Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

What Would U.S. Withdrawal From the Iran Nuclear Deal Look Like?

| Aug. 31, 2017

Judging the Trump administration to be incapable of formulating a diplomatic campaign in support of one of its highest foreign policy priorities, John Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, published an Iran deal exit strategy in the National Review on Monday. The document is less about why the United States should leave the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and more about how to do so.

Bolton, a professional and effective diplomat (among other nonproliferation successes, he was key in persuading U.S. allies and others to establish the State Department’s Proliferation Security Initiative and to pass U.N. Security Council Resolution 1540), apparently recognizes that if the administration put the same level of staff work and diplomatic strategy toward leaving the Iran deal as it did toward the Muslim travel ban and withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord, the results would be disastrous.

He suggests: early, quiet consultations with key players, preparing a documented strategic case, a greatly expanded diplomatic campaign, and developing and executing Congressional and public diplomacy efforts. This is how all professionally managed White Houses — both Republican and Democrat — pursue big foreign policy questions. If the Trump administration were to leave the Iran deal, against advice to the contrary, Bolton’s plan would be about right.

The real question is, even assuming professional implementation of a competent plan, how likely is it to succeed? If the United States withdraws from the Iran deal, Russia and China can be counted on to pursue their respective security and commercial interests and to block any attempts to reinstate effective sanctions. Given their Security Council vetoes, each has the unilateral power to do so.

That leaves the allies. On Tuesday, French President Emmanuel Macron said there is no alternative to the Iran deal. British Prime Minister Theresa May has called the accord “vitally important,” and defended it in meetings with Republican leaders. Last May, assessing the Iran deal and other issues, German Chancellor Angela Merkel questioned the reliability of the United States and warned that Europe “really must take our fate into our own hands.” Thus, absent clear evidence of a material breach by Tehran, the United States is unlikely to persuade its allies to re-impose sanctions on Iran.

What then would be the implications of a U.S. withdrawal from the Iran deal?

First, Iran would return to its past levels of uranium enrichment, or even greater ones — as it has threatened to do — free from all sanctions and in possession of the hundreds of billions of the dollars that were released to Tehran under the deal. It would be the best of all worlds for a regime that still proclaims “death to America.”

Second, it would deepen already dangerous fissures within the NATO alliance. Cracking the alliance is Russia’s number one strategic priority; setting the allies to fighting amongst themselves about Iran would be a big win for Russian President Vladimir Putin. It would also reinforce Merkel’s sense that Europe must go it alone.

Third, it could permanently undermine some of the most useful means for fighting nuclear proliferation. Very likely, the Security Council would be irreparably split on the issue, with vetoes preventing any progress. If the United States attempted to impose secondary sanctions on foreign businesses trading with Iran, even Europeans would oppose the gambit. The disarray, furthermore, would be a lesson to other nations contemplating the development of nuclear weapons.

Fourth, it would make impossible a coordinated and effective response to the inevitable challenge from Iran when the deal ends — for whatever reason. One of the deep flaws in the accord is that the central provisions will begin to fade away in less than nine years. The United States will soon need to devise a strategy to prevent Tehran from pursuing a much larger enrichment capacity than the one it temporarily foreswore. To do so, the United States will need cooperation from Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia. Antagonizing these countries now will make that collaboration much harder to achieve.

Bolton is right. It is a lousy deal: The duration is too short, it fails to require Tehran to make a complete and correct declaration of past nuclear weapons activities, it appears to exempt Iran’s military facilities from inspections, de facto if not de jure, and it unlocked hundreds of billions of dollars in assets, investments, and commercial deals, some of which will fund or facilitate terrorism and military aggression. We cannot, however, recover those assets or end those contracts, and for a short while, Iran’s paths to a nuclear weapon have been circumscribed (but not blocked, as President Barack Obama insisted). We must use the time that we have to build an international consensus against the rebuilding of Iranian uranium enrichment and plutonium production capabilities. The Iranian threat has not gone away, and it could get much worse overnight.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Tobey, William.“What Would U.S. Withdrawal From the Iran Nuclear Deal Look Like?.” Foreign Policy, August 31, 2017.

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