One of the points of competition during the Republican primaries was who could be most vehement in denouncing the nuclear agreement with Iran, the formal title of which is the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA). Donald Trump chose to focus on the negotiation aspect, supposedly one of his strong points. It was a bad deal; he would get a much better one, no specifics given. The negotiatiors used the wrong strategy. Presumably he expected something more like this:
According to Bruce G. Blair, a research scholar at the Program on Science and Global Security, at Princeton, Trump encountered a U.S. nuclear-arms negotiator at a reception in 1990 and offered advice on how to cut a “terrific” deal with a Soviet counterpart. Trump told him to arrive late, stand over the Soviet negotiator, stick his finger in his chest, and say, “Fuck you!” Recently, a former Republican White House official whom Trump has called on for his insights told me, “Honestly, the problem with Donald is he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.”
I take Evan Osnos’s juxtaposition of these two quotes to imply that one of the things Trump doesn’t understand is that international diplomacy is conducted differently from New York real estate deals. Reports of what Trump doesn’t know about the presidency tend to support this.
The JCPOA is one of the things that Trump seems to know little about. John Bolton, who has been mentioned for Secretary of State, knows more about diplomacy says this:
Worst of all, Iran is now on a path to deliverable nuclear weapons, legitimized by Obama’s wretched deal[.]
Centrifuges have been disassembled and Iran’s enriched uranium stocks greatly decreased. Iran’s nuclear programs are under greater international scrutiny than any other country’s. The regular reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency say that Iran is upholding its side of the agreement. Experts from the US and Europe agree that Iran is not working toward nuclear weapons.
Bolton has said this before. It is a standby of anti-Iran think tanks. These are intelligent people, but they have not explained how Iran is building its “deliverable nuclear weapons.” It is possible that “on a path” is a fudge, which could mean almost anything. That some in Iran want nuclear weapons? It would be a very inflammatory way to express that.
Ripping Up The Deal
The President of the United States has a great deal of power, and the JCPOA is an executive agreement, not a treaty, so when Trump becomes President he can simply reimpose sanctions and end American cooperation. But the United States is not the only party to the JCPOA.
The agreement was negotiated with Iran by the United States in cooperation with the United KIngdom, France, Germany, the European Union, Russia, and China. All have interests in making the agreement work and are in various stages of cooperation with Iran to that end. None of them want to see Iran with nuclear weapons, and all feel that the JCPOA is the best way to prevent that. They are making public statements of support for the JCPOA (Germany, France, EU, more from Europe)
If the United States withdrew from the agreement, those others would remain with it. The United States could make it hard for them, but that would set us against some of our allies.
A few former opponents of the JCPOA are now arguing that it should remain in place. Apparently when faced with its removal, they begin to see its benefits. Or did their objections come from that blanket objection to anything Barack Obama achieved as President?
More baffling and dangerous is the willingness of other opponents to claim the opposite of what it actually has done, with no evidence provided for their point of view. It is not clear whether they are so caught up in a cognitive bind that they parrot erroneous talking points or they are lying. The only way Bolton’s quote could be true is if Iran has secret nuclear facilities. However, Bolton and his allies do not claim that a secret facility exists. One could, of course, but other secret Iranian facilities (Natanz and Fordow) were outed.
Another claim is that under the JCPOA the United States has “given” extremely large sums of money to Iran. The truth is that the United States has unfrozen Iranian bank accounts, to which Iran now has access. The money was Iran’s all along, and the amounts claimed are much more than the reality.
Yes, the JCPOA has opened the way for more trade with Iran. The nature of a deal of this kind is that both sides receive benefits. Trump’s desired approach to “deals” seems to be zero-sum, in which he wins all and the other side is crushed. International diplomacy does not work that way. That was the formula for the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I and set the stage for World War II.
The opposition to the JCPOA seems to be grounded in the belief that negotiating with unfriendly regimes is a favor to them. It also appears that some of the opponents, Bolton for one, actively desire a war with Iran. Trump has advocated for lessening such American commitments abroad, a contradiction.
The people Trump appoints to his cabinet and immediately below, particularly his National Security Advisor and the top tier of the State Department, will have a lot to say relative to the JCPOA. A number of people have been mentioned for Secretary of State, but the transition team is confused or deceptive, so I won’t try to game out the probabilities.
There is also the question of whether Trump will take strong positions and expect his cabinet to execute them or whether he will run a more collegial cabinet. The chaos we are now seeing in the transition team could persist, which might mean no withdrawal from the JCPOA but also no support for it. The JCPOA requires continuing diplomatic attention. The United States is to help Iran in redesigning its heavy water reactor, which allows us to control its potential for plutonium production, for example. Funds will have to be appropriated for this and other activities. Refusing to vote those funds is one way Congress could sink the agreement, but it could also prefer to back off from an international confrontation.
When the United States cut off its obligations to the Agreed Framework with North Korea in 2003, North Korea was freed to withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and start making bombs. That could bring Bolton’s concern to fruition.
Here are some other views:
Richard Nephew, one of the negotiators of the agreement
Lawfare Blog (Brookings): Can President-Elect Trump “Dismantle” the JCPOA? It’s Complicated
Shemeul Meir, former Israeli Defense Forces analyst
Suzanne Maloney, Brookings
Paul Pillar, National Interest
Eli Lake, Bloomberg News
Added November 24, 2016
Kelsey Davenport, Arms Control Association