The Trump administration’s renunciation of the Iran deal is an act of needless belligerence that serves little purpose beyond restoring hostility between the United States and Iran. By tearing up an agreement that Iran was complying with, and replacing U.S. obligations with threats, President Trump has effectively dared Iran’s leaders to restart their nuclear program, ratcheted up antagonism and substantially boosted the odds of a disastrous war.
A U.S.-Iranian war could come through a preventive U.S. bombing; an Iranian response to a covert U.S. action to undermine its regime; or through a flare-up of hostility in Syria. Exchanges of fire between Israel and Iran, like those we’ve seen on the Syria-Golan Heights border in recent days, could escalate to pull U.S. forces into war.
The U.S. withdrawal from the deal (officially the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) and renewal of sanctions it had suspended gives Iran legal grounds to “cease performing its commitments under this JCPOA in whole or in part.” It is, however, prohibited from developing nuclear weapons as a signatory to Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Still the deal isn’t yet dead, as the other parties (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, Germany and the EU) continue to abide by it.
It’s easy to disagree on the deal’s merits, given the difficulty of knowing what was possible.
Maybe Iran would have agreed to a broader agreement covering ballistic missile or even support for foreign militias. Possibly it might have reduced its uranium stockpile past 98 percent, pushed off the sunset dates on these restrictions, or given inspectors freer reign. But the success on the deal’s stated aim is hard to deny. As of last week, according to the inspectors and all public intelligence assessments, Iran was not building nuclear weapons. Even Trump, in his speech announcing his decision, didn’t really suggest otherwise. He settled for arguing that Iran is untrustworthy, citing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent unrevealing revelation that Iran maintains files from when it had a secret nuclear weapons program in the early 2000s.
Quitting the JCPOA will be costly. The most evident cost is erosion of trust in U.S. commitments. The United States has quit international agreements before, but doing so after only three years due to a party shift in the White House is different. Other countries will hesitate to negotiate deals with the United States if the next administration sees them as partisan detritus to toss.
The European parties to the deal are irate about the pullout and particularly the reintroduction of secondary sanctions, targeting firms that do business with Iran. They’re eager to defend their businesses with financing measures, laws, or retaliation. But companies might still buckle for fear of running afoul of U.S. rules. Both outcomes could cause a trade fight costly to jobs and profits, adding to what U.S. firms lose by staying out of Iran. Boeing alone stands to lose $20 billion in Iranian contracts.
The deal also suggests that the administration may not be too serious about getting North Korea to completely disarm. That was never realistic, particularly after what happened to Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi. Leaving the deal while insisting Iran complies anyway just reinforces the perception that dictators without nuclear weapons invite U.S. bullying.
The biggest danger of quitting the deal is war with Iran. For now, the Iranians aren’t planning to quit complying or to eject the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors. But they reserve that right, depending on their talks with the Europeans. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei seems to prefer that course. By giving a boost to hardliners, Trump has made that outcome, and most of the other things Americans want Iranians to stop, more likely. He’s vindicated the hardline view that “Americans cannot be trusted.” More diplomatically-minded Iranian leaders, like President Rouhani, may fear the electoral consequences of giving in to Trump, and endorse provocative policies to shore up their nationalist credentials.
It’s hard to say what Trump’s top goal is with Iran. Certainly non-proliferation isn’t it. You keep the deal in that case. Trump seems less eager for war than National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who both call for regime change in Tehran. That seems to essentially mean war, due to a mistaken belief that strategic bombing undermines regime support rather than causing rallies around the flag. But Trump did swap those hawks in for H. R. McMaster and Rex Tillerson, who both wanted to stay in the deal, and he hinted at regime change in his speech. Overall, it seems doubtful that there’s a policy goal beyond confrontation.
One path to war: the Iranians restart their program, and the United States launches a preventive strike—or backs up Israel if it does. If that strike seems to fail, or leads to retaliation by Iran or the militias it supports, like Hezbollah, a wider war could occur, possibly including a U.S. invasion of Iran.
Even covert regime change efforts could set off a similar chain of events. The proximity of U.S. and Iranian forces in Syria is another flashpoint. The Iranians might react to tension with more aggressive behavior towards U.S. or Israeli forces there—the fighting near Golan could be an example. Or the militias they back there, or in Iraq or Lebanon, might do so.
The best way to limit the odds of war is to keep Iran in the deal. That starts with changing tact on secondary sanctions to allow European firms to do business with Iran. Another pacifier is getting U.S. forces out of Syria and Iraq, or at least cooperating with Iran to avoid clashes there, and discouraging the Israelis from preventive strikes on Iranian forces. Finally, it’s worth containing fears of Iran. Its military and religious establishment funds bad actors, but ultimately its middling power poses a threat to the United States, unless misguided fears cause us to launch another foolish war. With luck, we’ll remember the decision to exit the Iran deal as more foolish than disastrous.
Benjamin Friedman is Foreign Policy Fellow at Defense Priorities.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.