Raheb Homavandi/Reuters

Iranian students with pictures of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei in front of the former US embassy, Tehran, November 2011

Imagine a business deal among multiple parties. It is so complex that after years of negotiation the contract runs to 159 pages. Once agreed upon, the project proceeds without problems, but two years later one of the signers changes his mind. His lawyers rewrite some of the deal’s provisions, and he announces he’ll pull out unless the other parties accept the new terms.

That, in essence, is what Donald Trump announced on October 13 when he refused to certify to Congress that the Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was working. Certification does not affect the deal itself. It is a purely domestic act. The president is required to do it every ninety days by the terms of the legislation with which Congress approved the JCPOA in 2015. Repeated certifications of this kind are commonly used in contentious situations, such as when sanctions are waived or arms are sold to a problematic buyer, to assure Congress that its conditions are still being met. It is difficult to imagine a president taking what should have been a routine official signature as a reminder of his predecessor’s achievement and therefore an intolerable personal insult. But that is what happened.

On the occasion of his second required certification last July, Trump exploded in anger at his aides for not providing him with an alternative course and made it clear that he didn’t intend to sign again—whether Iran had violated the deal or not. Since then his national security team has frantically sought to come up with a ploy that would satisfy the president without immediately pulling the United States out of the nuclear deal. They have tested various options in public settings and private conversations with European cosigners of the agreement. None was well received, to put it mildly.

At the same time, stunningly, the intelligence community and the leaders of the State Department, the Pentagon, the military, and the National Security Council all publicly attested that Iran is, in fact, meeting its commitments under the deal. Secretary of Defense James Mattis went further. At a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, when he was pressed by Maine senator Angus King into a yes or no answer as to whether he believed that staying in the deal was in the United States’ national security interest, Mattis paused, swallowed, and finally choked out, “Yes, Senator, I do.”

Though the president’s refusal to certify has no direct international consequence, what he said on October 13 casts the deal’s future into grave doubt, has shifted the political ground in Tehran, and created new strains across the Atlantic. The speech was a hash of inflammatory rhetoric, gratuitous insults, false claims of Iranian violations, and a recital of the deal’s flaws, real or imaginary. Then, in what is becoming a familiar move, he tossed the ball to Congress, directing it to unilaterally alter the deal to his specifications, with the threat that if “we are not able to reach a solution working with Congress and our allies, then the agreement will be terminated…by me.” Congress has sixty days to follow decertification by reimposing the sanctions on Iran that were waived under the JCPOA (requiring only fifty votes in the Senate), follow the president’s direction to rewrite the deal (requiring sixty votes), or follow its natural inclination and do nothing. For once, this would be the path of wisdom.

The Iran nuclear deal was trashed as a “historic mistake” and worse by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before it was concluded, a view picked up in an aggressive AIPAC lobbying campaign and echoed by Republicans in Congress, often out of a purely partisan desire to deny Barack Obama a major diplomatic legacy. Dumping on the agreement became a litmus test in the GOP presidential primaries. Candidates one-upped one another to take the most extreme stand. Scott Walker promised to revoke the deal “on day one” in the White House. Ted Cruz said that he would “rip [it] to shreds.” This was the crucible from which Trump’s “dumb,” “stupid,” “one-sided,” “worst-ever” rhetoric emerged. He is now trapped in it. One wouldn’t expect him to have read the deal’s text, but judging by his shifting criticisms, he has no idea of what it actually requires.

He is not alone. Many legislators who voted for the Iran nuclear deal in 2015, as well as some who criticize Trump for threatening to overturn it, now feel compelled to join the chorus of criticism to some degree. They have been misled.

In fact, the deal is technically very strong. Iran was on the threshold of acquiring nuclear weapons when the last phase of intensive negotiations began in 2013. Under the deal it gave up all of its highly enriched uranium and 97 percent of its low-enriched uranium. The 300 kilograms it is allowed to keep (for fifteen years), if it were fully enriched, would not be enough to make a single bomb. Iran’s centrifuges were cut from 19,000 to 6,000, and its underground enrichment facility (which is relatively impervious to bombing) has been converted to a research-and-development facility. All of this shuts down the pathway to a bomb fueled by uranium for at least fifteen years. The pathway to a plutonium bomb is shut down by an agreement to disable Iran’s single plutonium production reactor (in perpetuity), to cut its heavy water stockpile, and to prohibit reprocessing, the technique that separates plutonium from spent nuclear fuel.


The nuclear deal subjects Iran to a range of monitoring and inspection requirements, covering declared and undeclared sites, including military ones, and facilities and processes that have never been subject to international inspection elsewhere. The critically important terms of the Additional Protocol give the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) the most comprehensive inspection authority—in perpetuity. This and much more is overseen by a Joint Commission of the JCPOA’s signatories, to which disagreements and charges of violation can be brought. Trump couldn’t have been more in error when he described all this as “weak inspections.” To the contrary, in the words of the IAEA’s director general, Yukiya Amano, “Iran is subject to the world’s most robust nuclear verification regime.”

Criticisms of the deal have evolved over time. Initially, many simply opposed any deal on the grounds that Iran would cheat, as it had on nuclear issues for years. That fear has dissipated since 2015 as Tehran met the deal’s exigent requirements and did so much more quickly than expected. A couple of minor transgressions (for example, a stockpile 0.08 percent over an allowed limit) have been detected, raised in the Joint Commission, and corrected, demonstrating that both close inspections and prompt enforcement mechanisms are working.

Netanyahu’s fierce early opposition, and to a lesser degree that of the Gulf states, was based on the belief that any deal would give Iran’s government greater legitimacy and the fear that if the nuclear issue were resolved, the frozen relations between Iran and the United States that have lasted since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 would begin to thaw. That, in turn, could shift the balance of power in the Middle East in a major way. The administration has picked up this argument wholeheartedly, arguing, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson put it in a meeting of the nuclear deal’s signatories, that “lifting the sanctions as required under the terms of the JCPOA has enabled Iran’s unacceptable behavior.”

In fact, Iran’s growing influence in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Lebanon has nothing to do with the nuclear deal. It is, above all, the result of the US having removed Tehran’s two most serious enemies—the Taliban and Saddam Hussein—and, to a lesser degree, of the major part in the battle against ISIS played by Iranian forces and Iranian-funded proxies and terrorist groups. Iran has exploited the strategic vacuums created by the many states in the region that are mired in conflicts to which it has been a major contributor but not the primary cause. The $50 billion in frozen Iranian assets that were released as part of the deal do not make a critical difference. Tehran had enough money for these uses even under the most severe sanctions. Nor is there a shred of evidence, as Trump is in the best position to know, that the deal has caused the US to refrain from standing up to Iran’s nonnuclear transgressions out of fear that Tehran would abandon the deal.

More seriously, with the deal in force, attention has shifted to its sunset provisions and to what it does not cover. Critics argue that when various prohibitions end in ten, fifteen, twenty, or twenty-five years, Iran will be free to sprint to a nuclear weapon. The most important provisions of the deal last at least fifteen years. A vast amount can change in that time. Iran’s revolutionary generation, for instance, will have left the scene by then. The younger generations are more secular, highly educated, and eager to end Iran’s international isolation so that they can find ways to use their skills. And of course the most important prohibitions—on having a nuclear weapon or a weapons program—are permanent, as are the Additional Protocol and Iran’s membership in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Nearly all arms control agreements, it is worth noting, are time-limited, because they entail the scary risk of giving up military assets. The NPT itself, the long pole in the global nonproliferation tent, was initially only a twenty-five-year commitment. It was not until the end of that period that its then nearly two hundred members voted to make the treaty permanent.


There were two powerful reasons why the negotiations for the Iran deal did not cover ballistic missiles, support of terrorists, and other issues on which American and Iranian interests clash. Sanctions brought Iran to the table, but what made the difference was that they were not just multilateral but nearly universal. Major non-Western purchasers of Iranian oil like Japan and India were persuaded to find alternative suppliers. But this unanimity, which rests on decades of building international norms, treaties, and institutions to halt nuclear proliferation, does not extend to any other issue. Also, as former secretary of state John Kerry has recently pointed out, putting more issues on the table would have multiplied the number of tradeoffs in play, thereby weakening the purely nuclear provisions. The strongest nuclear deal comes from an undiluted focus on the nuclear issues.

The Iran deal is by no means perfect. There is ambiguity in some of its provisions, especially regarding what research and development are permitted. The uncertainties are particularly fraught where there is ambiguity in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, as in the case of research that has more than one application but could contribute to making nuclear weapons. Some of the disagreements that must be hammered out divide the Joint Commission’s non-Iranian members. Above all, effective enforcement over time requires that no violations be swept under the rug and that all parties be confident that when an issue is raised, it is in the interest of preserving and strengthening the deal, not destroying it. That assurance has already suffered a significant blow.

In short, the Iran deal barely resembles the deal its opponents denounce. It does not provide “a cover” for an ongoing nuclear program. Quite the reverse. If it collapses, its intrusive inspections will no longer provide assurance that Iran is not engaging in a weapons program. If the administration’s concern is truly about what might happen in a decade or more, by what twisted logic does it make sense to remove the constraints and allow such programs to begin right away?

The best light that can be cast on the policy announced on October 13 is that officials tried to find a path between the president’s refusal to certify the deal and an immediate pullout and collapse of the JCPOA. Perhaps if they could buy some time, especially if a way could be found to avoid the need for future signatures, they could come up with an alternative. After a high-profile speech, replete with fierce denunciations of Iran and the nuclear deal, the president might have felt he had fulfilled his campaign pledge and could go on to other things, even if actual policy didn’t change all that much. “It’s hard to think of a policy that makes less sense than the prior administration’s terrible and misguided deal with the Castro regime,” Trump thundered last June. “Therefore, effective immediately, I am canceling the last administration’s completely one-sided deal.” Yet he left the main pillars of Obama’s Cuba policy intact.

If this was the hope, it has to some degree already faded. Regardless of what Congress does during its sixty-day window, and what Tehran and European governments do in response, the administration has managed to craft something rare, if not unique: a policy that has only downsides for the United States. The possible consequences, short- and long-term, can range only from bad to awful.

The least damaging outcome would be the following: Congress sidesteps the trap Trump has laid, neither reimposing nuclear sanctions on a compliant state nor trying to unilaterally alter a multilateral international agreement; the administration does not reimpose sanctions by executive order or a “snapback” vote in the UN Security Council; Tehran chooses to stick with the deal; and Europe does the same, proceeding with investments made in Iran by Airbus, Siemens, Total, Renault, Peugeot, and others after sanctions were lifted.

Chang W. Lee/The New York Times/Redux

Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, seen on a display monitor during his address to the UN General Assembly, September 2017

Even so, the shift in political strength in Iran from moderates led by President Hassan Rouhani to hard-liners led by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the Guardian Council, and others would be significant. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, no moderate but a skeptical supporter of the nuclear deal and its promised economic gain, would move rightward with that shift. Trump’s insults of the Supreme Leader, the IRGC, and Iranians in general draw all factions closer together, narrowing the gap between the solid majority that gave the moderate Rouhani a landslide reelection victory last spring and the hard-liners who oppose domestic reforms and reengagement with the world for both ideological and personal economic reasons.

At a minimum, a rift would open between the United States and its closest allies in Europe. How deep it goes would depend on how aggressively Washington pressures France, Germany, and the UK to follow its lead and what it does with direct and indirect (so-called “secondary”) sanctions on entities that do business with Iran. Fomenting divisions across the Atlantic is a major Russian goal, so the rift would be an unexpected gift to Moscow. Russia’s aim to raise its influence across the Middle East would also benefit since its principal ties in Iran are with the IRGC.

Even if the deal does not collapse, continuing uncertainty about what America might do next would take a toll. Fear of the reimposition of sanctions has already led Apple and Google to drop apps produced by exactly the younger, internationally oriented Iranians that US policy should be reaching out to. Economic recovery in Iran will falter as investors hang back.

The greatest loss will be to the value of America’s word. The most obvious immediate effect may be on the already slim hope of a diplomatic settlement to the North Korean nuclear crisis. But the loss will potentially be felt on any issue, from the largest negotiations to the smallest, in private talks and in military-to-military contacts. In Iran and worldwide, friends and adversaries will conclude that the United States can’t be trusted.

If, instead, the nuclear deal falls apart, through any one of a dozen scenarios made possible by the new policy, the consequences will be far worse. Hard-line opponents in Iran will get precisely what they wish for: the demise of the deal without any of the blame. If Iran brings a charge to the Joint Commission that the US has violated the deal, the US will be isolated. With an increase in the power of conservatives at home and greater legitimacy abroad for having agreed to and abided by nuclear constraints, and a heightened sense of America as an enemy, Tehran may well pursue a more aggressive foreign policy in the region. Active conflict with the US—planned or unplanned—is not unlikely.

If the deal’s other six parties decide to continue it without the United States, Washington would look weaker—or at least easier to ignore—than at any time since it launched the creation of a rules-based international order at the close of World War II. Alternatively, if the US overuses economic sanctions to coerce others to its chosen path, it will jeopardize the long-term status of the dollar as the world’s reserve currency. Nothing would make China and Russia happier.

A collapse of the deal would have profound effects on global efforts to control nuclear weapons. If Iran restarted its weapons program, there would be little hope of reconstituting a global coalition against it, or at least doing so under US leadership. Washington would be back where it was in 2013, facing a choice between accepting a new nuclear-armed state or starting a major war against an adversary more than twice the size of Iraq. If Iran became a nuclear state, others in the region, beginning with Saudi Arabia, would be determined to follow. At the very least, the enormous boost to the half-century-long global nonproliferation effort that the successful negotiation of the Iran deal represented would be lost.

One outcome the administration seems to be counting on will almost certainly not occur. If the Iran nuclear deal collapses through a US walkout or a slow death by escalating assertions of violations and bad faith by both sides, no better deal will be found. Either we’ll “put more teeth into this obligation,” Secretary Tillerson blithely explained to the press, “or let’s just forget the whole thing. We’ll walk away and start all over.” Short of war, that will not happen. The US could never reassemble the coalition that made the Iran deal possible. Iran would not return to the bargaining table. If, by some unlikely circumstance, negotiations did resume, the US would find that it had to put more—not less—on the table to get more concessions from Iran.

Trump’s October 13 speech suggests that the president has allowed himself to be convinced by the familiar neocon argument that the adversary of the moment is politically fragile and an economic weakling: if the US applies more pressure for a little longer, the argument goes, its goals will be achieved. Lifting of sanctions under the Iran deal “threw Iran’s dictatorship a political and economic lifeline,” Trump claimed, “just before what would have been the total collapse of the Iranian regime.” This is so far from reality that it would be funny if it were not such a perilous illusion.

The history of US–Iran relations, stretching back to 1953 when a US-British coup overthrew Iran’s democratically elected prime minister, is an almost surreal tale of mistakes, miscalculations, policy reversals, and upheaval on both sides. The US remembers the hostage crisis of 1979–1981, screams of “Death to America,” and being called “the Great Satan.” Iran remembers that in the formative event of the Islamic Republic’s history, the eight-year Iran–Iraq war, the US sided with the invader, Saddam Hussein, and ignored his use of chemical weapons. The US remembers Iranian mines and naval attacks in the Persian Gulf and Hezbollah’s attacks on Israel. Iran remembers the “axis of evil,” the shooting down of a passenger airliner by a US Navy ship, and talk of regime change. The distrust generated by this saga will not soon be overcome.

The only alternative is a less emotional, forward-looking approach to policy guided by a few truths about the Gulf region that cannot be wished away. Iran, by virtue of its size, population, resources, strategic location, and deep historical roots, is the dominant power there. None of the conflicts currently roiling the region can be resolved without its participation. It is the leading Shia state. Aside from Israel, the US’s regional allies are principally Sunni, but US interests are emphatically not served by taking sides in that sectarian divide. The region is home to an enormous US military presence, and the risk of inadvertent military conflict is high.

Looking ahead, the primary US goal must be that Iran not become a nuclear power. Every Iranian threat and every one of the issues on which Washington and Tehran disagree becomes far more dangerous if that happens. Continuing with the agreement now in place, strengthening it, and building on it when conditions allow are the obvious priorities. Beyond that, the US should be supporting Iran’s slow evolution into a country that is less revolutionary and more interest-driven, which means strengthening its moderate political forces at the expense of the ideologues and the isolationists. Trump’s policy, including his officials’ sly allusions to regime change, does precisely the reverse.

As it defends its regional allies and searches for sustainable political solutions to the region’s conflicts, Washington should be encouraging Iran’s economic development and international engagement, for a pariah state will always behave like one. Enriching one’s adversary may seem counterintuitive, but Tehran’s support of Hezbollah and numerous militias is determined by what it sees as its interests, not by its budget. Even in the deep economic hole created by the sanctions, Iran made room for the funds to support its proxies abroad. Political solutions to the region’s conflicts require Iran’s participation, and this means more normal relations between Tehran and Washington. Both governments need to recognize the risk in having no official lines of communication. Not talking, then Joint Chiefs chairman Michael Mullen warned in 2011, means that “we don’t understand each other. If something happens, it’s virtually assured that we won’t get it right.”

—October 25, 2017