In many ways, the debate leading up to the U.S. withdrawal from the deal echoed the one surrounding its entry into it in July 2015. Just as, once again, discussion focused on issues the JCPOA did not address, the pact’s “sunset” provisions were also, once again, a matter of vigorous argument. Certain restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program expire in eight, 10, and 15 years, which the deal’s opponents argued allows the Islamic Republic to freely resume nuclear-weapons development after those periods. The pact, in this reading, merely delayed the time it would take for Iran to have nuclear weapons. The agreement’s supporters point out that as part of the deal Iran also signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty, under which it commits in perpetuity never to pursue nuclear weapons.
Reflecting the prominence of these concerns even when the deal was signed, congressional critics of the agreement passed legislation to require the president to certify every 120 days that Iran was complying with the JCPOA. While President Obama was only too happy to do this for his signature foreign-policy achievement (Iran’s compliance is certified, under the agreement, by international inspectors), the process of certification became a problem for the deal’s survival after Trump took office in January 2018. The president made public his unhappiness at having to repeatedly certify the deal that he’d called “insane,” but did so anyway for a time, in part, because of advice from Rex Tillerson, his then secretary of state, and James Mattis, the defense secretary. But last October, Trump decertified the agreement, leaving it up to Congress to either come up with a legislative fix or reimpose sanctions on Iran, an action that would have effectively marked the beginning of the end of the agreement. U.S. lawmakers didn’t come up with such a fix—essentially punting the decision back to the White House. Trump had until May 12 to decide whether to waive sanctions as the deal requires if Iran is complying, and he made his announcement four days early.
Trump warned Iran against restarting its nuclear program, saying “it will have bigger problems than it has ever had before.”
He added: “The fact is they are going to want to make a new and lasting deal, one that benefits all of Iran and the Iranian people. When they do, I am ready, willing, and able. Great things can happen for Iran and great things can happen for the peace and stability that we all want in the Middle East.”
Bolton elaborated on those comments. “We’re prepared, along with the Europeans and others, to talk about a much broader deal addressing all of the aspects of Iran’s actions that we find objectionable,” he said. “We’re prepared to do that right now.”
Still, people within the Trump administration defended the deal. On April 26, Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the JCPOA’s “verification … is actually pretty robust as far as our intrusive ability” to verify whether Iran was complying. “I've read it now three times … and I will say that it is written almost with an assumption that Iran would try to cheat,” he said. Mattis had previously favored staying in what he called an “imperfect” agreement because he said it was in the U.S. national-security interest.
Those debates are now moot, as the countdown clock starts toward the JCPOA’s ultimate demise. If that happens, the agreement will join other Obama-era foreign-policy accomplishments abandoned by the Trump administration, including the Paris climate accord, the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, and improved relations with Cuba.