Trump considers withdrawal from Iran nuclear deal, experts weigh the consequences

U.S. President Donald Trump addresses the 72nd session of the United Nations General Assembly, at U.N. headquarters, Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

On Wednesday morning, President Donald Trump said he "decided" whether or not to recertify the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, but he intends to keep the American public and international community in suspense before announcing the fate of the deal.

After his speech to the United Nations General Assembly this week, there are many internationally and domestically who believe Trump might just renege on the deal he referred to as "an embarrassment" and "one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into."

The consequences of the United States backing of the deal or trying to renegotiate the terms of the nuclear pact were the subject of meetings in New York on the sidelines of the U.N. between U.S. officials and all the other parties to the deal, China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, the European Union and Iran.

It is possible for one person, Donald Trump, to sink a landmark nonproliferation agreement, but experts warn it could have far-reaching consequences, especially at a time when the United States is confronting the imminent nuclear threat from North Korea.


The president has until mid-October to report back to Congress on whether Iran is in technical compliance with the nuclear agreement. Trump has already recertified the deal twice, once in April and again, reluctantly, in August after fueling rumors of an imminent U.S. withdrawal.

"I think he has a television actor's flair for the dramatic," James Walsh, senior research associate at MIT's Security Studies Program said of Trump's wait-and-see approach to the nuclear deal.

Moreover, Trump will have the opportunity every 90 days to cast doubts and uncertainty on the U.S. commitment to the deal.

The requirement to certify the deal was imposed by Congress on the Obama administration under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act as oversight to guarantee Iran is living up to its commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and that the benefits of the deal outweigh the costs.

If the president decides not to recertify, it doesn't automatically kill the deal. Congress will have 60 calendar days to debate the issue. And if it finds the president's case compelling, the nuclear sanctions "snap back" on Iran, putting the U.S. in material breach of the agreement and essentially killing the deal.

The fact that Trump has turned to Congress to make key decisions on health care and the DACA immigration issue, suggests he may also ask Congress to weigh in on the Iran deal, Walsh said. "There's real uncertainty. You just don't know until it's done."

Even if Trump decides against approving the deal, even some of the toughest Iran critics on Capitol Hill have shown signs that they would not pull the trigger and kill the nuclear pact, Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association said.

"I think it's becoming increasingly obvious that even the Republican skeptics of the agreement do not believe the United States should unilaterally withdraw from ... its nuclear commitment," Kimball said.

Top Republicans on Foreign Relations, like Rep. Ed Royce of California, have called on the president to stay in the JCPOA framework, but "enforce the hell" out of it.

"Even the skeptics of the nuclear agreement understand, we don't want to have a self-created nuclear proliferation crisis with Iran, especially when we're struggling to deal with North Korea," Kimball stressed.

If the U.S. were to break the agreement it would find itself isolated from the other major international powers and without the leverage to reimpose the multilateral sanctions that were so effective, he explained. And of course, Iran would be emboldened to restart their nuclear weapons program.


The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was signed in 2015 and implemented in 2016 after more than 2 years of painstaking negotiations between the P5+1 countries (the U.S., China, France, Germany, Russia, and the U.K) and Iran aimed at cutting off Iran's pathway to a nuclear bomb in exchange for easing some international economic sanctions.

On the campaign trail and while in office, Donald Trump has repeatedly threatened to "tear up" the agreement or find a way to renegotiate a better deal.

According to reports, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson floated the idea of reopening talks at a ministerial meeting in New York on Wednesday night on the sidelines of the U.N. It did not sit well.

Frederica Mogherini, the E.U.'s chief diplomat, insisted there is "no need to renegotiate part of the agreement," especially when all parties, including the United States, have affirmed Iran's technical compliance.

"The international community cannot afford dismantling an agreement that is working and delivering," Mogherini said. Pointing to the threat from North Korea she added, "We already have one nuclear potential nuclear crisis — that means we do not need to go into a second one."

British Prime Minister Theresa May and French President Emmanuel Macron both defended the deal. Macron stressed that renouncing the deal would be "a grave error" and "irresponsible."

Kimball, who was at the United Nations this past week, noted that the attitude among many of America's European allies is "a deal is a deal," and they saw "no feasible way to renegotiate the existing agreement."

"It's one thing to build upon this agreement," Kimball said. "It's another thing to renegotiate an agreement that took about a decade to conclude that Iran is complying with."

Iran was the most vehemently against the idea of returning to the negotiating table, especially if it meant sitting across from Donald Trump, who Iranian President Hassan Rouhani derided as one of the "rogue newcomers to the world of politics."

"Either the JCPOA will remain as is in its entirety, or it will no longer exist," Rouhani said on Wednesday. "There will be absolutely no changes, no alteration, nothing done to the current framework of the current JCPOA."

Secretary Tillerson responded to the statement, "never say never."

Chris Bidwell, nonproliferation law and policy fellow with the Federation of American Scientists believes that Trump does have some leverage the could use to extract concessions on some of Iran's other provocative actions, like its ballistic missile program, support for terrorist groups like Hezbollah, or human rights violations.

"I don't think Iran got everything they needed out of the deal. They didn't get the types of sanctions relief they were hoping for," Bidwell said, explaining that Iran still remains largely cut off from access to international banking and access to credit. That economic sore spot for Iran could provide an opportunity to discuss missile program or sponsorship of terrorism.

"Maybe a more comprehensive deal might start to be discussed," Bidwell said. "Even if trump walks away it doesn't mean, we can't negotiate — as he would say — a better deal down the road."

Still, Iran has made clear that it has no interest in putting that kind of faith in Donald Trump, who denounced Iran at the U.N. as a "rogue" regime, "corrupt dictatorship" Rouhani berated during his U.N. address as one of the "rogue newcomers to the world of politics."


Experts say the timing could not be worse for Donald Trump to decide to stack the Iranian nonproliferation threat on top of the imminent danger posed by a nuclear-armed North Korea. Even as the administration imposed new economic sanctions on Kim Jong-Un, they face serious diplomatic challenges to denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.

Piling the Iran issue on top of North Korea is "absolute lunacy," Kimball stressed. "Why would you want to give yourself a second proliferation challenge?"

The worst possible scenario, Walsh explained, would not be a dual nuclear threat from Iran and North Korea. Because of the deal, Iran's is still months away from developing a nuclear weapon and does not yet have a reliable means to deliver it.

If the deal is killed and Iran chooses to respond by restarting their nuclear program, there will be strong calls for military action to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon from factions in the United States, Israel and other parts of the world.

"We might not be looking at two nonproliferation challenges," Walsh said. "We might be looking at a nuclear standoff on the Korean Peninsula and a hot war with a non-nuclear weapons state in the Middle East."

The nuclear agreement with Iran is not ideal and former Obama officials readily admit that it did not address key issues including delivery systems and regional provocations. Even the monitoring of the nuclear sites lacks transparency.

Yet, things could be worse, Walsh noted. The only thing worse than an Iran that is developing missiles, engaging in human rights violations and sponsoring terrorism, he said, "is an Iran that does all those things and has nuclear weapons. That's why we have the agreement."

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