If the US walks away from the Iran nuclear deal, it will live to regret it

Hussein Ibish argues that Donald Trump must not rip up the agreement, however flawed it may be

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley speaks about the Iran nuclear deal at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, U.S., September 5, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
Powered by automated translation

In recent weeks, North Korea has taken two major steps forward in expanding its capability as a nuclear power. First, it successfully fired what amounts to an intercontinental ballistic missile. Second, it tested what appears to be a hydrogen bomb.

It would be idiotic to assume Pyongyang hasn't been able to resolve other technical challenges, such as miniaturising warheads sufficiently to fit on long-range missiles or ensuring they can survive reentry.

That means Pyongyang can now probably strike much of the continental United States. All American options - implausible negotiations, ineffective sanctions and dangerous military attacks - are unappealing and none are likely to change North Korean minds.

If only an effective sanctions regime had produced meaningful negotiations that convinced North Korea to freeze its nuclear programme before it went intercontinental and thermonuclear. Imagine, in a utopian fantasy, they stopped Pyongyang going nuclear in the first place.

Yet this is precisely what is actually in place regarding Iran's nuclear programme. For now.

Tehran has yet to go nuclear, and is very far from intercontinental missile capability. Iran did face an effective and comprehensive worldwide sanctions regime to which it has responded rationally by agreeing to a 10-year freeze of its nuclear development programme in order to reengage with the global economy and international community.

If North Korea would agree to freeze its nuclear development in exchange for more trade and international dialogue, it would be an extremely tempting proposition. And if anyone could arrange for Pyongyang to go non-nuclear for the next 10 years, they'd be rightly hailed as one of the greatest diplomatic geniuses in history.

The contrast is extremely instructive.

Donald Trump, the US president, seems determined to try to damage, if not destroy, the Iranian nuclear agreement in the coming months. Earlier this summer, he announced his “expectation” that his administration would refuse to certify to Congress that Iran is complying with its obligations under the agreement it made with the major international powers.

His UN ambassador, Nikki Haley, at a Washington function this week made the case for why the administration should decertify Iranian compliance. Her specific claims about Iranian noncompliance regarding heavy water production and the inspection of military sites were dubious and don't approach meaningful material breaches of the terms of the agreement.

More broadly, she complained about a wide range of truly objectionable Iranian misbehaviour, which she said is a violation of the "spirit" of the agreement. But there is no passage in the agreement defining a "spirit" and no mutually agreed understanding among the international powers, let alone Iran, about what that might mean.

Iran is, however, destabilising the Middle East by supporting dangerous non-state actors, militias and terrorist groups throughout the region, and exploiting and promoting chaos in order to aggressively advance its influence into the heart of the Arab world. Iran also continues to develop its missile capabilities. Serious countermeasures are unquestionably required.

However, the nuclear agreement was specifically, and by unanimous consent, designed to deal with a limited pair of issues: a freeze on Iran's nuclear activities in exchange for sanctions relief. There was no effort to negotiate anything else, such as Iran's destabilising regional policies, support for violent extremist organisations or its missile programme.


More from Hussein Ibish


Indeed, Washington continues to maintain significant bilateral sanctions against Iran outside the scope of the agreement, based on those misdeeds, all of which is outside the scope of the agreement.

Some of Mr Trump's allies in Washington say that if his administration follows through on the threat to refuse to certify that Iran is compliant with the agreement, when all evidence and other parties insist that it effectively is, that this won't mean scuppering the agreement. They claim that Congress would then have to decide what to do about sanctions and, in effect, the extent to which Washington continues to be party to its side of the bargain.

But, in fact, even if the Trump administration tries to fudge the issue in this manner, it will severely weaken the agreement, and open the door for Iran, sooner rather than later, to resume much, if not all, of its nuclear activities with no realistic prospect of resurrecting the comprehensive international sanctions regime that forced it to the negotiating table in the first place.

It's obvious that if Mr Trump does this, he will be alienating the entire international community on a crucial issue where the United States requires worldwide support and cooperation, and playing into the hands of Iran's hardliners, who would hardly believe their good fortune.

There’s no serious indication of what an alternative American strategy would, or even could, be. But scanning the Asian continent from Tehran to Pyongyang it's easy to imagine a day when Washington would yearn to be in precisely the position it now is regarding Iran's mothballed nuclear programme, and which Mr Trump seems to be preparing to abandon.

Follow The National's Opinion section on Twitter