Editor's note: The following column originally appeared on AEIdeas, the blog of the American Enterprise Institute.
President-elect Donald Trump has repeatedly called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the so-called Iran nuclear deal, “the worst deal ever negotiated” and a “disaster.”
He’s right. Far from creating the most robust monitoring regime, Secretary of State John Kerry’s deal set a new precedent for lax inspection standards. Not only did it fall short of the bar President Obama had established, it also fell short of past international precedent established with the dismantlement of South Africa’s and Libya’s nuclear program. Rather than ratify the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)’s Additional Protocol, Iranian negotiators promised only to abide by it. The last time that happened, the Iranian government walked away from its restrictions as soon as they had achieved what they wanted, and bragged about it.
Inspections remain spotty and the snapback sanctions mechanism practically non-existent. Nor does the agreement address the problem of off-shore nuclear work, for example, conducted by Iranian scientists in North Korea. Kerry allowed Iran to keep its underground nuclear facility, and more centrifuges than Pakistan used to create its nuclear arsenal. Should Trump serve a second term, the sunset clause to which Kerry acquiesced will put Iran on the verge of having its few remaining controls lifted by time Trump’s presidency ends.
So can Trump walk away from the deal? Legally, yes. President Obama passed the deal through convoluted legal maneuvering rather than by presenting it for ratification by the Senate. Much of the deal was also enshrined in UN Security Council Resolution 2231 and so this would be harder to simply dismiss but, as with all UN resolutions, there is significant wiggle room, much of which Iran has already exploited (for example, with regard to justifying its ballistic missile work).
But would it be wise to walk away from the deal? The answer to this is no. Kerry crafted the deal to give Iran its rewards upfront. A savvier diplomat might have insisted on calibrating sanctions relief and the return of frozen assets to Iran over the course of the deal’s duration, but Kerry was so desperate for a deal that he frontloaded Iran’s rewards. It was the diplomatic equivalent of giving a toddler dessert first and then demanding he eat his spinach. If Trump were to walk away from the deal, it wouldn’t hurt the Iranians one bit; they already received a reward equivalent perhaps to their entire investment in the nuclear program in the first place.
So what might Trump do instead? JCPOA implementation has been handicapped by Kerry’s ego and his fear that it might unravel if he is not obsequious to the Islamic Republic. Weakness seldom wins, however. The Iranian regime understands Kerry’s naiveté and ego and has guided him down a path to the loosening of the JCPOA’s already weak restrictions. On any number of issues—Iran’s illicit ballistic missile work, tolerance for Iran exceeding limits on its heavy water, interpretations of banking regulations, and Iran’s refusal to allow inspections of military bases—Kerry has deferred to Iran, often acting as its business agent and lawyer.
As flawed as the deal is, Trump should simply implement it as if his concern were putting American interests first rather than deferring to Iranian interests. Iran doesn’t want a military base inspected? Tough. Let Iran walk away from the deal if it objects. Iran is upset that its economy isn’t meeting its own expectations? Well, perhaps they should tackle their own corruption and lack of commercial law rather than expect a Western bailout. Iran violates restrictions on ballistic missile development and heavy water production? Then it is in violation and should suffer the full consequences. Flexibility is not an entitlement. Iran complains that sanctions leveled by individual US states on pension fund investments hurt its economy? Not only does agreeing to Tehran’s interpretation betray US democracy, but Tehran’s interpretation is tendentious.
Trump is right: The JCPOA is flawed and does little to restrain or prevent Iran’s military nuclear ambitions. But that does not mean he should walk away. Rather, he can interpret the deal with such inflexibility as to force Iran to walk away. He can be ready with sanctions and, if necessary, other elements of coercion to punish Iran for its noncompliance. And, if he truly wishes to put America first, he will call out every European and Asian firm that seeks for its own short term gain to pump resources into Iran’s infrastructure of terrorism by doing business with Revolutionary Guards-affiliated companies.
At the same time, he can move to undercut Iran’s ability to conduct terrorism by seizing accounts, restricting dollar access by reversing Obama’s tendentious Treasury Department interpretations, and ordering the US Navy to hold its ground rather than “depressurize the Persian Gulf,” as former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel sought.
Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School.