Thirteen months into Trump’s presidency, the Iran nuclear deal is alive but wounded. Ironically, while many in the U.S. argued that Iran could not be trusted to abide by its terms, it is the U.S. under Trump that has violated the agreement on multiple occasions. Ominously, Iran has warned that if the status quo does not change, it could withdraw from the accord. Unless the administration changes course and halts its diplomatic sabotage, the JCPOA risks the same fate as another landmark nonproliferation agreement, the Agreed Framework with North Korea, to the profound detriment of U.S. security and the nonproliferation regime.
There are many differences between the Agreed Framework and the JCPOA (the former ran to four pages, the latter to 159) and many between Iran’s dynamic society and totalitarian North Korea. Nevertheless, the Agreed Framework has often been used to tar the JCPOA based on a simplistic reading of its history. According to this narrative, the accord was flawed, North Korea cheated and the George W. Bush administration was justified in killing it. Yet the accord succeeded in preventing North Korea from turning its plutonium into nuclear weapons in the 1990s. And just as severe complications afflicted the U.S. effort to uphold its obligations on the Agreed Framework, so do similar problems mire U.S. adherence to the JCPOA today.
According to Robert Gallucci and Joel Wit, key negotiators of the Agreed Framework, the U.S. took a “problem solved” approach to the accord and let implementation lapse. The major deliverable from the U.S. was to build light water reactors in North Korea by a target date of 2003 and, until then, deliver 500,000 tons of heavy oil on an annual basis. However, concrete for the foundation of the first reactor was not poured until August 2002, far behind schedule, and the project was never completed. Before that, the U.S.“never fully funded its main responsibility, the heavy fuel oil shipments,” resulting in irregular deliveries.
Additionally, as Gallucci and Wit recounted, “the United States didn’t follow through on two major incentives it had promised in return for North Korea’s nuclear restraint: the establishment of better political relations and the lifting of economic sanctions.” Gallucci told the Washington Times in 1999, “Congressional and press skeptics and critics did lead us to take the minimum interpretation of sanctions lifting.” Similarly, as Gallucci recounted in 2003, “North Korea genuinely believed that they were not getting what they hoped for out of the framework…the special relationship with the United States was not materializing and that was the key to their security.”
Under the George W. Bush administration, the U.S. shifted from incomplete follow-through to looking for an exit from the agreement. Far from normalization, Bush lumped North Korea into an “axis of evil.” And former Undersecretary of State for Arms Control John Bolton infamously crowed about evidence of secret North Korean uranium enrichment: “This was the hammer I had been looking for to shatter the Agreed Framework.” Had the Bush administration sought to address the challenge through diplomacy instead of exiting the accord, today North Korea might not be close to fielding nuclear-tipped missiles capable of striking the United States.
Just as North Korea felt that they were not getting what they bargained for under the Agreed Framework, faith that the U.S. will uphold its end of the JCPOA has precipitously declined in Iran. The Trump administration is inflicting deliberate harm by violating the accord, and daring Iran to be the one to leave first.
First, the President is actively holding the fate of the accord in doubt. Both in October and January, the world wondered whether Trump would extend sanctions waivers necessary to sustain the accord. Each time, he extended the deal for a few months, but not without demanding unilateral alterations to its terms. This is a direct violation of the commitment “to implement this JCPOA in good faith and in a constructive atmosphere…and to refrain from any action inconsistent with the letter, spirit and intent of this JCPOA.” Additionally, the U.S. committed to “prevent interference with the realisation of the full benefit by Iran of the sanctions lifting.”
The effect of holding the fate of the accord in doubt is that businesses that should be permitted to re-enter the Iranian market under the JCPOA are hesitant to do so out of fear of sanctions snapback. Supporters of the deal within the Rouhani administration are unable to deliver on jobs, and hardliners who prefer an isolated Iran free of nuclear restrictions have escalated their attacks on Rouhani’s platform of international and domestic moderation.
Second, the Trump administration continues to warn countries against trading with Iran in violation of the JCPOA commitment to “refrain from any policy specifically intended to directly and adversely affect the normalisation of trade and economic relations with Iran.” At the G-20 Summit in July, Trump actively dissuaded countries from trading with Iran. At the Munich Security Conference last month, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster warned that investing in Iran is like “cutting a check” to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is heavily sanctioned.
There are additional concerns about potential U.S. violations. For example, the U.S. is obligated to license the sale of civilian aircraft to Iran, including Boeing jets that are supposed to begin to be delivered in 2018. However, the Treasury Department is still “reviewing” the licenses, with no indication of whether or not they will be completed before mid-May, when Trump has threatened to terminate the accord.
Unless Congress, Europe and other parties step up and insulate the agreement from Trump’s sabotage, the JCPOA will collapse and Iran’s nuclear program will be unshackled. Then, Trump will face two potential national security disasters: the prospect of a disastrous war of choice with Iran over its nuclear program, which regional actors are certain to clamor for, and the prospect of Iran following North Korea’s path and obtaining nuclear weapons. Failing to learn the mistakes of the past, we may be doomed to repeat them.