A woeful sign of the Trump administration’s bankrupt foreign policies is that, in the dispute with Iran over the Obama-era nuclear deal, the Iranians are in the right and the United States is in the wrong—politically, diplomatically, and even legally.
I take no joy in reporting this, as the ruling regime in Tehran ranks among the world’s most detestable and oppressive. It’s a sad day when the American president and his top officials outdo the mullahs in mendacity.
The current dispute concerns Iran’s recent breach of two provisions of the deal—exceeding the limits, first, on how much nuclear fuel it can stockpile, then on the degree to which it can enrich uranium.
U.S. officials say that the moves put Iran on a path toward resuming a nuclear-weapons program, a path that the accord—formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—blocked in several ways. Technically, the officials are right. But a few things are worth noting.
First, and most obviously (though it’s surprising how few news stories mention this up high, if at all), Iran was not the first country to breach the deal’s terms. In May 2018, President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the deal, for no good reason other than he didn’t like it, despite the fact that international inspectors had repeatedly attested that the Iranians were in compliance with its terms. Then Trump not only re-imposed economic sanctions, which had been lifted with the signing of the deal, but also imposed “secondary sanctions” on any country that did business with Iran—even the five powers (Britain, France, Russia, China, Germany, along with the European Union) that had co-signed it.
Second, even in its (quite delayed) response to Trump’s withdrawal, Iran did not violate the accord. Paragraph 36 of the JCPOA states that if one signatory of the pact believes that some others “were not meeting their commitments” under the deal, then, after certain meetings and consultations, it would have “grounds to cease performing its commitments.”
It’s an open and shut case. By pulling out of the deal and re-imposing sanctions, Trump announced that the United States would no longer meet its commitments. By falling under Trump’s secondary sanctions, despite efforts to avoid them, the European countries reluctantly did the same. And so, under the terms of the deal, Iran no longer has an obligation to meet its commitments.
Third, Trump was in violation of the deal well before he withdrew from it. As far back as July 2017, at his first G-20 summit, Trump pressured allied leaders to stop doing business with Iran. This pressure was a direct violation of Paragraph 29 of the accord, which states that the U.S. and the other signatories
will refrain from any policy specifically intended to directly and adversely affect the normalization of trade and economic relations with Iran inconsistent with the commitments not to undermine the successful implementation of the JCPOA.
Even before the G-20 meeting, going back to the start of his presidency, Trump’s frequent threats to pull out of the deal marked a violation of Paragraph 29, as U.S. and European firms hesitated to get involved in “the normalization of trade and economic relations with Iran,” fearing that a U.S. withdrawal—and the resumption of sanctions—would force them to shut down their investments, losing them money.
Fourth, leveling secondary sanctions against other countries doing business with Iran is a violation of the spirit, and possibly the letter, of international law. It is permissible and even proper to punish countries or companies that violate sanctions imposed by, say, a U.N. Security Council resolution. But the JCPOA is a Security Council resolution—No. 2231—enshrined as international law in July 2015, around the same time the U.S. and the other five countries signed it as a multinational deal with Iran.
In other words, Trump is using U.S. economic power—specifically, the primacy of the dollar in global finance—to bully U.S. allies into breaking international law. This is tantamount to banditry, and if the Europeans or Chinese ever displace the dollar’s primacy with their own currency, historians may date their desire to do so to their frustration over Trump’s Iran policy.
Fifth, by citing Iran’s breaches as a national security threat, Trump and his team are, ironically, admitting that signing the deal was—and preserving it would be—a national security benefit. Trump has long lambasted the JCPOA as “the worst deal in history.” If this claim were true, then Iran’s breach of the deal would be inconsequential. What could be worse than abiding by the worst deal in history? It is worth noting that Trump’s former national security team—Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and national security adviser H.R. McMaster—all advised him to stick with the agreement as a net benefit to U.S. security. So did all of the allied leaders and many military and intelligence officers in Israel, despite their distrust of Iran.
Finally, however one views Iran’s recent steps, they do not put the Islamic Republic much closer to building an atom bomb. The JCPOA restricted Iran’s uranium-enrichment to a level of 3.67 percent purity. “Weapons-grade” uranium is defined as an enrichment level of 90 percent purity—though once a lab hits 20 percent, the remaining enrichment can take place fairly quickly. It will take the Iranians a long time even to hit 20 percent. It will also take them a long time to amass and stockpile enough nuclear fuel to make a bomb since, under the JCPOA, it exported 98 percent of its low-enriched uranium to Russia, dismantled two-thirds of its centrifuges, and poured cement over the core of its plutonium reactor at Arak.
In other words, there is time to draw Iran back into compliance with the deal—but the United States has to get back into compliance, too.
The problem is that both countries are playing a dangerous game. Trump may have believed that his “maximum pressure” campaign would compel Iran to negotiate a “better” deal. It has, instead, stiffened the resolve of Iran’s hard-liners. (Trump’s original set of advisers told him that there was no plausible better deal. His current advisers, notably Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton, say otherwise, mainly because they don’t want a deal at all; they want regime change in Tehran.) Meanwhile, the Iranians seem to think that breaching the limits will compel the Europeans to cut a separate deal and break away from Washington. They might not realize the extent to which European commercial and financial enterprises are tied to the dollar.
The nuclear strategist Herman Kahn once likened a certain sort of crisis to a game of highway chicken, in which one driver visibly throws his steering wheel out the window, forcing the other, more responsible driver to veer off the road. But what if both drivers are too stubborn to cede the game? Or what if they don’t see the steering wheel flying out the window, or understand its implications? Or what if one driver or the other is egged on by shotgun-passengers who think they’d survive the crash?
A scenario of this sort is unfolding before our eyes. Someone has to step in and stop the drivers, or block the road.