stockpile of enriched uranium. As a result of the deal Iran blended down or shipped out 98 percent of its uranium stockpile and now keeps less than 300 kilograms of uranium enriched to 3.67 percent. With a larger stockpile of enriched uranium, Iran could move more quickly to a significant quantity of weapons-grade uranium (25 kilograms of greater than 90 percent uranium-235).
- Enrich to levels higher than 3.67 percent. Under the deal, Iran is limited to enriching uranium to 3.67 percent for 15 years. If the deal falls apart, Tehran could resume enrichment to 20 percent or possibly higher.
- Resume enrichment at Fordow. Iran transformed Fordow, a facility built deep into a mountain near the city of Qom, from a uranium-enrichment site to an isotope production area for 15 years. Iran could resume enriching uranium at Fordow if the deal falls apart.
- Resume development of advanced centrifuges. Iran’s research and development of more efficient centrifuges is limited to single-machine testing for eight and a half years.
Without the deal, Iran would no longer be subject to this enhanced monitoring and verification nor to strict limitations on its nuclear activities. Tehran could ramp up its uranium enrichment activities and move back to where it was in 2013 – capable of producing enough bomb-grade material for a nuclear weapon in 2-3 months or less. Tehran also agreed to permanently forgo certain types of experiments with explosives relevant to developing a nuclear weapon, an agreement that would likely be rescinded if the deal falls apart.
Without the deal, Iran would still be legally bound not to pursue nuclear weapons by its ratification of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. While it is unlikely that Iran would move quickly to pursue nuclear weapons, Tehran could move to a position where it could have enough weapons-grade material for a bomb in a matter of weeks. This would raise tensions with the United States and increase the chances of conflict in the region.
The Futility of “Renegotiation”
If Trump walks away from the deal, or attempts to increase the pressure on Iran to negotiate better terms, it is extremely unlikely that he will have sufficient diplomatic support from our negotiating partners—China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom—for new sanctions that could generate enough pressure to secure Iran’s agreement.
In addition to currently supporting the deal, these countries played a key role in enforcing sanctions that pressured Iran to negotiate over its nuclear program in the first place. Support for U.S. sanctions along with UN and EU restrictions created a web of sanctions that ratcheted up the pressure on Iran’s economic activities and incentivized Tehran to make a deal.
Federica Mogherini, EU foreign policy chief and head of the group of countries that negotiated with Iran, reminded the international community of the multilateral nature of the agreement and said that its implementation is her responsibility. In remarks to the press Nov. 13, Mogherini emphasized that the deal is a multilateral agreement and said that it is in the “European interest” to “guarantee that the agreement is implemented in full.”
Other leaders also voiced their support for the deal. French President Francois Hollande also told reporters reporters Nov. 16 that the agreement “gives us all security” and that the “absence of the accord would be very serious.”
The Responsible Path Forward
Rather than dismantle the deal or seek its renegotiation, the Trump administration should pursue continued implementation of the agreement and ensure that the IAEA has sufficient inspectors on the ground and the necessary resources to keep Iran’s nuclear activities under close observation.
It should also look for opportunities to strengthen the deal in the years following the end of core nuclear limitations set by the JCPOA. This could include extending the limits on uranium enrichment activities, building out the innovative monitoring mechanisms, or negotiating separate restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missile programs. As the deal continues to prove successful, the administration could look to regionalize certain restrictions in it. Trump could sell this as a ‘renegotiation’ package, building on the understanding among all parties that the original nuclear deal remains in place and is fully implemented.
Trump does not have to face the challenge posed by a nuclear weapons program in Iran—unless he brings it on himself. The consequences of the deal falling apart due to Washington’s actions would be significant. Abandoning it could open the door to a nuclear-armed Iran sooner rather than later and increase the prospect of a costly war in the Middle East. By walking away from the international agreement, Trump would also be sending a dangerous message that United States cannot be trusted to honor its agreements and that the opinions of negotiating partners do not carry any weight in Washington. Under such circumstances, Iran would not be likely to enter into a new agreement with the United States.
—KELSEY DAVENPORT, director of nonproliferation policy
Note: An earlier version of this referred to General Mattis as "brigadier general." We apologize for the error.