James M. ActonCo-director of the Nuclear Policy Program and a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
No—and, by all accounts, the administration of President Trump agrees.
Trump is reportedly about to decline to certify that the JCPOA is in the U.S. national interest. This decision would have no direct bearing on the deal, but under U.S. law, it would provide Congress with a 60-day window in which it would be significantly easier to reimpose nuclear-related sanctions. Doing so would violate the deal and almost certainly trigger its collapse.
The Trump administration understands that this outcome would be a disaster. The United States would be blamed. Key U.S. partners, including the European Union, would be highly unlikely to reimpose sanctions of the magnitude necessary to get any other deal—let alone one better than the JCPOA. The proliferation threat from Iran, freed from constraints on its nuclear program, could again become acute.
As a result, Trump administration officials appear set to try to persuade Congress not to reimpose sanctions after non-certification. Whether they will succeed remains to be seen. But this risky strategy is not based on principled opposition to the deal; on the contrary, it is an attempt to keep the JCPOA alive while placating Trump, who, having campaigned against the deal, is fed up with having to periodically certify it.
Cornelius AdebahrNonresident fellow at Carnegie Europe
Of course not, but that question should have indeed been settled by the intensive debate that followed the agreement’s conclusion in July 2015. Given Iran’s confirmed compliance over the past two years, there’s no new argument now that would justify putting the whole agreement into question. Rather, it is President Trump’s domestic posturing that brings him to play with the congressionally required certification due by October 15.
Even outspoken critics of the Iran deal at the time, such as U.S. Senator Bob Corker and U.S. Senator John McCain, have come out against scrapping the agreement at this point. The irony is that a Republican-controlled U.S. Senate that voted against the agreement, but could not stop then-president Obama from implementing it, now appears to be the last (semi-sane) resort against a president bent on inciting another crisis in the Middle East.
Yet, as much as such maneuvering may bring a healthy realignment in U.S. politics, it will also have major international ramifications. Scrapping the deal is likely to provoke either Iranian miscalculations or deliberate malfeasance in the region. Toward America’s allies in Europe and its global partners such as China and Russia, it is a slap in the face. The world should not have to suffer from what is essentially intra-US infighting.
Federiga BindiSenior fellow at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, Jean Monnet chair at the University of Rome Tor Vergata, and D. German distinguished visiting chair at Appalachian State University
Absolutely not. As the EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini rightly said, “scrapping the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran would be in the interest of no one.”
Despite Trump’s allegations, Iran is fulfilling the nuclear program-related aspects of the agreement.
And what would be the alternative? Would the United States somehow exit the deal while the other signatories stand by it? This would show once more the isolation and weakness of the current U.S. administration.
Hypothetically, if the P5+1 scrapped the deal, the obvious conclusion Iran would draw is that there is no point in negotiating with the West or playing by the rules. As a consequence, Iran would leave the NPT—removing any legal constraint against building nuclear weapons. Being squeezed between nuclear states (including Iran and Israel, not to mention Pakistan and India) could in turn spur other regional powers, even those that have long advocated a nuclear-free region, to reevaluate their stance—and would risk a nuclear weapons escalation in one of the most unstable areas of the world.
Tarja CronbergDistinguished associate fellow at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute
The 2015 Iran deal is a well-functioning, multilateral arms control agreement that is essential for nonproliferation and regional stability. It should absolutely not be “scrapped,” nor should it be renegotiated. Europeans, together with their partners Russia and China, agree on this.
While President Trump seems set to decertify Iran’s compliance, the White House—which is divided on this issue—is pinning its hopes on Congress not reimposing the sanctions that were lifted as part of the JCPOA.
However, there is no guarantee that this will happen. Decertification opens the door for Congress to sabotage the deal that the Republicans have criticized all along. At the same time, it forces them to face the consequences of such an action: does the United States really want a nuclear crisis with Iran?
The EU will do its best to preserve this historic nuclear accord. But the transatlantic bond is strong. Would the EU eventually muster the political will and unity needed to move from rhetoric to action in standing up to the United States? European determination on this issue should not be put to test.
Kelsey DavenportDirector for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association
Scrapping the nuclear deal with Iran would be a dangerous move that would undermine nonproliferation efforts and risk provoking a nuclear crisis that the international community cannot afford. There is no logical reason to manufacture this crisis—Iran is complying with the deal, a fact affirmed by U.S. and P5+1 officials, and the agreement achieves its objective of verifiably blocking Iran’s pathways to nuclear weapons.
Despite its clear success, the Trump administration faults the agreement for failing to accomplish goals outside of its scope and for containing limits that expire over time. Trump appears poised to try and “fix” the deal by attempting to coerce Iran into extending certain restrictions. This pressure-centric approach, which Washington’s P5+1 negotiating partners have rejected as irresponsible and unnecessary, risks undermining the deal and undercutting Iranian incentives to remain in compliance. If Washington is viewed as killing the deal, either outright or through a series of cuts, the United States will not have the credibility negotiate a new agreement.
If Trump is legitimately concerned about Iran’s nuclear activities in 10-15 years, the best approach is to implement and sustain the current agreement. That will create opportunities to engage with Iran and to build on the deal.
Koert Debeuf Director of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, Europe
The EU should stick with the Iran deal and it should also invest more in the country, regardless of what the United States does. This is necessary for the credibility of the West and for the credibility of the reformist movement in Iran.
On May 20, 2017, Hassan Rouhani, the reformist president of Iran, won a second term with a landslide election result—despite the conservative opposition that criticized the president for having made a deal with the West. Instead of applauding this Iranian movement of reform, President Trump gave a speech in Riyadh the following day calling for Tehran’s isolation.
If the West was to annul the nuclear deal, it would confirm once again its historical image of unreliability in the Middle East. Iran is complying with the conditions of the agreement. Scrapping it would give a signal to the world that a deal with the West is never a real deal.
Europe should also speed up its investment in Iran—this was part of the agreement and it supports the country’s reformist movement. It looks like the Iran deal may be a turning point in transatlantic foreign policy. Europe should not follow the United States if it hurts the EU’s own credibility for years to come.
Dina EsfandiaryCSSS fellow at King's College London, and nonresident fellow at the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies
In short, absolutely not. The 2015 nuclear deal with Iran has done exactly what it set out to do: curb the Iranian nuclear program and give the international community greater insight into the program’s inner workings. Today, not only would any Iranian action toward a nuclear weapon be easily detected, but Iranian progress would take a great deal longer, giving the international community time to react accordingly.
Nevertheless, the concern with Iran’s non-nuclear activities is significant and understandable. Iran’s missile program continues to grow and progress, and Tehran has not curbed its nefarious activities in the region. Rather than scrapping the agreement and attempting to get a “better deal”—a tough task given Iran’s unwillingness to renegotiate—the JCPOA should be a starting point for further dialogue about issues of concern in the West’s relationship with Iran. The EU-Iran high-level political dialogue has done exactly that. The United States should follow that example and begin discussions on areas of concern and on issues where it shares goals with Tehran. Scrapping the nuclear deal would only take the international community back to square one.
Togzhan KassenovaFellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
President Trump said the Iran deal was an embarrassment to the United States. He is wrong. The deal is an impressive feat of multilateral diplomacy that has made it harder for Iran to build a nuclear bomb. Tehran accepted cuts to its nuclear capacity and agreed to unprecedented transparency of its nuclear activity. What would be embarrassing—and outright dangerous—is a scenario in which the United States either walks out of the deal, or lets it die a slow death by decertifying Iran’s compliance, imposing new sanctions, and engaging in unhelpful rhetoric that suggests Iran is not a reliable party.
Without the monitoring and verification of Iran’s nuclear activity that the agreement provides for, Tehran can jump back to advancing its nuclear program. The IAEA will lose access to Iran’s nuclear facilities, and the international community will go back to being in the dark about happenings on the ground. This will further destabilize a volatile region and undermine an already fragile global nuclear regime.
By walking away from its commitment to the Iran nuclear deal, the United States would also self-inflict a major rift with its transatlantic allies. The decision would force European partners to make hard decisions about how to proceed on the Iran front in the wake of such U.S. action.
Finally, the United States should not expect support for its new nonproliferation initiatives from its allies, the UN Security Council, or the international community more broadly, if Washington fails to keep its word.
Marc PieriniVisiting scholar at Carnegie Europe
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or “Iran nuclear deal,” should be kept in place as recommended by its EU, Russian, and Chinese signatories. Beyond the “Trump-versus-Obama” aspect, the U.S. debate has two key dimensions.
First is the issue of U.S. legislation. The obligation to recertify the deal every ninety days makes it an instrument of Donald Trump’s populist politics, even when most of his administration believes that Iran complies with the agreement. However, within sixty days of an eventual decertification by the president, U.S. Congress is free to reimpose sanctions on Iran, or not.
Second, and more importantly, what would decertification achieve? As U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said before the Senate Armed Services Committee on October 3, Iran is “fundamentally in compliance” with its nuclear obligations. Hence, the Trump administration’s real objections are Iran’s other activities, mainly its military actions in Syria and its missile program development, which are in turn directly related to the security of Israel.
This wider debate is a necessary one, but it would not be helped by a decertification of the JCPOA. European Council leaders should convince their U.S. counterparts that Western interests in the wider Middle East (Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, South Caucasus, Syria, and Yemen) will be better served by engaging diplomatically with Iran while keeping the JCPOA in place.
Marietje Schaake Member of the European Parliament
The rare diplomatic unity in the international community that resulted in the JCPOA should stand. Reopening the discussion on nonproliferation, as President Trump does, actually prevents from tackling other urgent topics where Iran’s policies and behavior are a disaster.
Iran’s vital support to Bashar al-Assad has caused extraordinary bloodshed, failed to wipe out the self-proclaimed Islamic State, and sent millions of Syrians adrift. Tehran should be held to account. Similarly, the ongoing human rights violations in Iran go against all international norms, cause systematic suffering, and prevent the country from developing to its full potential.
The EU should take the lead in effectively addressing these thorny issues, as it did to achieve the nuclear deal. Instead of revisiting the JCPOA, it is now time to solve the remaining problems we have with the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Barbara SlavinDirector of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council
The Iran deal should be saved and, if possible, expanded. The product of more than a decade of negotiations, the JCPOA achieved three significant goals: It provided a verifiable means of preventing Iran from building a nuclear weapon until at least 2030; it showed that multilateral diplomacy can solve the most difficult questions of international security; and it opened the first high-level acknowledged and productive channel between Tehran and Washington.
All these achievements would be jeopardized if the Trump administration walks away from the deal. There has already been a depressing return to the “Axis of Evil” style rhetoric in Washington, and an appalling apparent lack of understanding within the Trump administration about the reasons for Iran’s expanding role in the Middle East. Iran is where it is today in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen not due to Barack Obama’s support for the JCPOA, but largely because of prior U.S., Turkish, and Saudi mistakes. Scrapping the JCPOA would not change the regional dynamics—instead, it would make conflicts harder to solve. It would also strengthen the most hardline elements in Iran, jeopardizing the limited economic and social freedoms introduced by the Rouhani government.
Shimon SteinSenior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies and former Israeli ambassador to Germany from 2001 to 2007
Clearly, scrapping the deal is an option—but not an advisable one under the current circumstances. The advantages of the agreement (as long as Iran is in compliance) still outweigh the disadvantages, notwithstanding the significant flaws that the deal contains.
Any decision taken by the U.S. president that ultimately leads to a unilateral abrogation of the United States’ commitment will not only isolate Washington, it will undermine future efforts to reach a common understanding and a joint strategy between the United States and its Western allies, and subsequently with Russia and China. Both are essential for coping with the challenges presented by a nuclear-aspiring, hegemonial Iran.
In the coming years, the objectives of the cooperation are threefold: First, the full and uncompromising implementation of the deal; second, the need to agree on a set of measures to be taken in case Iran violates the deal; and third, preparing for the “day after” the deal expires.
No less important is the need to address Iranian activities that are not included in the deal, but are clearly in violation of the preface which anticipates that Iran will “positively contribute to regional and international peace and security.” None of the activities that Iran is engaged in (testing ballistic missiles, supporting terrorist activities, the use of subversive activities, and violating human rights) are contributing to the goals mentioned above.
Tommy SteinerSenior research fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, Israel
The JCPOA is becoming a liability. From an Iranian perspective, the JCPOA means: first, suspending (not foregoing) its nuclear military program for the duration of the deal (and not one minute later); second, a carte-blanche to do all but nuclear military activities, ranging from missile development to establishing a sphere of control across Iraq into Syria and Lebanon—also known as the “Shiite Crescent”— to financing terror organizations such as Hamas to undermining regimes in the Arab Gulf, and much more.
The biggest problem is that Western defenders of the JCPOA implicitly buy into Iran’s interpretation and have turned the agreement into the only benchmark for vetting Iran’s conduct. The anxiety expressed by European officials regarding the mere suggestion to designate Iran’s Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization because it could “exacerbate tensions in the region” is all the proof the Iranian regime needs to carry on and pursue its ambitions. The all-apparent European eagerness for business with Iran is equally unhelpful. It all smacks of appeasement.
The United States and Europe—along with their partners in the region—must adopt a comprehensive strategy to vigorously contain and roll back Iran’s menacing ambitions. The JCPOA could be part of this, but standing alone, it will only serve to reinforce Iran’s determination to pursue violence, radicalism, and terror.
Stephen SzaboResident senior fellow at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies
The Iran deal is also a transatlantic deal between the United States and its key European partners. Given that there is no concurrence in Europe that the Iranians have violated the nuclear agreement, the United States must adhere to the deal. To do otherwise will further weaken an already fragile transatlantic relationship and further isolate the Trump administration from all major international powers, including China and Russia. It would also strengthen China’s role as the new global leader. Given the likelihood that President Trump will not certify Iranian compliance, it will be up to the U.S. Congress to continue to withhold further sanctions on Iran. The strategic stakes are very high. It can only be hoped that Congress will recognize that maintaining cohesion within what is left of the West is more important than punishing a regime which has few friends.
Ali VaezSenior Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group
No, the Iran nuclear deal should not be scrapped. Europe, which played a key role in securing the 2015 agreement, now has a unique responsibility in blocking any such outcome.
This is a rare issue on which a broad consensus exists within the EU—and the EU has powerful cards to play. For example, the union could revive its “blocking regulations,” forbidding compliance with U.S. extraterritorial sanctions if President Trump were to impose them without good justification.
Such legislation would provide some reassurance to European companies engaged in the Iranian market by making clear that Europe will not recognize new U.S. sanctions, and by establishing a “clawback” clause so that businesses can be reimbursed for any damages incurred for alleged sanctions violations.
Given the growth in trade between the EU and Iran since the agreement came into force—a 94 percent increase in the first half of 2017 compared with the same period in 2016—coupled with several major investment contracts, Europe could potentially salvage the Iran deal even if the United States sought to sabotage it.
For some European banks and companies, the choice between the $19 trillion U.S. market and $400 billion Iranian economy might be an obvious one. But others may be more willing to take a risk if they felt shielded by their governments.
Pierre Vimont Senior fellow at Carnegie Europe
The real issue here is what Trump’s America is looking for in its relations with Iran. If the goal is to gradually make the country a more trusted and stable partner, scrapping the nuclear deal will not serve that purpose. It will feed into the rhetoric spouted by hardliners in Iran and relaunch the Iranian nuclear program, risking a nuclear race in the whole region. It will undermine U.S. credibility in the Middle East to the sole benefit of Iran, and probably Russia. This new source of tension, in addition to the current North Korea crisis, will further weaken the overall nonproliferation regime.
The JCPOA was not supposed to instantly transform Iran into a proxy of the West and a champion of moderation. It was intended primarily as a way of pushing back the threat of direct confrontation, and as a first step in a confidence building process. From that perspective, getting rid of the deal is definitely not the right answer. It would be better for the United States to let the agreement live its life and, in the meantime, focus on serious talks with Iran to define the follow-up after the deal’s expiration, in addition to promoting genuine security in the region.