Scrapping a deal that cuts off for at least a decade Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon is arguably the most consequential decision of Donald Trump’s presidency thus far — with so many winning acts to choose from, I don’t say that lightly.
Making good on his vows to “rip up” the “worst ever” Obama-era deal, Trump yanked us out of an imperfect (but far-better-than-any-alternative) accord that has so far averted a military confrontation by curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Trump announced he would immediately reimpose all economic sanctions on Iran, its oil buyers, and commercial and investment partners — in other words, on virtually every major economy in the world. While Trump surely believes this will force Iran and our negotiating partners to their knees, crawling back to beg for mercy from the world’s greatest dealmaker, nothing could be further from the truth.
Among many unforced errors, Trump has allowed Iran to fashion itself as the aggrieved party and put us on a path to unravel the only thing stopping Iran from becoming another nuclear-armed rogue state in the mold of North Korea.
The president deludes himself in believing he can exact better terms than a united United States, Europe, China, and Russia could wrest from Iran after three years of crippling sanctions and hard-fought diplomacy. At the precipice of his Hamlet moment, Trump seems blind to the consequences of leaping into the void. So let me lay out the likely consequences: a rift with allies, a tit-for-tat battle if we penalize global banks and businesses, near-certainty Russia and China will ignore US sanctions, an excuse for Tehran to resume nuclear fuel production (and secretly seek weapons) — or a costly war to try to stop them.
“The deal is toast. And there’s no viable Plan B,” said Richard Nephew, who was a US sanctions negotiator at the talks.
I covered the nuclear talks from an unpromising start in Almaty, in February 2013, to shouting matches between Secretary of State John Kerry and Iran’s Javad Zarif in Vienna days before the deal was reached, in July 2015. An accord looked unlikely until the bitter end. The notion Trump could magically renegotiate a hard-fought deal that’s being enforced is delusional and dangerous. Few people understand the complex 159-page deal — and the president is apparently not among them.
A quick review: The deal blocks Iran from making nuclear weapons in exchange for lifting sanctions that cost Tehran $5 billion a month in lost oil sales alone. Iran agreed to ship out 97 percent of its enriched uranium, mothball 70 percent of its uranium-enriching centrifuges, and disable a heavy water reactor that could produce plutonium.
Critics complain provisions lapse after 10, 15, or 25 years, simply postponing Iran’s path to a weapon. Mark Dubowitz, of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, hopes Trump will push Europe to “fix the nuclear deal on the terms he demanded” and add more sanctions on missile and terrorist activities. Defenders say the accord extended Iran’s “breakout time” to make a nuclear weapon from a month or two to a year, and that many provisions never expire, binding Iran to disavow nuclear weapons forever.
Trump “decertified” the deal last October, saying Iran had violated it. But International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors — who have 24/7 surveillance at nuclear facilities and the right to demand access anywhere — have certified Iran’s compliance every quarter since it took effect. If Iran cheats, complaints go to a Joint Commission that polices the deal. In 2016, Iran was accused of having too much heavy water, which could be used to produce plutonium — and it sold the excess to come into compliance. Thanks to the deal, Iran couldn’t make plutonium in any case, because it disabled its heavy water reactor.
Britain, France, and Germany have tried to reason with Trump, to little avail. “Fix it or nix it,” is Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s refrain. Trump thinks he can nix it as a way to fix it, but that belief is either naive or arrogant. With UN inspectors backing Iran, the world won’t take our side — and our penalties won’t have the same impact, especially if countries flout them or do the bare minimum.
Former Obama aide Colin Kahl gamed out military scenarios to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon when he worked at the Pentagon. The military option, he said, is “not a solution.” An Israeli strike would set back Iran by a year or two; a US hit might double that — but a strike would stiffen Iran’s resolve to get a weapon by any means possible. “Even the biggest critics admit the deal buys us 10 to 15 years,” Kahl said. “Every option we and Israel have today to stop them, we’ll still have in 2030. So why give up a deal that buys time? It’s literally crazy.”
Yet crazy is where we are.
Indira A.R. Lakshmanan’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow her on Twitter @Indira_L.