As the two-year anniversary of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) approaches, uncertainty over the Trump administration’s commitment to the Iran nuclear deal is growing, heightening the tensions in the Middle East. At a Senate hearing on June 13, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson remarked that although Iran was complying with the JCPOA, the bar for Iranian compliance was “pretty low.” The remark came a day before another Senate hearing where the secretary confirmed that the administration’s Iran-policy was still under review ― including the administration’s stance toward the nuclear deal.
But Secretary Tillerson has it somewhat backward. If the bar is low for anyone, it is arguably low for the U.S.
The JCPOA obligates Iran to abide by specific and verifiable targets, such as reducing its numbers of centrifuges by two-thirds, cutting its stockpiles of enriched uranium by 97 percent and destroying the core of the Arak reactor and redesigning the facility with international supervision.
Continuous and independent inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency ensure that Iran is committed to the deal. Sanctions were waived only after compliance was confirmed by the parties. Indeed, former Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken called the inspection regime “one of the most intrusive [...] in the history of arms control.”
While Iran’s targets are technical and verifiable, the targets for U.S. compliance are not. Consequently, whereas it is clear to the JCPOA signatories and the rest of the international community what Iranian non-compliance would look like, it is not as obvious what precisely constitutes U.S. compliance, or non-compliance.
Although the U.S. has waived nuclear sanctions, those sanctions are not lifted until years down the road and non-nuclear sanctions remain on the books, limiting Iran’s access to the international financial system and therefore its benefits from the deal. This was a concern for the Obama administration which understood that the absence of economic growth after Implementation Day posed a threat to the deal’s sustainability.
The previous administration therefore undertook what was dubbed a “road show,” with former Secretary of State John Kerry and other officials sitting down with foreign banks to walk them through what is and is not permissible under the JCPOA. However, these sessions ― intended to resolve lingering concerns among banks that they could run afoul of existing sanctions ― have been discontinued by the Trump administration.
Statements, such as Tillerson’s criticism of the deal’s efficacy, only serve to fuel doubt over the administration’s position toward the JCPOA and have practical implications. The looming uncertainty over the Trump administration’s commitment to the deal has deterred foreign companies from investing in the Iranian economy. Congress is also considering passing additional sanctions that risk interfering with the U.S.’s obligations under the nuclear deal.
While some legitimate criticism can be leveraged against elements of the JCPOA, the administration’s actions only serve one purpose: to undermine the credibility of the nuclear deal from within. When dissected, their criticism targets not only the deal, but also the concept of diplomatic talks with Iran. Understanding the consequences of walking away from the deal that enjoys support among the rest of the P5+1, the administration appears instead to be launching ungrounded statements against the JCPOA to undermine its credibility.
By entering in negotiations with Iran, the Obama administration recognized that Iran had to come out of the shadows if stability was to be achieved in the region and that diplomatic talks were a prerequisite for solving many of the issues in the Middle East. Concurrently, the Obama administration saw the region’s geopolitical significance diminish in light of rising powers in the East that realistically could threaten the American-led order and tried to refocus U.S. foreign policy accordingly. The Trump administration’s apparent opposition to the JCPOA is a miscalculation of where U.S. strategic interests primarily lie that risks entangling the country further in Middle East warfare.
Rather than criticizing Iran’s compliance with the deal, the Trump administration would do well to examine its own commitment to the deal ― and the geopolitical consequences to the U.S. and the region if it failed to sustain the JCPOA. The U.S. cannot afford continued regional instability and possible isolation from some of its allies, both of which pose long-term threats to American interests in the region.