My name is Kelsey Davenport and I am the director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association.
Why did the Trump administration withdraw the United States from the 2016 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal with Iran?
The 2015 multilateral nuclear deal with Iran resolved a decadeslong crisis over that country's nuclear program by putting in place intrusive monitoring and stringently limiting Iran's nuclear activities. Despite international inspectors and the U.S. intelligence community assessing that Tehran was complying with that deal, President Trump repeatedly referred to the agreement as a failure and in May of 2018 withdrew the United States from the agreement and we imposed US sanctions on Iran. The Trump administration has subsequently pursued a maximum pressure campaign against Tehran designed to push Iran to negotiate not only on its nuclear program but restrictions on its ballistic missile activities and activities in the region.
How have Iran and the other parties to the agreement responded to Trump's actions?
Unsurprisingly, there were many parties to the deal, and Iran opposed the U.S. withdrawal and reimposition of sanctions. Now, for the first year after Trump embarked on this pressure campaign, Iran continued to abide by the deal and worked with the Europeans, Russia, and China to try and reconstitute some sanctions relief envisioned by the agreement. However, after a failure to develop any meaningful trade within that year, Iran began to take steps in May of 2019 to violate the deal. Now, these steps have been incremental, they are quickly reversible, and they don't constitute an immediate proliferation risk. It's clear that what Iran is trying to do is pressure the remaining parties to the deal to deliver on sanctions relief so that the deal delivers some benefits to Iran.
How can the United States and Iran step back from confrontation and prevent a new proliferation crisis?
The Trump administration's current maximum pressure campaign toward Iran increases the risk that the JCPOA will collapse and that a conflict will ignite in the region. A much more effective approach for the United States would be to return to compliance with the JCPOA alongside Iran and for both sides to agree to engage in negotiations that address areas of mutual concern. This could include a longer-term framework to guide Iran's nuclear program and addressing areas like Iran's ballistic missile activities and Iran's activities in the region. In return, the U.S. is going to have to put something on the table that's attractive to Iran—likely more effective sanctions relief. But if the United States takes this approach, it could meet U.S. security needs and prevent a new nuclear crisis from igniting in the Middle East, a crisis that the United States and the international community can ill-afford at this time.
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