The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, universally and colloquially known as the Iran deal, was never a perfect agreement. It relied on too many assumptions about Iran’s future behavior, purposely punted on non-nuclear issues such as ballistic missiles, contained sunset clauses for key provisions, and provided Iran with instantaneous economic relief up front in return for future behavior. The questions going forward are whether the types of activities the Iran deal prevented in some arenas and enabled in others are now going to change following President Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement, and whether the odds inherent in the central bet behind the deal have now shifted in the U.S.’s – and Israel’s – favor.
The people who argued that the Iran deal was going to lead to an open and liberal Iran behaving as a responsible actor in the Middle East were wrong from the second that naïve and Pollyannaish idea was conceived. Just as wrong were the people who argued that the Iran deal was going to pave an even quicker path to a nuclear Iran by essentially giving the regime tacit permission to conduct illicit nuclear activities at undeclared sites and providing it with the money to do so. Whatever you thought of the deal while it was being negotiated and debated, there is no reasonable argument that Iran’s regional troublemaking and anti-American activities have abated, nor is there a reasonable argument that Iran is cheating on the core provisions mothballing its nuclear weapons program. American and Israeli intelligence are exceptionally good at what they do, and if there were even a shred of evidence that Iran was actively violating the deal, Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu would be shouting it from the rooftops. So withdrawing from the deal can’t be looked at through the lens of what Iran has done since July 2015, but what will happen going forward.
The way to think about the Iran deal was that it was a bet about time. For one set of enthusiastic proponents, it was a wager that halting Iran’s nuclear program in return for sanctions relief would buy time for the regime to liberalize and even become a putative American ally. For voracious opponents, it was providing time for the regime to escape from its destiny of being replaced as it was being squeezed on all sides amidst crippling sanctions and internal dissent. But for most, it was a simple bet that kicking the Iranian nuclear can down the road would buy time for the U.S., Israel, and other countries to deal with a problem that was not going to go away. Iran was by most estimates only a few months from a breakout, and this both lengthened the time horizon on a potential nuclear Iran and provided the world with some advance warning were Iran to try and attempt to get there. It is for this reason that despite the nearly across-the-board opposition of Israeli security officials to the deal in the first place, there is almost as across-the-board opposition now to the U.S. pulling out. Even though the deal did not permanently erase the prospect of a nuclear Iran – which for Israelis was the fatal flaw – it bought Israel some much-welcomed time. Rather than worry about Iran’s nuclear program on top of Iran’s conventional military activities in Syria, Israel could focus only on the latter. This time also gave the U.S. and Israel more opportunities to develop further intelligence assets in Iran, and devise new and better ways of sabotaging any future Iranian nuclear activities. It wasn’t about kicking the can down the road in the hopes of laying the problem at future leaders’ feet, but about using the time in the interim productively.
Trump withdrawing from the deal blows up this entire central calculus. If you thought of the deal as a means to prevent Iran from ever getting nuclear capabilities, then signing it was foolish and there was no reason to even maintain it. But if you thought of the deal as a bid for nuclear breathing space, then it was effectively accomplishing that goal. If signing the deal created a giant hourglass filtering the sand of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Trump’s withdrawal has now smashed that hourglass into smithereens. Were this all an effort to get an actual fix for the deal’s more problematic aspects – primarily missiles and sunset clauses – then one could argue for this approach. But in order to accomplish that, the U.S. would have to present a united face with its P5+1 partners. Instead, not only have the E3 countries made their differing preferences from the U.S. clear, Trump has spent the last few months threatening the E3 countries with tariffs and engaging in trade brinksmanship with China. So now Trump has essentially lifted the restraints from Iran’s nuclear program despite the U.S. being in a much weaker geopolitical position to demand an unwavering front in trying to get Iran back to the table to agree to terms more onerous than the ones to which they originally acquiesced.
There is no conceivable scenario in which this move buys more time for the U.S. and Israel on the nuclear front, unless of course you are relying on Iran’s good graces not to restart its nuclear program, which would be the height of absurdist irony indeed. The next question then becomes whether ditching the deal will be helpful in countering Iran’s other problematic activities, and the answer to this is likely also no. One of the side effects of the Iran deal was that Iran’s desperate desire to remain in it and take continued advantage of the sanctions relief it provided created a set of conflicting incentives. On the one hand, it freed up money for Iranian adventurism and mayhem in Syria and Yemen. On the other, it kept Iran from crossing various red lines out of fear that it would provide an excuse for Trump to exit the deal. If, for instance, the muted Iranian response to repeated and embarrassing Israeli strikes on Iranian bases, soldiers, and weapons depots in Syria was a result of not wanting to upset the Iran deal apple cart, withdrawing from the deal will remove the restraints not only from Iran’s nuclear program but from its appetite for tangling with Israel in a more robust way. And even with the economic hit that Iran is now expected to take as sanctions are reimposed, it is too committed in Syria to propping up the Assad regime to withdraw in a meaningful way. This is now almost the worst of all worlds, insofar as the Iran deal enabled bad Iranian conventional military behavior but placed a ceiling on it and Trump’s withdrawal from the deal will now remove that ceiling without turning back the clock on what the deal initially enabled.
There is no definitive way of predicting what will happen next, but here is my best guess. Iran and the five remaining states on the other side of the agreement will do their utmost to keep the deal in place, which will limit for the time being any Iranian rush to restart its nuclear program or kick out IAEA inspectors. The Trump administration will pressure the E3 countries to join its reimposed sanctions regime, since that is the entire point of the U.S. withdrawing in the first place, and the Europeans will reluctantly but ultimately concede, although they will likely do their best to find ways around it any way they can. China and Russia will not play along as they did during the harsh sanctions period of 2013-15, which means that Iran will not be as isolated as it was during those years that eventually forced it to the negotiating table. This will ultimately result in constant uncertainty and limbo, with the West having less insight into what Iran is doing as the inspections provisions in the JCPOA – as opposed to the far less stringent ones as part of the NPT – are no longer in place. Rather than have a sense of just how much time is left before the clock expires, the U.S. and Israel will be left guessing.
Perhaps this will lead to a nuclear Iran, perhaps it will lead to American or Israeli military operations to prevent such a scenario, and perhaps it will even lead to regime change. What I am confident about is that the manner in which this withdrawal occurred, with no adequate plan in place for what comes next, is unlikely to lead to a better deal. I understand – though I do not in any way agree with the logic – what pushed Trump into this decision, motivated as he seems to be by carrying out campaign promises, no matter how inane, and reversing anything President Obama did, no matter the consequences. What I do not understand, given the ways in which the Iran deal has demonstrably benefited Israel in the immediate term, is why Netanyahu is even more enthusiastic about seeing its tenure cut short. Only time will tell what happens next, but my read is that we are now back to the pre-Iran deal world, only with even less leverage than we had in 2015.