The ease with which Donald Trump can wreck the Iran deal is a consequence of its shaky foundations. It was time for the deal to end.
President Trump’s decision not to renew Iran sanctions waivers effectively withdraws the United States from the disastrous nuclear agreement with Tehran, and sets the stage to negotiate a better deal.
It is hardly surprising that the president would choose not to continue an agreement he called “the worst deal ever.” The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) has a number of significant flaws, such as a weak inspection and verification regime, an automatic sunset provision and failure to restrict Iran’s growing ballistic missile program.
Furthermore, it did nothing to hamper Tehran’s support for terrorism and insurgency. In fact, the up to $150 billion in Iranian assets the deal unfroze has probably helped underwrite the country’s recent military adventurism in Syria and elsewhere.
Trump kept the Iran deal on life support for his first year in office, extending sanctions relief “for the last time” on Jan. 12. The president said that final 120-day grace period was to provide time for Congress or our European allies to fix the plan. While there have been some proposals for a better deal, actual changes were not forthcoming. Rather than fix it, he nixed it. Now with a clean slate, the United States and the international community can forge a more sensible agreement.
The ease with which the president wrecked the JCPOA was a consequence of its shaky foundations. The Obama administration lacked the domestic political support to conclude a more durable Senate-ratified treaty, and chose instead to do an end run with a “political commitment” that was not binding under international law. President Obama kept his end of the bargain by invoking a series of national security waiver loopholes provided for in the sanctions laws. However, these waivers had to be periodically renewed, or the sanctions would go back in force. All that was required of Trump to bring U.S. sanctions back was to let the law take its course.
President Trump promised that U.S. sanctions would quickly return in full force. Does this automatically mean the deal is dead?
That is up to Iran. Tehran can continue to abide by its side of the deal if it so chooses. And the JCPOA provides for a dispute resolution mechanism through a joint commission, which Iran could invoke.
However, the main text of the agreement states — twice — that Iran would treat the reimposition of any sanctions “as grounds to cease performing its commitments under this JCPOA in whole or in part.” And the regime in Tehran has already threatened to renew its uranium enrichment program to higher levels than before the deal was signed.
This does not mean that the mullahs can just go ahead and build nuclear weapons. Iran is still bound by the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which forbids weapons development. Any move by Iran to restart the type of illegal weapons program revealed recently by Israel’s intelligence coup of 110,000 Iranian documents, videos and photographs would be in direct violation of the NPT, and subject to international condemnation and potential reprisal.
As President Trump said, the regime would face “bigger problems than it has ever had before.”
It gets worse for Iran. Under the JCPOA, if one or more parties are found not to be in compliance with the agreement, “the provisions of the old U.N. Security Council resolutions would be reimposed, unless the U.N. Security Council decides otherwise.”
Because the United States has veto power, it is unlikely the council will vote to block this, which means seven suspended United Nations sanctions resolutions will come roaring back into force. This is the famous “snap-back” mechanism Obama touted while promoting the agreement in 2015: “We won’t need the support of other members of the U.N. Security Council. America can trigger snap back on our own.”
Of course, Obama never expected his successor to push this self-destruct button, probably because he envisioned a much different 2016 presidential election outcome.
It is curious that the Iran nuclear deal contained the seeds of its own demise. But what else would you expect from the worst deal ever?
James S. Robbins, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and author of This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive, has taught at the National Defense University and the Marine Corps University and served as a special assistant in the office of the secretary of Defense in the George W. Bush administration. Follow him on Twitter: @James_Robbins.