By Samuel M. Hickey
May 8 marked two years since President Trump formally withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), better known as the Iran nuclear deal, while maintaining that “[i]t is the policy of the United States that Iran be denied a nuclear weapon and intercontinental ballistic missiles.” Since then, the Trump Administration unilaterally re-imposed crippling sanctions on Iran and antagonized our allies by forcing them to comply or risk financial isolation. They have also wasted valuable time trying to disassemble the Iran nuclear deal rather than pursuing negotiations to address its concerns. Now, the United States is scrambling to respond to the impending end of a United Nations (UN) arms embargo linked to the nuclear deal.
In retaliation for the Trump Administration’s decision to leave the JCPOA, Iran incrementally stepped back from compliance with the deal one year later — beginning in May 2019 — and our allies have resisted calls to punish Iran over its legitimate grievances. Iran’s proximity to a nuclear weapon capability has gradually increased due to the Trump Administration’s policies, and Iran is now roughly six months away from having enough weapons-grade fissile material for a nuclear bomb. When President Trump took office, Iran was about a year from that milestone. As a whole, the Trump Administration’s withdrawal from the JCPOA and “maximum pressure” strategy has gotten the United States no closer to its stated goals.
In talking about the Trump approach to Iran, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed that the United States would “ensure Iran has no path to a nuclear weapon — not now, not ever.” There are two paths to accumulate weapons-grade fissile material for a nuclear weapon: enriching uranium-235 to 90% purity or higher and separating plutonium. The JCPOA restricted Iran from enriching uranium past 3.67% until 2030, but Iran is enriching uranium to a higher purity and its stockpile is increasing in response to the United States’ violations.
The JCPOA also blocked Iran’s ability to accumulate plutonium. This was particularly important since plutonium is the preferred fissile material of the other nuclear-armed states. Strangely, it is clear that the Trump Administration still values the plutonium-related restrictions in the JCPOA, since it routinely issues a waiver for the United Kingdom and China to modify Iran’s heavy water reactor at Arak. As originally designed, the Arak reactor could have produced enough plutonium from its spent fuel for one or two nuclear weapons per year.
Secretary Pompeo also claimed that, “after the countdown clock ran out on the deal’s sunset provisions, Iran would be free for a quick sprint to the bomb, setting off a potentially catastrophic arms race in the region.” First, as long as Iran remains in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), it will never be free to pursue a nuclear weapon. It was the NPT that provided the legal foundation for the sanctions that brought Iran to the negotiating table in the first place. Second, Iran is now implementing the IAEA’s Additional Protocol, which significantly enhances the capabilities of international nuclear inspectors to search for clandestine programs. Under the terms of the JCPOA, Iran is supposed to extend the Additional Protocol indefinitely via ratification in 2023.
Further, if the Trump Administration had concerns about sunset provisions in the JCPOA, trying to improve the agreement seems easier than burning it down and starting again. The Trump team could have also pushed for negotiations on a testing moratorium or regional accession to the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, since Egypt, Iran, and Israel are all signatories to that agreement. Either option would have reduced proliferation threats in the region.
The final critique the Trump Administration leveled on the JCPOA was that it “did nothing to address Iran’s continuing development of ballistic and cruise missiles, which could deliver nuclear warheads.” While the JCPOA focused exclusively on the Iranian nuclear program, UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorses and helps implement the JCPOA, calls upon Iran “not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons” until 2023. Iran’s compliance with this provision — although it is not legally binding — is murky, but the Trump Administration did not pursue negotiations to address its concerns.
Iran’s first successful launch of a military satellite by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard’s Corps, not the Iranian Space Agency, does deserve attention. As a corollary, Israel and India — two nuclear-armed states — diverted technology from their civilian space programs to missiles, so there is good reason to watch these developments closely. However, the United States’ efforts to block the lifting of the UN arms embargo actually fortifies the deterrent logic of Iran’s missile program in the first place. This should not be the goal of an administration that highlights at every opportunity that “Iran has the largest and most diverse ballistic missile arsenal in the Middle East.”
Two years ago, President Trump withdrew from the JCPOA promising that he could create a better deal and a safer world. He has nothing to show for it now, other than increased U.S. isolation on the global stage and an Iranian government that is closer to a nuclear capability. His maniacal need to follow through on a campaign promise has not only proven to be a worthless gesture, it is now clear that it was a reckless act that has made this country less safe.