Toward the end of April, French President Emmanuel Macron made a three-day state visit to the United States to meet with his American counterpart, President Donald Trump, to discuss in particular the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly referred to as the Iran nuclear deal. The French president, who enjoys a productive relationship with President Trump, sought to urge his American counterpart to remain in the deal.
President Trump is to make a decision on American participation in the nuclear accord by May 12. Under U.S. law, every 120 days the president must certify Iranian compliance with the deal. Earlier this year, Trump again signed a waiver continuing American participation in the JCPOA, but asserted it will be the last time he does so.[i] His ultimate action on the deal will serve as a reckoning on the nuclear accord that Republicans, some policy analysts, and American allies in the Middle East have blasted since it was reached during President Barack Obama’s second term.
President Trump’s decision on the nuclear deal is likely to be a defining moment of his administration’s Middle East policy, and the stakes are high: On April 30, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu revealed that Israeli operatives had acquired thousands of Iranian documents that “conclusively prove” the country in the past sought a nuclear device and concealed this attempt prior to and following the JCPOA’s completion.[ii] Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons was the impetus for the JCPOA in the first place. Whether Iran continues to desire a nuclear weapon is subject to partisan debate in the U.S., but over time, once the restrictive provisions of the JCPOA end, the country would be ideally situated to pursue either the completion of a nuclear device or at least the technical capacity to build a device.
Furthermore, Iranian ballistic missile development proceeds apace, providing for Tehran a stable delivery mechanism for a nuclear warhead should a device be assembled. This issue, which President Trump has focused on in his commentary on Iran, is testament to the inherent contradictions in President Obama’s approach to the JCPOA in the first place. The U.S., during the negotiating process, insisted the missile program was outside the scope of the negotiations as they were non-nuclear, but Iran’s missile development would undoubtedly be used to weaponize a device, and quickly, in the event Iran were to create a nuclear device.
On appearances, President Trump’s administration has signaled that it will withdraw from the nuclear deal, and onlookers seem to be listening. Boeing is looking to find new customers in response to the likely loss of access to the Iranian commercial market.[iii] Despite President Macron’s efforts, even he conceded that the U.S. might ultimately leave the nuclear deal.[iv]
Some administration officials have suggested that a decision has not yet been made and, given President Trump’s negotiating style, in which he elicits positions contradictory to those of his top advisers — seemingly deliberately — the U.S. may yet choose to remain in the deal. In a speech in April 2016, President Trump stated, “The Iran deal, like so many of our worst agreements, is the result of not being willing to leave the table.” He added, “When the other side knows you’re not going to walk, it becomes absolutely impossible to win.”[v] Though he reluctantly verified Iranian compliance with the deal’s terms on several occasions, President Trump has certainly made clear he is prepared to walk. Having left the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris Climate Accord, and threatened to renegotiate other multilateral and bilateral arrangements, his willingness to leave any given accord if he does not view it as favorable is apparent. Nor is President Trump averse to using force, for, despite his reluctance to become further involved in Syria, his administration has twice conducted strikes on the Syrian government in response to alleged chemical weapons attacks.
Contradictory messaging creates uncertainty, but also demonstrates a willingness to abandon the tougher lines for a compromise. In August 2017, President Trump threatened the leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), Kim Jong-un, with “fire and fury” over his nuclear threats to the U.S.,[vi] but at present President Trump is planning for an unprecedented meeting with Mr. Kim aimed at reaching an agreement over DPRK’s nuclear weapons.
A decision to remain in the Iranian nuclear deal would not signify that the U.S. is content with its terms but rather that the U.S. is confident that new restrictions can be enacted that satisfy long-term concerns about Iranian nuclear capability. During his visit, President Macron suggested that the U.S. could, as one option, explore new measures to target the expiration of the JCPOA’s restrictive provisions, Iran’s development of ballistic missiles, and Iranian activity throughout the region.[vii] These are all issues that the U.S. regularly cites in regard to Iran. France appears to be taking a leading role on mediating the matter, as President Macron conveyed these three topics to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in a phone call late in April.[viii]
By contrast, a decision to leave would indicate a new era of tense relations between Washington and Tehran. In an article for National Review in August 2017, John Bolton, who now serves as the president’s national security adviser, wrote a blueprint for what a withdrawal from the agreement could look like. Bolton urged “further steps” that “should collectively demonstrate our resolve to limit Iran’s malicious activities and global adventurism.” He noted the U.S. “should solicit suggestions for imposing new sanctions on Iran and other measures in response to its nuclear and ballistic-missile programs, sponsorship of terrorism, and generally belligerent behavior.”[ix]
Given Bolton’s acknowledgement that “Iran is not likely to seek further negotiations once the JCPOA is abrogated,” it is unclear what the logical endpoint of the withdrawal policy would be. Military action remains a possibility, but anything short of regime change — itself a costly affair fraught with risk — would be more likely to delay rather than permanently end Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Military strikes could even provide a perverse incentive to Iran to complete a nuclear device.
Writing in 2012, prior to the JCPOA and amid international deadlock, James Sebenius and Michael Singh noted that Iran’s reluctance to reach an agreement with the U.S. and other world powers on its nuclear program probably stemmed from it viewing “its own no-deal option favorably.” They added,
This observation raises the question of why, if U.S. policymakers view military conflict as the most likely alternative to a negotiated agreement, the Iranian regime either does not see that eventuality as likely or does not worry overmuch about the consequences of such an outcome.[x]
At that time, Iran, they argued, felt either that the U.S. would not conduct military strikes against it or that any strikes that occurred would not be existential in nature to the Iranian government. Tehran at that time did not view the U.S. as exhibiting enough pressure (or enough positive incentive) to come to the negotiating table. What remains to be seen is whether this stance is continued now that an agreement has been reached and Iran has something to lose.
As President Trump gears up for a decision on the JCPOA, Iran remains outwardly defiant. President Hassan Rouhani rejected negotiations on the three subjects President Macron raised, noting that Iran is committed only to the requirements of the JCPOA. In response to the possibility of the U.S. leaving the nuclear accord, Iran’s Atomic Energy head, Ali Akbar Salehi, stated, “Technically, we are fully prepared to enrich uranium higher than we used to produce before the deal was reached.”[xi]
Notably, President Trump’s rhetoric has been much more bellicose than his predecessor’s, and without being quick to dismiss the military option as ineffective, a tendency that Sebenius and Singh suggested undercut American threats during the Obama years. Having achieved the deal, and loath to lose it, Iran appears to have restrained some of its more provocative activities. For the time being, Iran has not announced any ballistic missile tests since September 2017,[xii] and the video Iran released for that missile launch was reportedly from a failed test earlier in the year as opposed to one conducted that month.[xiii] Iranian aggressive naval activity in the Persian Gulf has entered a “short-term interlude.”[xiv] These temporary freezes could be explained in several ways: Iran wants to alienate the U.S. on its decision to leave the deal by demonstrating good behavior to the rest of the world, or Tehran is worried about activities that could tip the U.S. into withdrawing from the accord.
Either case (both are possible in combination, as well) demonstrates Iran’s preference for the continuity of the deal rather than its termination, offering a potential window for diplomacy. Even if Iran suspects the U.S. remains reluctant to conduct strikes on it – given the risks – Tehran is still wary of the return of sanctions, especially now that the country’s economy has only just begun to open up, as these would dampen economic growth and raise the prospect of renewed anti-government protests such as those held earlier in the year.
To date, the International Atomic Energy Agency continues to report that Iran has met its requirements under the JCPOA. President Obama’s goal to block “every pathway” to a bomb for Iran has thus been achieved successfully for the short to medium term. Whether all pathways will be blocked for the long term is a question for President Trump, and one whose answer will begin to emerge later in May.
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[i] Jeremy Diamond, “Trump Issues Warning, But Continues to Honor Iran Deal,” CNN, January 12, 2018. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2018/01/12/politics/president-donald-trump-iran-deal-waiver/index.html
[ii] The Telegraph, “Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu Says He Has ‘Conclusive Proof’ of Secret Iranian Nuclear Weapons Programme,” April 30, 2018. Retrieved from https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/04/30/netanyahu-speak-significant-development-iran-nuclear-deal/
[iii] Barbara Slavin, “Boeing Finds Other Buyers as Prospects for Iran Sales Dwindle,” Al-Monitor, April 26, 2018. Retrieved from https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2018/04/boeing-finds-other-buyers-iran-sales-dwindle-jcpoa-uae.html
[iv] Helene Fouquet and Weston Kosova, “Macron Says He Thinks Trump Will Pull Out of Iran Nuclear Deal,” April 25, 2018. Retrieved from https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-04-25/macron-says-he-thinks-trump-will-pull-out-of-iran-nuclear-deal-jgfp09rm
[v] Donald J. Trump, “Transcript: Donald Trump’s Foreign Policy Speech,” The New York Times, April 27, 2016. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/28/us/politics/transcript-trump-foreign-policy.html
[vi] Peter Baker and Choe Sang-Hun, “Trump Threatens ‘Fire and Fury’ Against North Korea if It Endangers U.S.,” The New York Times, August 8, 2017. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/08/world/asia/north-korea-un-sanctions-nuclear-missile-united-nations.html
[vii] Fouqet and Kosova, “Macron Says He Thinks Trump Will Pull Out of Iran Nuclear Deal.”
[viii] BBC News, “Iran Nuclear Deal: France’s Emmanuel Macron Pushes for Talks,” April 29, 2018. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-43942744
[ix] John Bolton, “How to Get Out of the Iran Nuclear Deal,” National Review, August 28, 2017. Retrieved from https://www.nationalreview.com/2017/08/iran-nuclear-deal-exit-strategy-john-bolton-memo-trump/
[x] James Sebenius and Michael Singh, “Is a Nuclear Deal with Iran Possible?” International Security 37, no. 3 (2012): 63. Retrieved from https://www.belfercenter.org/sites/default/files/files/publication/IS3703_Sebenius%20Singh.pdf
[xi] Reuters, “Iran Says It Can Produce Higher Enriched Uranium if U.S. Exits Nuclear Deal,” April 30, 2018. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-iran-nuclear-deal/iran-says-can-produce-higher-enriched-uranium-if-u-s-exits-nuclear-deal-tv-idUSKBN1I1158
[xii] The New York Times, “Iran Tests Ballistic Missile and Rejects ‘Threats’,” September 23, 2017. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/23/world/middleeast/iran-missile-test.html
[xiii] Lucas Tomlinson, “Iran’s Supposed Missile Launch was Fake, US Officials Say,” Fox News, September 25, 2017. Retrieved from http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2017/09/25/irans-supposed-missile-launch-was-fake-us-officials-say.html
[xiv] Farzin Nadimi, “Iran’s Reduced Naval Harassment in the Gulf is Temporary and Tactical,” The Washington Institute, March 7, 2018. Retrieved from http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/irans-reduced-naval-harassment-in-the-gulf-is-temporary-and-tactical