This article was originally published in the Financial Times.
As has been widely expected since July, President Donald Trump announced on Friday that he would no longer certify that the Iran nuclear deal (known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) is in the US national security interest. The decision is a high stakes gamble with low odds of success.
The reality is that the Iran nuclear deal is very much in the US’s national security interest. Moreover, it is clear the Trump administration understands the risks it is taking and how much we could lose should the agreement collapse. That is why Mr Trump did not withdraw the US on Friday, though he accurately noted he could.
But, notwithstanding the risks, the administration is choosing to chase the chimera of a “better deal” with Iran. Mr Trump is betting that, with the appearance of domestic political pressure to reimpose sanctions, Iran and the other signatories to the agreement will be moved to accommodate US concerns by entering new talks to strengthen the core nuclear provisions of the agreement — as well as addressing issues such as terrorism and human rights.
There are three main reasons why this strategy will not work.
First, the demands to be made on Iran under new negotiations will probably be so stringent as to make them unachievable. As part of the US team that negotiated with Iran in 2013-14, I can attest that we sought a tougher agreement than the JCPOA. But we found little partner support and even less readiness on Iran’s part to accept our demands. Iran has consistently said it will not accept termination of its uranium enrichment and other nuclear activities as a matter of principle, no matter the inducement.
Likewise, though I share concerns about Iranian support for terrorism and the future of Iran’s missile programme, I do not believe unilateral US demands to address either are realistic. Either Mr Trump will have to accept less than his desired objectives or such talks would be destined to fail. So, decertification in this context is simply a prelude to future conflict.
Second, international businesses will respond to uncertainties in the Iranian market by either shying away or pursuing “de-risking” strategies that limit their exposure to US sanctions. A lacklustre investment climate will damage Iran’s growth projections, and its incentive to stay in the deal, as well as undermine the political standing of the JCPOA in Tehran. If foreign companies find ways to avoid being sanctioned by the US then we also lose the ability to employ sanctions in incidents of actual Iranian cheating or against other problem countries in the future.
Finally, there is the impact on Tehran. Mr Trump’s strategy presupposes that there are no politics in Iran to limit the ability of its leaders to make concessions. This is simply not true. Moreover, the JCPOA is a public document and Iran’s leaders could hardly accept an agreement in which they give more to receive the same benefits of the existing JCPOA. If Iran agreed, its leaders would open themselves up to future extortion and would certainly argue that point in debates at home.
Iran may agree to sit down with the US, but it has been unambiguous in its refusal to consider a new agreement. It is much more likely to play a waiting game, building up partnerships and alliances around the world by playing on international hostility towards Mr Trump. With his help, Iran could split the international coalition that presidents George W Bush and Barack Obama invested years in creating.
To be sure, Iran probably would not restart its nuclear programme immediately, if the US Congress sits on its hands with respect to sanctions. But it would be poised to do so — and to blame the US for the results — if decertification chills investment too much or sanctions relief is abridged. Decertification may not, on its own, prompt a renewed nuclear crisis with Iran. But it will be the first pebble in a landslide to come.