President Trump announced yesterday that the United States was going to withdraw from the nuclear agreement with Iran.
Iran, the United States and five other nations (Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China) had negotiated an agreement in 2015 that would limit Iran’s nuclear program for ten years in return for removing sanctions that had been imposed and releasing billions of dollars in Iranian assets that had been frozen.The agreement was a major effort by President Obama and he had pushed hard to get the agreement. So hard, in fact, that when the initial draft of an agreement was proposed, it was so slanted toward Iran that France said that they would not agree to it until it was changed. President Obama reportedly also put several other things on the ‘back burner’ for fear of offending Iran and putting the negotiations at risk. These included such things as the ‘red line’ against using chemical weapons in Syria, where Iran’s ally Hezbollah was fighting, for example.
Although it’s always easy to say ‘we should have gotten a better agreement’, obviously that isn’t always possible because it takes two side which usually have opposing goals to agree. However, the Iran agreement did have several gaps. First, the agreement released billions of funds for Iran that had been frozen and did away with sanctions on Iran. These were done up front, on the promise that Iran would limit its push for nuclear weapons. According to international inspectors, Iran has been following the agreement but it’s also noteworthy that the agreement only limited Iran for ten years, after which they would be free to produce nuclear weapons.
Additionally, the agreement did not limit Iran’s ballistic missile program. Iran was reportedly very close to developing a nuclear weapon but was much farther away from perfecting a missile system that could deliver the weapons. Within six months after the agreement was signed, Iran conducted ballistic missile tests thus showing that they were continuing to work on perfecting the weapons delivery.
Finally, President Obama announced that they nuclear agreement would be separate from any link to Iran’s support of terrorism or its intervention in other parts of the Middle East. So the agreement did nothing to address Iran’s aggression.
This last gap is significant. Iran has used the money from the agreement to expand its reach. It has a large contingent of its military fighting to support Syria’s President Assad in the civil war there. It is financing the terrorist group Hezbollah who has also sent thousands of its militia force to Syria, as well. Iran also has forces in Yemen and is expanding its influence, often using its military, throughout the region. The money from the lifting of sanctions and unfreezing of assets is financing it.
President Trump said during the campaign that the deal was a bad one and a number of members of Congress agreed with him, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY). Israel and Saudi Arabia also oppose it. Yet pulling out at this point is a bit of a gamble. The calculus of refusing to agree in the first place and pulling out after implementation is different.
The biggest drawback to pulling out of the deal now is that Iran got their billions of dollars in unfrozen assets up front, upon implementation of the deal. Most of the benefit that they will see, they have already received. And they have seen oil revenues and the benefits of trade, as well. Of course, it is true that sanctions will be reinstated but these will take a while to take effect.
The other nations say that want to maintain the terms of the deal but how will Iran react. With the US re-imposing sanctions, will Iran still give up their nuclear weapon ambitions and let inspections of their nuclear sites continue even if the world’s largest economy imposes sanctions? If Iran pursues another crash program to get nuclear weapons, knowing that it takes time for sanctions to have an effect, how close will Iran be able to get to having nuclear weapons in their arsenal?
And the US withdrawal, of course, goes against our largest European allies. It’s not clear how hard Trump will go to re-impose sanctions. Will the sanctions penalize European countries that do business with Iran, as well, and if so, how will Europe react?
The original agreement was questionable. The ability to get Iran to agree to any new deal is less now than it was originally because they have already received tens of billions of dollars in benefits in direct payments and money from increased trade in oil. If the US can’t get a new agreement, what then?
The only thing that is clear is that the decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal is a risk on a couple of fronts. The hope is that the countries involved can get Iran to agree to tougher conditions though that is now less likely than it was before. The United States, and the world, will have to hold their breath to see how it plays out.