President Donald Trump recently made clear his eagerness to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, effectively ceding the country to Iran, more chemical attacks and further conflict. However mistaken that would be, he is inclined to confront Iran through a different withdrawal — from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, unless it is “fixed” by May 12. Since the fundamentally flawed agreement cannot be truly rectified, and U.S. credibility is at stake, that would be the right policy.
The Iran nuclear agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), all but guaranteed a nuclear Iran no later than 2030, necessitating U.S. withdrawal at some point to prevent a critical threat to American national security interests. But there was no urgency for Washington to do so.
What was pressing, following the Iran-Russia alliance with Bashar al-Assad gaining the upper hand in Syria’s civil war in 2016-17, was to roll back Tehran’s growing regional hegemony. Addressing this first would also have offered Trump more leverage with Iran in correcting the nuclear deal’s deep flaws.
Trump pledged to address both elements of the Iranian threat, but he has resisted confronting Iran regionally. Recently, he insisted upon the urgency of pulling out of Syria once Islamic State is defeated and his desire to let “other people take care of it now.” Those caretakers would be Iranians and Russians. This approach will raise the likelihood of an Iranian-Israel conflict over Syria, where the Assad regime is believed to be behind a weekend chemical weapons attack that killed dozens near Damascus and which in turn is blaming Israel for an attack on a Syrian airbase that killed several Iranian military personnel 24 hours later.
Instead, Trump has focused on the JCPOA, correctly highlighting three egregious elements: it ignores ballistic missile development; doesn’t mandate inspections “anywhere, anytime”; and permits restrictions on Iran’s enrichment program to lapse, or sunset.
Trump turned to Congress and now European governments to fix the deal but, as he likely understands, it is a fool’s errand. These three fundamental flaws can’t be realistically fixed — certainly not by a “supplemental” American and European deal, likely to be rejected by Russia and China and definitely by Iran.
Europeans reportedly are amenable to sanctioning Iran to curb development of ballistic missiles that could reach them. While welcome, this would not address Iran’s existing arsenal, which has the range to hit Jerusalem and Riyadh. Better, though not on the table, would be to threaten to shoot down Iranian missiles tested or used.
Ensuring adequate inspections is also unlikely since the International Atomic Energy Agency, which carries out the inspections, has effectively complied with Iran’s refusal to permit inspections of key facilities, rendering the United States’ “anytime, anywhere” position meaningless.
But it is on the sunset clause that the prospect of fixing the JCPOA really founders. Many Europeans are resistant to addressing the clause because it effectively means canceling the deal, which they oppose. Further, the sunset clause was Tehran’s real prize, as it provides Iran a legal, internationally recognized pathway to nuclear weapons capability. It is unfathomable that it would relinquish this, certainly absent extraordinary coercion, which is not currently in the offing.
Some urge patience, but time is Iran’s friend. The nearer the 2030 sunset draws, the more nuclear activity the JCPOA permits. And the closer Iran gets to a robust nuclear program the more determined to persevere it will become, reducing the chance and time for any coercive strategy to succeed. Also, U.S. leverage will decline as Iran expands its global trade, bolsters its military arsenal, and cements its positions on the borders of the United States’ Middle Eastern allies.
U.S. credibility is now on the line. Since the presidential campaign, Trump has repeatedly threatened to withdraw from the JCPOA, declaring in January the current negotiations to fix it a “last chance.” Vice President Mike Pence declared last month: “make no mistake….Unless the Iran nuclear deal is fixed…America will withdraw….”
If Trump doesn’t withdraw based on a European faux-fix, it would severely weaken the United States’ standing with Iran and globally.
Some argue that U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA would signal to North Korea, as talks loom, that America is an unreliable negotiating partner. However, after repeated violations of nuclear agreements, it is Pyongyang that should have to prove its reliability, not Washington. And after years of retrenchment, unenforced redlines, and ineffectual — and in the case of the JCPOA, unsigned and ungratified — nuclear deals, what the United States needs to prove is its resolve to do what is necessary to prevent rogue states from expanding their nuclear programs. Withdrawal from JCPOA would strengthen U.S. credibility in this regard, just as American rejection of the Test Ban Treaty and withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty advanced U.S. security.
Washington’s withdrawal from the JCPOA offers other clear benefits. It would reinstate nuclear-related economic sanctions that could — if other countries to fall in line — pressure and isolate Tehran, and weaken its regional aggression.
Longer term, withdrawal offers more freedom to the United States, Israel or others to act militarily against Iranian nuclear facilities, if that becomes necessary.
When the JCPOA was negotiated, its primary alternative was a better deal. However, by relieving pressure on Iran and abetting its eventual nuclear development, the JCPOA unfortunately ensured the primary alternative to a nuclear Iran was military action. The other option — regime change — was weakened by the JCPOA’s concessions.
Any intent to withdraw must be preceded by careful preparation for the days after — formulating a robust communication strategy that minimizes blame of the United States; working with Washington’s European and Middle Eastern allies; and willingness and ability to confront any Iranian provocation in the region or nuclear program. While Iran might well continue to adhere to the JCPOA — because it serves its nuclear, economic and diplomatic interests so well – it could choose to break free of the nuclear agreement’s restrictions and ratchet up its nuclear program. The United States must then be willing to do whatever is necessary to prevent a nuclear weapons-capable Iran. If it is not, then Trump should not withdraw from the JCPOA.
Barack Obama backed Americans into a dangerous corner with the JCPOA. Now Trump has nudged Americans into another corner with threats to withdraw. A prepared president should seize the historic opportunity to follow through on that threat.
(Michael Makovsky is President and CEO of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA) and a former Pentagon official. @michaelmakovsky)