The Nuclear Deal Minus the United States?
President Donald Trump’s irresponsible decision to violate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement with Iran and withdraw from the accord was unanimously denounced by the other parties to the agreement. Washington’s P5+1 partners – the EU, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom, also announced their intention to sustain the agreement and fully implement it without the United States.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani also pledged to continue abiding by the terms of the deal if Iran’s interests are met. But he ordered the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran to begin preparations to expand nuclear activities if the remaining parties to the deal cannot provide benefits envisioned by the deal. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei took a harder line, saying that he does not trust European partners and if they do not offer definite guarantees, Iran will not stay in the nuclear agreement.
In May 8 remarks announcing the reimposition of sanctions and withdrawal, Trump said the deal is “defective at its core” and it was clear to efforts to work with the E3 (France, Germany and the United Kingdom) to “fix” the agreement would not work.
While Trump’s assessment that the deal is defective is based on a flawed analysis of the agreements nonproliferation benefits and permanent prohibitions, the E3 had been negotiating with the State Department on measures to address his concerns since Trump threatened in January to reimpose sanctions if his demands were not met.
According to reports in The New York Times, Trump’s new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo favored continued discussions with the E3 and thought an agreement could be reached. National Security Advisor John Bolton, however, told CNN May 13 that the Europeans should have known Trump would withdraw from the deal, given his consistent opposition to the accord.
Federica Mogherini, EU foreign policy chief and head of the P5+1, reiterated the EU’s determination to preserve the deal and warned that the United States cannot terminate the agreement unilaterally. Mogherini said the EU is “determined to act in accordance with its security interests and to protect its economic investments.” She also called on the “the rest of the international community to continue to do its part to guarantee that it continues to be fully implemented, for the sake of our own collective security.” (see below for additional reactions)
In efforts to sustain the deal after Trump’s violation, Mogherini met with the Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and the Foreign Ministers of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom May 15. She said measures to ensure continued implementation of the deal are being discussed. Before meeting with the EU, Zarif met with his Chinese counterparts in Beijing May 13, and the Russian Foreign Minister in Moscow, May 14.
Mogherini also announced that a meeting of the Joint Commission, the body set up by the JCPOA to oversee its implementation will meet next week.—KELSEY DAVENPORT, director for nonproliferation policy, with ALICIA SANDERS-ZAKRE, research assistant
*In light of the U.S. decision to withdraw from the deal, we will now be calling this newsletter the P4+1 and Iran Nuclear Deal Alert.
Europe’s Options for Salvaging the JCPOA
EU High Representative Federica Mogherini told reporters after meeting with the E3 Foreign Ministers and Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif in Brussels May 15 that the “lifting of nuclear-related sanctions and the normalization of trade and economic relations with Iran constitute essential parts” of the JCPOA.
Mogherini said the ministers are looking to find solutions to enable the continued sale of oil and gas products from Iran, maintain effective banking transactions, enable further investment, and protect EU entities engaged in legitimate business with Iran.
Iran’s Supreme Leader said May 9 that Tehran would be looking for guarantees from the Europeans to stay in the deal, but Mogherini said that there could be no “legal or economic guarantees.”
While Mogherini did not go into the specifics of what steps the EU will take, several experts have offered proposals on measures the EU and individual states could take to reduce the impact of U.S. sanctions and continue to provide incentives for Iran to remain in the deal.
A May 2 International Crisis Group report proposed short- and medium-term measures that the EU could take to preserve benefits envisioned by the JCPOA, so long as Iran continued to meet its commitments. The short-term measures included reinstituting a blocking statute that the EU has used in the pat to prevent entities from complying with U.S. secondary sanctions. The report also called for a joint effort to pool state-owned credit and investment agencies to cover the risk of doing business with Iran, including possible sanctions penalties.
In the medium term, the report recommended creating a Euro-decontaminated trading bank to process payment, provide credit, and insurances services for business trading with or investing in Iran. Proposed measures also included an energy partnership that trades Iranian natural gas for renewable energy technology.
Ellie Geranmayeh, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, wrote May 9 that the EU should prioritize seeking waivers and exemptions from U.S. secondary sanctions for energy companies, which would enable the continued import of oil from Iran. She also recommended that the EU consider bringing back a blocking regulation and for efforts to “facilitate a pan-European approach toward creating special purpose vehicles to finance sector-specific trade and investment with Iran.”
The EU will continue to discuss its response at a May 17 meeting in Sofia.
The Risk of a Regional Proliferation Crisis
It is unclear at the stage what, if any, steps Iran will take to reconstitute more troublesome elements of its nuclear program if the JCPOA collapses. While it is highly unlikely that Iran will dash toward nuclear weapons, Tehran could resume activities (currently prohibited by the JCPOA) that would significantly reduce the time it would take Iran to obtain enough fissile material for a weapon.
Iranian officials have openly stated that if there is no incentive to remain the agreement, Iran could resume enrichment to 20-percent uranium-235. Under the accord, Iran is limited to enriching to reactor grades, 3.67 percent uranium-235, until 2031.
Uncertainty over the future of the accord raises the risk that other states in the region may try to match Iran’s nuclear capabilities. The day after Trump violated the deal, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister Adel Al-Jubeir told CNN that his country stands ready to build nuclear weapons and match Iran’s nuclear capabilities. Iran Saudi Arabia, like Iran, is party to the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which prohibits the country from developing or acquiring nuclear weapons.
When asked the White House failed to condemn Riyadh’s remarks as dangerous and provocative and Sarah Sanders said she didn’t know if the U.S. has a specific policy on that front. Sanders statement, and the subsequent failure by the Trump administration to correct the record, is a radical departure from the longstanding, bipartisan, U.S. policy to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.
The last thing the Middle East—or the international community—needs in the region is a destabilizing nuclear competition.
Does Team Trump Have a Viable Plan to Obtain a Better Deal?
What makes Trump’s decision to withdraw from the deal so dangerous is that there is no viable “Plan B” for addressing a resurgent Iranian nuclear program if the current deal collapses. By violating and abandoning the agreement while Tehran is in compliance with its obligations, Trump has isolated the United States and dealt a serious blow to U.S. credibility.
Under such conditions, it is highly unlikely that Trump will gain sufficient international support for any new sanctions approach, and even more unlikely that Tehran would be willing to negotiate with the United States after Trump failed to meet U.S. obligations under the JCPOA.
To help encourage Iran to negotiate seriously over its nuclear program in 2013, the United States worked with its allies and the broader international community, to build up sanctions pressure on Iran. Sanctions reimposed May 8 have already been soundly rejected and without support, there will be no leverage to get Iran back to the table for a “better” deal – not that Iran would have any interest in negotiating with the United States after the Trump reneged on existing agreement.
Pompeo is scheduled to explain the administration’s plan to get a “better deal” with Iran at Heritage Foundation next week. He will also testify before the House and Senate Foreign Relations Committees on May 23.
U.S. Allies and Partners Reject U.S. Deal Violation
The other negotiators of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action expressed regret at President Trump’s decision to violate the deal, affirmed the JCPOA’s contribution to international peace and security, and vowed to continue to work to uphold the deal without the United States.
In a May 8 joint statement, British Prime Minister Theresa May, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron expressed “regret and concern” about the U.S. decision on the JCPOA, which the three leaders described as “important for our shared security.”
The E3 leaders emphasized their “continuing commitment to the deal” and urged the international community to continue to implement UN Security Council Resolution 2231.
Geng Shuang, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said May 8 that “ensuring the integrity and sanctity of the JCPOA is conducive to upholding the international non-proliferation regime and promoting the peace and stability in the Middle East.” China urged the remaining parties to the agreement to continue to uphold and implement the agreement.
The Russian Foreign Ministry released a statement rebuking the United States for its action. “We are deeply disappointed by US President Donald Trump’s decision to unilaterally give up commitments to implement the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran’s nuclear programme (JCPOA) and to reinstate the US sanctions on Iran.” Russia stated it would “actively develop bilateral collaboration and political dialogue with the Islamic Republic of Iran” and remain “open to further cooperation with the other JCPOA participants.”
Other key allies also rejected Trump’s move. Taro Kono, Japan’s minister for foreign affairs, said his country would continue to support the JCPOA, noting its contribution to “strengthening of the international non-proliferation regime and stability of the Middle East.” Japan is one of the top five purchasers of Iranian oil. Minister for Foreign Affairs Chrystia Feeland said Canada regretted the U.S. decision to withdraw, particularly given Iran’s continued implementation of the JCPOA.
For additional countries that have spoken out against Trump’s violation and in support of the JCPOA, see here.
While most states issued statements in support of the JCPOA, several backed Trump’s decision to withdraw.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated that Israel “fully supports” Trump’s decision, explaining that it had “opposed the nuclear deal from the start.” Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that Saudi Arabia “supports and welcomes” the move and claimed it is committed to addressing the “dangers posed by the policies of Iran on international peace and security through a holistic approach.”
Mixed Congressional Reaction to Trump's Decision
Congressional statements following Trump’s decision were mixed, with deal supporters calling the U.S. violation a reckless choice that isolates Washington from allies and undermines nonproliferation efforts. Some members, including Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), called Trump’s damaging to U.S. credibility in negotiations with North Korea.
House and Senate leadership were split along party lines in their reaction.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) fiercely opposed the move, calling it a “misguided and uninformed” step that “endangers global security and defies comprehension” in a May 8 statement. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) stated that while it was “unfortunate” that the United States could not “reach an understanding” with the Europeans to “fix” the deal, Trump was “right to insist that we hold Iran accountable.”
Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called the decision a “grave mistake,” arguing that Trump is “risking U.S. national security, recklessly upending foundational partnerships with key U.S. allies in Europe and gambling with Israel’s security.”
Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also was disappointed that the United States was unable to reach an agreement with Europeans but expressed confidence in the U.S. ability to “move quickly to work toward a better deal” in a statement after the announcement.
Some critics of the JCPOA came out against Trump’s decision to withdraw, given Iran’s record of compliance and the lack of a viable “plan b.”
Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), Chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Tactical Air and Land Forces, called it a “mistake” to withdraw from the deal without proof of an Iranian violation. Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, stated that his “preference would have been to give our European allies a few more months to strengthen the deal” instead of pulling out of the deal in May.
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