The Joint Cooperative Plan of Action (JCPOA) was a bet. Strict verification would ensure Iran’s technical compliance in the short term. Iran, having benefited politically and economically from integration into the international system, would choose not to resume enrichment activities when the deal expires in 10-15 years. President Donald J. Trump’s bellicose rhetoric has undermined the “spirit” of the agreement, giving hard-liners in Tehran incentive to restart and weaponize Iran’s nuclear program.
So far, however, the deal is working. The International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed that Iran stopped producing fissile material at its declared facilities. It also found that Iran dismantled two-thirds of its active centrifuges and eliminated 98 percent of its enriched uranium stock.
Trump calls the JCPOA the “worst deal ever.” He objects to unfreezing Iranian assets. He asserts that the JCPOA gives Iran a legal path to developing nuclear weapons.
The deal does not require Iran to dismantle the Arak heavy water processing facility, which can be restarted in 1-2 years. Moreover, the ban on building new heavy water reactors and plutonium reprocessing plants becomes voluntary after 15 years.
Iran is allowed to retain its infrastructure for enriching uranium, which can be expanded in 10 years for research and development. Between years 2025 and 2030, centrifuges at the Natanz enrichment facility can start spinning highly enriched uranium. All constraints on enrichment will be lifted by 2030.
To justify decertifying Iran, Trump condemns Iran for betraying the “spirit” of the deal. He cites Iran’s threats against Israel; assistance to terror groups like Hezbollah; and testing of the Khorramshahr missile in violation of the UN Security Council resolution.
However objectionable, Iran’s actions are not prohibited under the JCPOA, which focuses exclusively on nuclear issues. The JCPOA is not a grand bargain. It was, however, the best deal possible negotiating with Iran’s wily Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.
Zarif has often spoken to me about “Persian pride.” He suggested that pride was one of Iran’s major motivations for developing its nuclear capacity. If the U.S. had not demonized Iran for its nuclear activities, Iran might not have been enriching uranium or producing plutonium in the first place.
We will never know if this hypothetical is true. However, we do know that Iran’s current actions undermine confidence.
The JCPOA is a long game, establishing a process for confidence building between Iran and the international community. Iran may be in full compliance with the JCPOA’s technical requirements. But by castigating Iran for actions outside the scope of the JCPOA, Trump himself is betraying the spirit of the accord and pushing Iran towards resuming its nuclear program. The international community increasingly doubts whether Trump is a rational actor.
To Iranian hard-liners, Trump proves that America is the “Great Satan”. By decertifying Iran, Trump is pushing Iran to withdraw from the JCPOA. By undermining trust, Trump makes it less likely that Iran would voluntarily abandon its nuclear program.
Trump will not be President when provisions of the JCPOA sunset. A more balanced successor will face the challenge of dissuading Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold.
David L. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He served as a Senior Adviser and Foreign Affairs Expert to the Near Eastern Affairs Bureau of the State Department during the administration of George W. Bush.