Europe's Last-Ditch Effort to Save the Iran Deal

And what happens if it fails

Dancers perform during an event to mark Iran's National Day of Nuclear Technology in Tehran.
Dancers perform during an event to mark Iran's National Day of Nuclear Technology in Tehran. (Raheb Homavandi / Reuters)

It’s not easy seeking to mollify President Trump, and seldom satisfying. Just ask French President Emmanuel Macron, who is visiting Washington and who has been more successful dealing with Trump than many of his foreign counterparts. He has forged a good personal rapport with the U.S. president—to the point of being granted this White House’s first state visit—and he enjoys more influence over the mercurial commander-in-chief than other European leaders. Yet even Macron couldn’t keep Trump in the Paris climate accord, didn’t stop the United States from initiating a tariff war, and couldn’t convince Trump not to formally recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. There is every reason to fear that Macron won’t prevail on the next important item on the agenda: persuading the president to remain in the Iran nuclear deal.

It’s hardly for lack of trying. For months now, France, along with Germany and the United Kingdom (the other European signatories of the accord), has been trying to keep America in the deal. That seemed a herculean task before the latest makeover in the president’s foreign policy team. With the ascendance of John Bolton and Mike Pompeo, it might well have become an impossible one. The odds of Trump exiting the Iran deal, more formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), have gotten higher—and it’s hard to see how this ends well for the security of the United States, the Middle East, or the world.

At the outset, it is worth making one thing clear: The deal is working. You don’t have to take our word for it (nor should you, since we both helped negotiate it). It’s the view of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations body charged with monitoring Iran’s compliance. It’s the view of all other JCPOA signatories—not just Russia and China, which tend to side with Iran, but also Germany, the U.K., and even the traditionally hardline France. Indeed, it’s been the assessment of the Trump administration itself, which has repeatedly admitted that the Islamic Republic is in technical compliance with the JCPOA. All of these actors have verified Iranian compliance not once but several times.

For Trump, however, that track record is largely beside the point. He has consistently dubbed the nuclear accord the “worst deal ever.” He campaigned against it and, since becoming president, has incrementally moved toward ending it. Last October, he announced that the deal’s benefits weren’t worth the cost of U.S. sanctions relief; then, on January 12, he gave the deal’s European signatories about three months to “fix the terrible flaws” or he would withdraw.

Trump essentially is taking hostage something the Europeans value, threatening to kill the agreement unless they pay him ransom. So France, Germany, and the U.K. have been valiantly seeking a way out of the crisis Trump manufactured, attempting to accommodate the president’s demands while staying true to their own obligations under the JCPOA. They are doing so not because they agree that the deal is in urgent need of repair. They don’t. Rather, they are rightly worried that Trump will make an ideologically inspired and fact-free decision to tear it down, with profoundly negative consequences for their national security interests. Which explains why America’s European allies are in the awkward position of bending over backwards to appease a man intent on killing the deal by considering more pressure on a party (Iran) that is abiding by it.

And bend they have. Trump has complained that the JCPOA does not stop Iran’s ballistic missile program (an issue the accord does not cover, any more than it prohibits U.S. sanctions on that program). In response, France, Germany, and the U.K. have agreed in private meetings with their American counterparts to ramp up their own sanctions on Iran’s missiles. They’ve likewise signaled a willingness to toughen their stance on Iran’s regional behavior and militant proxies, including steps to pressure the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Lebanese Hezbollah. And they’ve vowed, in response to another Trump complaint, to push for broader and more aggressive international inspections of Iranian nuclear sites —even though the International Atomic Energy Agency says Iran has provided all the access it needs to verify compliance.

Trump’s third demand—that the Europeans automatically reimpose sanctions if Iran ramps up its uranium enrichment after some of the deal’s restrictions lapse—is more problematic, since complying with it would entail violating the deal’s current terms. So the Europeans have instead reaffirmed their determination to prevent Iran from ever acquiring a bomb, and agreed to respond if they saw any indication it was doing so; they have also said they would be ready to negotiate a follow-on agreement with Tehran and other JCPOA participants.

But because they have little faith in Trump’s constancy and reliability, or even in whether the Americans they speak to can speak for him, Europe has asked for a firm U.S. commitment in return that the president will actually live up to his part of the bargain. That means in particular continuing to waive U.S. nuclear sanctions as long as Iran continues to comply with its nuclear obligations, and halting its current practice of discouraging any business with Tehran.

So the emerging bargain may not be everything Trump asked for, but enough, if he so desired, to chalk it up as a win. Yet that does not appear to be Trump’s intent, as his recent personnel choices suggest. Bolton, Trump’s new national-security adviser, has dismissed efforts to salvage the nuclear deal, instead variously advocating ripping it up, resorting to military force, ousting the Iranian regime, or all of the above. In his April 12 confirmation hearing, incoming Secretary of State Pompeo said his preference was to fix rather than withdraw from the JCPOA. But there is reason to be skeptical of Pompeo’s newfound conversion given his past support for tearing up the deal, taking military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities, and fomenting regime change. Finally, while many analysts worry that a U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA would devastate American credibility entering talks with North Korea, Bolton in particular can be expected to tell Trump the exact opposite: that scrapping the Iran deal will actually help convince Kim Jong Un that the United States means business and that Trump will drive a far harder bargain than Obama.

Even as talks between European and administration officials continue, in other words, it seems increasingly likely that Trump will decide to walk away from the JCPOA regardless of what the Europeans do, much as he has ignored their preferences on other key foreign policy issues.

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May 12 is the date to watch. That is the next time by which Trump must decide whether to continue to waive U.S. nuclear-related sanctions on Iran. If Trump, dissatisfied with what the Europeans propose, chooses not to do so, he has a few options. He could conceivably delay enforcement of reimposed sanctions, giving the Europeans another six-month grace period as a final opportunity to reopen the terms of the agreement and cooperate with the administration on isolating Iran. It’s unclear how more time could make a difference, but some in the administration may be attracted to the prolonged uncertainty it would create over the JCPOA’s fate, which would further discourage economic dealings with Iran. Alternatively, Trump could follow Bolton’s former advice to simply “cut cleanly,” ditching the JCPOA and slapping secondary sanctions on any foreign bank or party doing business with Iran—with the goal of shocking the Iranian economy and, perhaps, triggering regime change.

The latter scenario is riskier than the former but, under either, three things are highly probable. First, in the absence of Iranian violations of the deal, the United States would be in material breach of the agreement the moment Trump refuses to waive U.S. sanctions, even as the deal’s other signatories remain party to it. As a result, Washington, not Tehran, would find itself increasingly isolated. It would cement the view that America can’t be trusted and is simply attempting to bully and blackmail the world into fulfilling yet another of the president’s campaign promises. And it would make it harder for the administration to rally Europe behind any of the other elements of its Iran policy for which it wants support.

In the absence of international political consensus backing the reimposition of sanctions, a U.S. 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 U.S. sanctions; and accelerate the emergence of an international order increasingly designed to work around or against American interests. The uncertainty and partial deterrence produced by a U.S. decision to reinstate sanctions undoubtedly would seriously damage Iran’s economy—but with far less international cooperation in support of American actions, the aggregate pressure on Tehran would be inferior to what it was prior to the signing of the JCPOA. It is difficult to envision getting a better result with less leverage.

It is easy, however, to imagine getting a far worse result as the deal unravels. Iran may not be hurt badly enough by sanctions to capitulate to Trump’s terms, but the pain will sooner or later sour the Islamic Republic on the JCPOA.

Which brings us to the second virtual certainty: Iran will respond, although how quickly and with what severity remains unclear. Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, recently said that if the United States withdraws from the deal, Tehran’s reaction “will be stronger than what they imagine and they would see that within a week.” That may prove to be bluster. In the immediate aftermath of Trump’s reimposition of sanctions, Iran might choose the wiser course: to play the victim and retaliate in a relatively moderate manner, seeking to capitalize on international condemnation of the United States and maximize residual economic benefits from the deal. Under this scenario, Iran might take steps to hinder IAEA access or enhance their nuclear research and development beyond what is permitted under the JCPOA—violations, yes, but of lesser magnitude than a U.S. withdrawal, and thus violations the other signatories potentially could choose to ignore. The end result: Iran would have advanced its nuclear program; Europe, Russia, and China would continue to engage with Tehran; and there would be little the United States could do about it.

But Iran might well not stop there. Faced with diminished trade and investment and confronted with its own domestic politics, the regime could move to a more aggressive path—using its nuclear program, both to try to force the international community to confront the United States, and to increase its leverage in anticipation of a future round of talks. Iran might reinstall some decommissioned centrifuges, install more advanced ones, declare that its deeply buried facility at Fordow once again will be used as an enrichment site, begin enriching uranium to higher levels, or kick out IAEA inspectors. Should the economic benefits of the JCPOA wholly evaporate or the deal simply become politically unsustainable, Tehran could go further by withdrawing from the agreement altogether and restarting its nuclear activities across the board. Of late, Iranian officials have warned that they might even withdraw from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, raising the specter of a decision to develop a bomb.

From the Trump administration’s perspective, a more hardline Iranian response might be welcome as it could once again bring Europe to its side and prompt them to support multilateral sanctions. But to what end? As Iran reconstitutes its nuclear infrastructure, ends intrusive verification mechanisms and kicks out inspectors, 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. Israel would face a similar decision.

Which leads to the third quasi-certainty: Whether the Iran deal is killed in a single blow or via a thousand small cuts, whether it succumbs immediately or Europe manages to prolong its life, it seems likely to expire. It could do so softly, if the Trump administration maintains uncertainty over its fate and thus denies Iran the economic benefits it expects, or violently, if the U.S. walks away. Regardless, Trump would be creating a crisis that would leave the United States poorly positioned to manage the resulting risks, whether that be a growing trans-Atlantic divide, Iranian infractions of the deal too minor to justify an international response, or Iranian violations too great to ignore. The administration, having convinced Iran that it can’t trust any agreement reached with Washington, and having alienated much of the international community, will have scant diplomatic alternatives to resolve a new Iranian nuclear crisis. And the team Trump has assembled is much more likely to either recommend a U.S. military attack against Iran or green light an Israeli strike.

Compounding these dangers, 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 to the collapse of the deal, including by threatening U.S. 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.

Would President Trump be a willing participant in the march to such a conflagration? There are two voices in his head. One criticized the Iraq war, campaigned against wasteful military entanglement in the Middle East, and has called for a U.S. exit from Syria. The other sees benefit in demonstrating he is the anti-Obama on all matters and twice authorized missile strikes in Syria in response to the use of chemical weapons. With Bolton and Pompeo now regularly whispering in his ear, the latter voice just got considerably louder and, with it, risks of a war noticeably higher.

Such a crisis with Iran is not inevitable. Macron’s and German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visits to Washington this week provide last-minute opportunities. In the game of chicken Trump has initiated, they will perhaps convince the administration to swerve. Perhaps they could persuasively argue that the trans-Atlantic unity demonstrated in the multilateral decision to strike Syria would be undone by a unilateral decision to kill the JCPOA.

But it’s not likely. And the day Trump’s withdraws from the JCPOA, he will undoubtedly boast that he’s chipping away at Obama’s legacy. That he’s living up to a campaign pledge. That he’s tightened the noose around Iran. But, those claims aside, the president and his newly appointed advisers should be made to answer a basic question: When, in response to Trump’s exit, Iran and the international community don’t buckle, and Tehran instead chooses to do precisely what the nuclear deal has successfully barred it from doing, what would America do next? And in what way would that make the United States or the world any safer?