With two years of successful implementation in the books, Washington should be celebrating the anniversary of a historic Iran nuclear deal. Instead, President Trump is violating the pact and prompting its demise. With each passing day, it becomes less plausible that his violations are mistakes rather than malicious. This is all the more ironic given reports that his administration plans to once again re-certify Iran’s compliance with its Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) commitments. However, reaffirming that Iran is fulfilling its end of the bargain does not mean America is doing the same. As the deal turns two, all parties to the deal should consider three key points about their landmark diplomatic achievement as it exists today.
First, it is now clear that the Trump administration intends to flout the full scope of U.S. obligations under the JCPOA so as to limit promised business ties with Iran. For instance, a White House press briefing revealed that President Trump spent his time at last week’s G-20 Summit urging nations to stop doing business with Iran. Trump’s directive to world leaders is the latest in a string of evidence that the U.S. is acting in material non-compliance with its express obligations under the JCPOA. These obligations include not just the formal lifting of nuclear-related sanctions, but also express commitments to “refrain from any policy specifically intended to directly and adversely affect the normalization of trade and economic relations with Iran...” and “from any action inconsistent with the letter, spirit, and intent of [the] JCPOA that would undermine its successful implementation.”
Considering, too, that the U.S. has the positive obligation to “agree on steps to ensure Iran’s access in areas of trade, technology, finance, and energy,” Trump’s private urging to foreign countries to withdraw business ties with Iran puts the U.S. in irrefutable breach of the JCPOA. No one can any longer remain agnostic or in denial as to this basic fact.
Second, in breaching the JCPOA, the Trump administration appears keen on adopting the failed playbook of the past. Soon after taking office in 2001, the Bush administration skirted U.S. obligations under the Agreed Framework, prompting North Korea’s departure from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and effectively weaponizing North Korea’s nuclear program. Neoconservative champions of that approach – one that haunts us to this day – are now pushing this same disastrous policy with Iran, hoping that death-by-a-thousand-paper cuts will sink the Iran deal and place Washington and Tehran back on the path towards war. To this end, the Trump administration is taking deliberate steps to breach the JCPOA and provoke an Iranian response.
So far, though, the effect of Trump’s policy is to isolate only the United States. Next week, the Joint Commission to the JCPOA will meet to discuss implementation of the deal, and there can be little doubt that a central focus of that meeting will be America’s failure to abide by the terms of the agreement. The Trump administration will have effectively inverted the order of things at the Joint Commission so that America, not Iran, is the subject of the meeting and its lack of commitment to the deal bemoaned by other world powers.
In the upside-down world of Washington, this is the position of “strength” from which the U.S. can challenge Iran. Pipe dreams aside, though, there can be no mistaking the fact that the U.S. has effectively ceased to be a constructive party to the nuclear deal. With the rest of the JCPOA parties indicating that they will move ahead with the nuclear accord regardless, the Trump administration has successfully cratered U.S. influence and caused the other parties to the deal to balance against it.
Finally, it cannot be overstated that all of this was entirely avoidable – because the Obama administration had put U.S.-Iran relations on an entirely different trajectory. Multiple channels of dialogue were established, and both sides sought to use the JCPOA as a foundation from which dialogue on additional points of contention could grow. The clock ran out on Obama’s second term before more progress could be made, but Trump could have picked up where his predecessor left off. Heightened tensions with Tehran were not a fait accompli, and that is precisely the problem: The Trump administration has chosen to double down on discord that was in the process of being managed six months ago.
There is time to reverse Trump’s policy direction. Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, will be in New York next week. It would be the height of diplomatic malpractice if Trump does not send a cabinet-level official to privately meet with him. Hawks in Washington can no longer deny that diplomacy with Iran can help achieve American interests because the JCPOA is the receipt from Obama’s efforts. Whether or not Trump chooses to rip up that receipt remains to be seen, but the current trajectory on the Iran nuclear deal’s second anniversary should alarm anyone who thinks more war in the Middle East is a bad idea.