When Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump meet in New York today, the Israeli prime minister will find himself in the enviable position of pushing against an open door.
As a candidate, President Trump pledged to spend his first day in office tearing up the Iran nuclear agreement, a pact he said was “incompetently negotiated [by] very stupid leaders.” In doing so, he was only amplifying Netanyahu’s earlier criticism of the agreement as “a bad deal that…doesn’t block Iran’s path to the bomb; it paves Iran’s path to the bomb.” Now, with the next presidential certification of Iranian compliance due by Oct. 15, Netanyahu is pressing President Trump to fulfill his pledge: to claim that Tehran is not holding up its end of the agreement and thereby set the stage for U.S. withdrawal.
In fact, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JPCOA, effectively restrains Tehran’s nuclear programs for at least the next decade. Moreover, it is the sole major recent diplomatic development that could actually bolster the stability of a region riven by violence, chaos, and civil wars. Those of President Trump’s advisors who understand this are likely marshaling some version of this memo for his Netanyahu meeting:
- First and foremost, the absence of the JCPOA will only intensify the threat posed by Iran. Although hardly an ideal agreement, the deal nonetheless effectively blocks Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon for at least the next 10 to 15 years. You should remind Netanyahu that under this agreement, Iran has dismantled or removed two-thirds of its centrifuges, poured concrete into its only reactor capable of producing plutonium, and shipped more than 25,000 pounds of enriched uranium out of the country. Before the JCPOA, Iran was within weeks of achieving a ‘break-out’ capability (the time required to produce enough weapons grade- uranium for a single nuclear weapon); the agreement ensures that they are at least a year away. Moreover, a withdrawal would provide Tehran hardliners a ready-made excuse to quickly reconstitute their nuclear program, making Iran a far more dangerous opponent for the United States and Israel alike.
- The JCPOA establishes a process that allows for inspection of any site suspected of hosting nuclear-weapons activities. Netanyahu will likely complain that the agreement does not allow for anywhere/anytime inspections, increasing the potential for a covert Iranian nuclear program. However, the JCPOA establishes a Joint Commission in which we and our allies have critical votes that can “gain IAEA inspectors access to undeclared sites they consider suspect.” You can assure Netanyahu that U.S. intelligence agencies will be working tirelessly with their Israeli counterparts to identify any suspect activities. We will not be bashful about raising these concerns in the Joint Commission and will forcefully press for inspections of any suspect sites. The inspection regime headed by the IAEA under the “Additional Protocols” is intrusive, permanent, and the toughest in the world. We will ensure its forceful implementation.
- The JCPOA prohibition against Iranian development of nuclear weapons is permanent. Prime Minister Netanyahu will rail against the so-called “sunset provisions” that allow certain restrictions on Iranian civilian nuclear program to expire after 10, 15, or 25 years. However, nothing in the agreement allows Iran to acquire a nuclear-weapons capability at any point now or in the future. In fact, in the preface of the JCPOA, “Iran reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop or acquire nuclear weapons.” This declaration in and of itself is of little assurance, but stringent enforcement of the IAEA inspection protocols along the lines discussed above provide strong, if imperfect, guarantees.
- U.S. withdrawal from the agreement will do tremendous damage to the international reputation of the United States as a trusted negotiating partner. You can remind Netanyahu that the JCPOA was painstakingly negotiated by the so-called P5+1: all five permanent members of the UN Security Council (U.S., Russia, China, UK, France) plus Germany. As long as the IAEA continues to certify Iran’s compliance, a U.S. withdrawal will be viewed as an unjustified unilateral action taken in violation of our existing international obligations. This lack of confidence in U.S. willingness to adhere to the terms of negotiated agreements could undermine our leverage with allies as we seek to renegotiate trade agreements with allies in Europe, Asia and the Americas. Moreover, pulling out could reduce the prospects for negotiated settlements in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, and Afghanistan — all areas where Iran could take even more aggressive action to undermine U.S. and Israeli interests.
- Finally, the JCPOA doesn’t restrict us from taking any action against other Iranian activities of concern in the region. The agreement only requires the U.S. to lift its nuclear-related sanctions on Iran. Still in effect are a host of unilateral and multilateral sanctions punishing Tehran for its actions in support of terrorism, ballistic missile development, and human rights violations. In fact, you can point Netanyahu to several instances in which you have indeed imposed additional sanctions against Iran for just these behaviors.
Of course, the ultimate decision remains in the hands of President Trump himself. How he will weigh these arguments against his instincts to scuttle the JCPOA is unclear. However, we can hope that, as with his Afghanistan strategy, he recognizes that “decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office.” If he does, he will resist his original instinct to dismantle the JCPOA, reject Prime Minister Netanyahu’s empty arguments, and conclude that U.S. interests are best served by adherence to the JCPOA as long as Iran’s compliance is verified by a strong international enforcement regime.