Since his campaign, President Trump has adamantly defended the idea that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (commonly known as the JCPOA or the Iran deal) is a “bad deal.” Repeatedly on the campaign trail, then candidate Trump promised to withdraw from the deal the minute he was put into office — a campaign promise it seems he is finally ready to keep.
In January, President Trump waived the economic sanctions on Iran for another 120 days, an act he says will not happen again until the deal is “fixed” and expanded to address Iran’s ballistic missile arsenal, its involvement in Syria, and support for Hezbollah. As the May 13th deadline to waive sanctions again fast approaches, President Trump’s actions are leading experts to believe that he is preparing to leave the agreement and take other steps to address Iran’s nuclear program.
Many argue that replacing Rex Tillerson with Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State highlights a key shift in how the Iran deal will be approached. After announcing the change in position, the President told reporters that “when you look at the Iran deal, I think it is terrible. I guess [Secretary Tillerson] thinks it was ok. I either wanted to break it or do something and he felt a little bit different.” Tillerson became a defender of the deal after entering his post, while Mike Pompeo, on the other hand, has been a strong opponent of the Iran deal and called for the use of airstrikes against Iran’s nuclear developments in 2014 as negotiations neared completion.
Rolling back US commitment to the Iran deal greatly threatens US credibility and its ability to maintain any agreement through multiple administrations. It may lead its allies to hesitate to work with the United States on multilateral agreements and thus decreases the US’ ability to exert influence internationally. Backing out of the agreement would also encourage Iran to restart its nuclear program which threatens the security of the United States’ allies in the Middle East and Europe.
The European Union has held much of the responsibility of protecting the balance of the agreement, and by backing out, the US is placing the EU in a position of choosing between doing everything it can to preserve the agreement or placating the United States’ new demands.
If the United States follows through with its threat of refusing to waive sanctions in May, the EU should do everything in its power to keep as much of the JCPOA framework as possible. While Iran has said there is no agreement without the United States, there are steps that the E3/EU+3, along with China and Russia, can take to offer enticements to push Iran to abide by the core elements of the deal. This would include creating Blocking Regulation that would reassure European companies that the US will not punish them for doing business with Iran. This in turn would allow Iran to continue to be a part of the international economic markets – a key aspect of the deal that pushed Iran to accept in the first place. By pushing back against the United States, the other signatories of the agreement signal that they are still willing to negotiate with Iran and encourage Iran to abide by the framework, even if the United States backs out.
However, the US should remain in the agreement. It was a landmark event and according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Tehran has adhered to its obligations. By doing so, Iran has made it relatively impossible for the leadership to create a nuclear weapon undetected. If the United States would like to add more to the deal, it should do so via diplomacy and creating separate agreements. But to completely leave a deal that has reopened channels of diplomacy between the P5+1 and Iran, reintegrated Iran into the international economy, and pushed it to cease the development of nuclear weapons would only put the United States at odds with the international community. To back out now would only push Iran to renege on the deal as well, and put the world back in the position of Iran developing a nuclear weapon.