Q&A: This Week’s Iran Deal Deadline

May 7, 2018

Over the past few years, the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement has worked hard to defend the Iran nuclear agreement — a crucial example of tough, effective diplomacy that made the US, Israel and the world safer by blocking all Iranian pathways to a nuclear weapon.

Thanks to dogged advocacy, supporters of diplomacy — including leading members of the US and Israeli security establishments — have succeeded thus far in holding off endless efforts to undermine the agreement by congressional hawks and by the Trump administration.

But with a key deadline coming up this week, many believe that tomorrow the president will finally make good on his threats — and take action to violate the deal.

If that happens, the consequences for Israel’s security, regional stability and US credibility could be dire. The president and his extreme advisers could start us down the path to a nuclear-armed Iran or another disastrous war in the Middle East.

To help you better understand the decision the president is taking and what could follow, we’ve prepared the Q&A below.

What is this deadline? What does the president have to decide?

By Saturday, May 12, the president must decide whether to again waive the US nuclear sanctions on Iran that the US agreed to lift as part of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). If Trump refuses to reissue waivers, that would violate the deal.

So far, despite his public animosity toward what he constantly calls a “terrible deal,” the president has reissued these waivers on the three previous occasions he was required to. But the last time he did so, on January 12, he promised to never again reissue the waivers unless our European allies capitulated to his impossible demands to significantly change the terms of the agreement. Now, with no indication that such changes are likely — or that there are any changes could even satisfy Trump’s demands — he is widely expected NOT to reissue the waivers this time around. We’ll likely find out tomorrow when the president makes his announcement.

Are the changes in Trump’s cabinet affecting this decision?

It’s hard to know for certain, but it certainly seems like it. Since the threats he made at the last waiver deadline, Trump has replaced his Secretary of State and National Security Advisor with extreme hawks Mike Pompeo and John Bolton respectively. Both Pompeo and Bolton have been outspoken critics of the agreement, and both are notorious advocates for the use of military force and the doctrine of “regime change.”

Their predecessors, Rex Tillerson and H.R. McMaster, were widely reported to be at least moderately supportive of the agreement — and extremely worried about the consequences of a US withdrawal. When Tillerson was fired, Trump cited their disagreement over the Iran deal as one the reasons, saying he thought Pompeo would be in line with Trump’s own desire to “either break [the agreement] or do something.”

Who are some of the prominent voices trying to convince Trump to preserve the agreement?

In addition to the major advocacy efforts of groups like J Street and our pro-diplomacy allies, we’ve seen world leaders along with prominent US and Israeli security experts weighing in in favor of the agreement.

In late April, France’s President Macron and Germany’s Chancellor Merkel both visited Washington, in large part to attempt to convince Trump to remain in the deal. Yesterday, British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson flew to the US for consultations with National Security Advisor Bolton and Vice President Pence, with the aim of making a last-ditch case for the US to maintain the agreement. In a New York Times op-ed, Johnson wrote, “At this delicate juncture, it would be a mistake to walk away from the nuclear agreement and remove the restraints that it places on Iran.”

A large majority of Israel’s security establishment has also been vocal about their conviction that the agreement makes Israel safer. In a joint statement released on April 25, 26 former top-ranking military and security officials wrote: “The consensus among military and intelligence agencies around the world — including Israel’s own defense community — is that the pact is working… Israel’s security interests would be served best if the United States chooses to remain in the agreement, and work with its allies and other parties to the agreement on further diplomatic actions to address other aspects of Iranian policy in the Middle East.”

Key media outlets have also urged the president to preserve the JCPOA. A recent Washington Post editorial warned that if the president “scraps the nuclear deal, the United States could be drawn into a conflict with Tehran.” And The New York Times editorial board observed: “Withdrawing from the nuclear deal, thus freeing Iran to resume its nuclear activities and possibly provoking other countries to follow suit, would only make things worse.”

Even some prominent serving Republicans are deeply concerned and speaking out. Rep. Mac Thornberry, Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said he would counsel the president against leaving the agreement at this juncture.

What about Prime Minister Netanyahu’s surprise press conference on Iranian nuclear activity last week? Could that impact the president’s decision?

In the wake of the prime minister’s surprise “revelations” about Iran’s nuclear program last week, the international intelligence community and most major US media outlets were clear: the past Iranian activity described by Netanyahu was already well known to the US, allied governments and international non-proliferation experts, and did not in any way show that Iran had violated or intended to violate the JCPOA. Instead, by highlighting the danger of Iranian nuclear ambitions and obfuscation before the nuclear agreement was signed, Netanyahu inadvertently made an excellent case for maintaining the deal, which subjects Iran to an intrusive inspections regime that leaves nothing to trust.

Yet many have also noted that the prime minister’s presentation likely had an intended audience of just one: President Trump. With its sweeping generalizations, leaps of logic, alarming visuals and dramatic flair, it appeared calculated to encourage the president to follow his instincts and kill the deal once and for all. And the White House seemed eager to go along. As The New York Times editorial noted, “No matter how disingenuous it was, Mr. Netanyahu’s data dump created the illusion of fresh incrimination, which the Trump White House indulged by issuing a statement that said Iran ‘has a robust clandestine nuclear weapons program.’ Only later did the White House correct that to read ‘had’ a weapons program.”

Let’s say that Trump refuses to reissue the waivers. Do sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program immediately go back into place?

That’s up to the administration. They could decide to immediately and fully break with the agreement by reimposing all sanctions, and imposing secondary penalties on foreign entities doing business with Iran. Or they could delay enforcement of the reimposed sanctions, creating a state of uncertainty in which our European allies might feel pressured to abandon commerce with Iran, thereby denying Iran the benefits of the agreement.

What are the most likely ramifications of Trump refusing to sign the waivers?

Robert Malley and Colin Kahl, two veteran national security experts and senior Obama administration officials, recently laid out the most likely outcomes and scenarios in an excellent piece in The Atlantic. Here are the three possible immediate impacts that they discussed:

  1. The US would be in material breach of its obligations under the JCPOA. The US would be isolated from its allies and would drive home the idea that the US cannot be trusted to live up to its international commitments. “In the absence of international political consensus backing the reimposition of sanctions, a US decision to withdraw from the Iran deal would exacerbate tensions between Washington and nearly every other major global power; encourage third countries (in Europe and Asia) to look for ways to circumvent US sanctions, and accelerate the emergence of an international order increasingly designed to work around or against American interests.”
  2. The Iranians would respond in some way. They might begin to take steps to advance their nuclear program, putting pressure on the US to respond, even as Trump’s decision alienates and angers our closest allies and empowers Russia and China. They could even go so far as to declare the agreement totally dead, and fully restart nuclear activities. Malley and Kahl contend that, in that case, “the United States and whatever international coalition it manages to cobble together would be left with the prospect of either watching Iran proceed down this path or initiating another major (and wholly manufactured) Middle Eastern war.”
  3. The JCPOA would almost certainly collapse entirely. The world will be far less safe than it was under the agreement. Without the agreement and its clear block on all Iranian pathways to a nuclear weapon, there is a strong risk of tensions escalating into large-scale military conflict in the Middle East, likely involving Israel and the US. “The collapse of the Iran deal would occur against the backdrop of rising regional tensions and in a context of multiple other triggers for escalation between the United States and Iran. There are numerous non-nuclear ways Iran could retaliate [in response] the collapse of the deal, including by threatening US troops in Iraq or Syria, heightening pressure in Yemen, escalating naval provocations in the Persian Gulf, or accelerating its missile program. Any number of possible events could rapidly spiral into a military confrontation.”