4/30/18 Why the US Should NOt Pull OUt of the Iranian Nuclear Agreement


On Sunday, two days after being confirmed by the Senate, US Secretary of State Michael “Mike” Pompeo made a whirlwind stop in Tel Aviv. Ironically, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Pompeo, the first Secretary of State to visit Israel after the United States recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capitol, not in Jerusalem, but in Tel Aviv.

The main topic of conversation is said to have been Iran and part of that discussion is the upcoming decision facing President Trump regarding whether or not to pull out of the Iran nuclear accord, otherwise known as JCPOA. Following his meeting with Netanyahu, Secretary of State Pompeo stated: “This deal is very flawed. He’s [President Trump] directed the administration to try and fix it and if we can’t fix it, he’s going to withdraw from the deal. It’s pretty straightforward…”

The accord negotiated under President Barack Obama forced the Iranians to halt their nuclear program. President Donald J. Trump, as well as Prime Minister Netanyahu, have been vocal critics of the accord, with President Trump calling it “the worst agreement ever”. Prime Minister Netanyahu has been against the agreement from the moment its outlines were made public. Netanyahu spoke directly to Congress arguing against approval of the agreement, much to the chagrin of the Obama administration.

Netanyahu has successfully persuaded most Israelis that the Iranian accord is a bad agreement, and thus he has wide support in his bid to persuade Trump to withdraw from the deal. However, that view is not shared by most of Israel's security experts, many of whom have been pulling out their hair wondering what comes next. While there is almost universal agreement that the Iranian agreement could have — and probably should have — been better, it is hard to find an expert in Tel Aviv who believes it would be good for Israel if the US was to pull out at this time.

The agreement with Iran has three main weaknesses. First, the Iranians received much of what they wanted up front (i.e., the release of nearly $100 billion in Iranian assets and the lifting of other sanctions). Second, some the stronger safeguards in the agreement sunset after 10 years. Third, the agreement does nothing to limit other Iranian actions, such as the development of ballistic missiles.

To people who understand the agreement, the first and second weaknesses are by far the strongest reasons for the United States not to walk away. Before the agreement was signed, The main leverage the United States and its partners had over Iran was all of their money that was being withheld, as well as the fact the rest of the world was united in opposing the Iranian program. The Iranians have their money now and the United States and Israel stand nearly alone in the opinion that the agreement should be scrapped at this time.

By all accounts, the Iranians have been keeping their side of the agreement. So to many, it seems ludicrous for the US to withdraw and give the Iranians a reason to walk away from their commitments. In our current world, where Iran and Russia are allies, placing any sort of pressure on the Iranians is going to be almost impossible. The flaw with aspects of the accord sunsetting at the 10-year mark is very real. However, there is no logic in tearing up a decade-long agreement — that is being honored — during year 3.

Some believe American threats to pull out of the agreement are evidence of the brilliant negotiation skills of President Trump, maneuvering to force the Europeans to agree to pressure Iran to further limit their missile program, or to curb their other aggressive activities. This approach may bear fruit. Similar to the tactic of threatening to pull to of NAFTA in order to renegotiate the agreement, threatening to withdraw from the Iran deal could be a well-calculated move to improve the terms. However, the problem with that strategy is — what if it does not work? What then? What is “Plan B”?

No one seems to have a contingency for what would happen if the US does indeed walk away from the agreement and Iranians use that act as an excuse to begin to enrich uranium, once again? What then — Would the US and Israel attack? Is that the contingency plan? If so, I don’t think the residents of Tel Aviv favor Plan B. The Iranians have made it clear they consider Israel “enemy number 1” and have publicly threatened to destroy Israel more than once. Israel takes those threats very seriously, and thus has done and will continue to do all it can to ensure the Iranians do not acquire nuclear weapons. That being said, walking out of an accord that is being kept — seven years before its strictest safeguards expire — is not the way to achieve that goal.

On a final note, it should be taken into account that this decision will take place against the backdrop of a period of high tension in Israel. On Sunday night, soon after the Netanyahu-Pompeo meeting, there were three attempts to attack the Israeli border from Gaza. In addition, an attack took place that same night in Syria, with many reports claiming the target was an Iranian base, possibly attacked by Israel.

On May 15th, the US will open its embassy in Jerusalem, an event celebrated by Israelis, but one that is expected to result in some level of violence. President Trump’s decision regarding JCPOA is but one of the many events likely to make May a challenging month for Israel.