Sunset: One of the biggest flaws in the JCPOA was the expiration of all restrictions on Iran’s enrichment of nuclear material 15 years into the agreement. To be sure, Iran argues that it remains forever bound by its commitment not to produce a nuclear weapon under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. But if anyone believed that promise, there would have been little reason to negotiate the JCPOA in the first place.
As the leader who negotiated the Iran nuclear deal, President Obama would have helped correct this problem if he had issued a declaration making it the policy of the United States, then and in the future, to use all means necessary to prevent Iran’s accumulation of fissile material (highly enriched uranium), given that its sole useful purpose is for a nuclear weapon. Such a statement, to be endorsed by a congressional resolution, would have gone beyond the “all options are on the table” formulation that, regrettably, has lost so much of its credibility in the Middle East.
Two years into the agreement, Iran’s relentless pursuit of more effective ballistic missiles—one leg of a nuclear-weapons program—underscores its strategic decision to pursue the weapons option. Repairing the sunset clause is, therefore, more urgent than ever.
President Trump could achieve this by reaching an agreement with the five other JCPOA signatories—or, if Russia and China balked, at least the three European countries who negotiated the deal, Britain, France, and Germany—on a joint declaration binding themselves to a promise to take whatever action is necessary to prevent Iran’s accumulation of fissile material. To give that declaration real weight, signatories could begin a joint-planning process for executing their commitment, if necessary. America’s allies may even welcome this declaratory approach, since it might assuage private concerns some of them have about Iran’s rapidly expanding nuclear program down the road. And President Trump could repair a major drawback in the original JCPOA negotiations by bringing into those consultations the parties most directly threatened by Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons: Israel and the Arab states of the Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia.
None of this will be easy. Even in the hands of an agile, well-oiled administration, one that had invested in partnerships with U.S. allies and had a track record of adroit, creative diplomacy, winning agreement to this lengthy “fix Iran deal” agenda would be heavy-lifting, especially with the North Korea crisis looming. And whatever one’s view of the Trump team’s achievements, it’s fair to say that it has been far from an agile, well-oiled administration.
But if the president does go down this path, working in his favor is the simple argument that “the alternative is worse”—namely, the immediate collapse of the Iran nuclear deal and with it all constraints on Iran’s nuclear program. While I don’t believe this alternative leads to war, as the Obama administration argued when it made the case for the JCPOA, many in Berlin, Paris, and London, may think so, which the administration can use to its advantage.
It is not often that governments get a second chance to do the right thing. If handled properly—with purposeful leadership and adroit diplomacy, admittedly very big “ifs”—the Trump administration has the opportunity to correct its predecessor’s flawed deal. In my view, better late than never.