Op-Ed by Taylor Berlin
In 2013, Iran was a global threat. It was a state sponsor of terrorism, within reach of having nuclear weapons. The world was at a breaking point and the likelihood of reaching any agreement seemed unlikely. The United States (U.S.)worked with the other four permanent members of the Security Council, Germany and a European Union representative (known as the P5+1+EU) to broker a deal with Iran. It was called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and its goal was to keep the Middle East from becoming any more unstable as a result of nuclear proliferations. The deal was by no means perfect, but it stopped Iran from enriching Uranium past 3.67 percent. Any further enrichment of Uranium creates a weaponized stockpile. Iran was still allowed to keep a stockpile of low-enriched Uranium for civilian purposes. Additionally, the JCPOA released all international sanctions imposed on Iran by the international community. Again, this deal was not flawless for either party, but there was no time to delay or allow for negotiations to continue any longer. Neither party was able to come away with everything they wanted, but an intact deal was, and is, better than none at all. Since the signing of the agreement, Iran has passed the regular inspections of its nuclear facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
With all of its flaws, the deal has stopped Iran from creating a nuclear weapon. That was the main goal of the deal and in this way, it has been a resounding success. It should be celebrated by the country which led the negotiations, but that is not the case. For the Trump administration, the largest fault of this deal could be that it was brokered by President Obama; Mr. Trump seems determined to tear down the legacy of the previous administration. This paper will focus on the actions of the United States, as the only signatory state currently threatening to leave the agreement. This paper recommends the U.S government to endorse the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action as it currently stands and will outline the reasons why it is imperative to do so, despite its flaws. Namely, it keeps the US’ critical ally, Israel, safe from nuclear attack.
It is important to understand the actions of Iran and the P5+1+EU, specifically the United States, in writing and ratifying the JCPOA. This plan addresses the world’s growing concerns over Iran’s progress in creating a nuclear weapon, by ensuring outside observations of the allegedly benign Iranian nuclear power plants and a severe reduction of centrifuges in the nuclear program. The agreement had advantages for Iran; it removed crippling sanctions that had been placed on Iran for the past forty years by the International Community. Thus, the economic compensations were advantageous enough for the country’s severely affected economy to convince Iran to sign the agreement.
The impacts these sanctions had on Iran’s economy have been studied by numerous scholars. Dr. Akbar E. Torbat, of the University of California, explained how damaging the sanctions have been to Iran, stating: “In the case of Iran…economic costs are significant while damage to the American economy is negligible due its large size. Hence the sanctions have been economically successful.” The United States, along with the rest of the International Community has permitted Iran’s economy to flourish where it had previously been stunted for nearly forty years. The economic benefits for Iran to agree to the JCPOA were the United States’ largest bargaining tool during negotiations. The US was in a position of power during the negotiations that it no longer holds. The sanctions on Iran were strong enough to induce cooperation when the international community held the sanctions in place. If the United States tried to put sanctions back on Iran now, the rest of the International Community would not follow. This would put the US at a disadvantage since Iran could continue with American sanctions in place and there would not be the same incentive for Iran to negotiate with just the US. It would also create more tension between Iran and US ally, Israel.
Both critics and supporters of JCPOA agree that a nuclear Iran would escalate Iran’s relative power in the Middle East to a dangerous level. This could catalyze an arms race throughout an already volatile region. Muhammad Ismail illustrates just how sensitive the Middle East would be to a state with nuclear capabilities by saying that,“Iran’s neighbors are naturally alarmed about its nuclear program. Some countries argue that to guarantee their survival they may opt to develop their own nuclear weapons programs at any cost. It has, thus, been said that Iran’s nuclear program will further increase nuclear proliferation in the West Asian region.” This is a frighteningly real example of the security dilemma that would arise if Iran was able to develop a nuclear weapon.3 Proximate states could respond to this achievement in Iran by bolstering their own weapons systems. The last thing the Middle East needs is more weaponry and tensions between states. It is easy to see how an arms race could begin in the Middle East and lead to an even more violent region. There is already enough competitiveness and distrust in the Middle East; the introduction of a nuclear weapon would only exacerbate this. The JCPOA is successful in its central goal of stopping this turmoil. Any instability in this region would certainly be aimed at Israel. If the Trump administration is successful in ending the JCPOA, it is estimated that Iran would have a nuclear weapon in as little as nine months. A Middle Eastern arms race could follow soon after. Many countries in the region have expressed dissatisfaction with the existence of Israel and an arms race could lead to all of these countries obtaining nuclear weapon capacity. Another flaw in the deal is the timeline. This is a valid concern, as the agreement will end in just over a decade. Many critics of the deal argue that the US ignored long-term goals when negotiating the JCPOA. Trump officials have claimed the JCPOA focused on a short-term solution to a burgeoning nuclear superpower, with no framework to a longer solution. It is true that the deal only lasts twelve years but US policymakers at the time were able to recognize the merits of a plan with Iran that at least paused the creation of an Iranian nuclear weapon. This is certainly the gravest flaw in the JCPOA. Still, having a short-term agreement while a better one is reached is far better than not having a deal at all. Again, no diplomats or politicians are optimistic about the future of Iran after the deal expires with no agreement to follow, but it is imperative to have a functioning agreement while the next round of negotiations take place. If Trump is sincerely worried about creating a functioning deal with Iran, and not just destroying the work of his predecessor as some pundits have suggested, then he should call for negotiations to begin soon, so there is plenty of time to create a better deal before the JCPOA expires.
While the JCPOA has received a fair amount of criticism in the United States, many politicians recognize the plan as the preferred policy option for the US, and our ally, Israel. Many critics of the JCPOA in the United States see the plan as the US bending to the will of a state sponsor of terror. There are claims that to make any deal with a state as immoral as Iran would tarnish the US’ good will. On the contrary, the United States cooperated with Iran in signing the JCPOA as a means of self-help and security for itself and its allies. US coordination with Iran does not translate to US accommodation of Iranian demands or the US giving more in the JCPOA than it gains. The United States was deliberate in its actions with Iran and was careful to ensure that any reduction of its own power would be to increase global security. Of course, Iran would not have agreed to a deal that cut off their nuclear program and debased some of its sovereignty without gaining anything in return. This brings us back to the topic of economic sanctions. If Iran was to break any of the clauses in the agreement, the entire international community’s sanctions would be put back in place. In this way, it is safer for the United States to keep the deal intact since the sanctions will have much greater power over Iran if they are simultaneous and unilaterally conducted by the International Community. If the US was to put sanctions on Iran back in place, the rest of the signatories’ threat of sanctions would hold less power, thus alienating the US from its important allies.
The JCPOA, as a piece of international accord forged primarily by the United States, reinforces both security of the volatile Middle East and the hegemony of the United States. Even if policymakers in the United States found the flaws in the JCPOA to be overwhelming and wanted to renegotiate, that is no longer possible. As described earlier, the economic situation in Iran has strengthened considerably in the few years and has relished in the lack of restrictions on economic activity from the international community. The United States would fail to bring Iran back to negotiations by itself and that would impair its own hegemonic power. If the United States did not recertify the agreement and in turn was stood up by Iran, the international backlash would be detrimental at a point when US primacy is questioned the most. Trump ran on an “America First” platform, but to decertify the deal would leave the United States looking weak and embarrassed on the international stage. Not only would the public reputation of the US be harmed by a failure to find a new agreement, but this would give Iran more power in their own region. Scholar R. Treviño contends that the United States needs the JCPOA for more than just physical security; the agreement keeps Iran inline and presents the US as the hegemonic presence it has always been. “[Iran is] expanding their regional influence, this means that the United States, as the only superpower, has a distinct interest in keeping them from establishing their own regional dominance which would upset American power and interests in the region.” It is in the best interest of the US to protect the deal that helped to solidify their place as a continuing hegemonic power in the twenty-first century.
The best world leaders are those that follow an ethic of responsibility to their people by creating the best future possible. If Mr. Trump intends to be a legendary president, he must accept the positive work of the previous administration. It is considered a central trait of great leaders to be able to “stand on the shoulders of giants”. It would be beneficial for Mr. Trump to listen to these words and negotiate a deal while keeping the JCPOA intact. US policymakers across party lines agree that it would not be weak to use the existing and previously successful deal when crafting Trump’s own foreign policy agenda. Prominent Republican members of Congress have openly opposed Trump’s plans to decertify the agreement: Senator Rand Paul and Congressman Ed Royce have both stated that they support keeping the plan intact. It is imperative that the work of the Obama Administration not be diminished by Trump because of personal rivalry. If Trump was to decertify, there is no guarantee that his party would follow in Congress. This would be an embarrassing blow for a president who has never had a close relationship with his own party.
Clearly, the JCPOA is an agreement and the controversy that continues to surround it is just as nuanced as it was when the agreement was written. In the end, however, Iran had to be stopped from developing a nuclear weapon four years ago and that threat has not gone away; if this plan was to be decertified it is highly probable a Middle Eastern arms race would follow within a year. Even if the United States had major qualms about the deal, the government is no longer in a place to negotiate like they were when the JCPOA was created. The economic sanctions on Iran were effective in bringing Iran to the negotiating table because they came from the entire International Community. If the United States placed sanctions on Iran again, they would be alone in this action. Even Iran’s economy that was stunted for forty years could withstand sanctions from a single country. It is in the best interest of the Trump administration, the United States and the entire world, for Trump to certify the Iran deal and keep it intact.
Taylor Berlin is a sophomore in the School of International Service at American University. She is studying International Affairs with a concentration in US Foreign Policy and National Security and a minor in Public Administration and Policy. Taylor is a member of the Model United Nations team on campus and is the Marketing Director of AmIRS, the American University International Relations Society. She has interned in a congressional office, for several senatorial and gubernatorial campaigns and AIPAC; she is currently at the Office of Legislative Affairs for the FCC. This summer, Taylor will be interning in Jerusalem for an Israeli think tank.