Two years ago, the United States and its allies in Europe, China, and Russia announced to the world that the diplomatic coalition that had been negotiating with Tehran for the previous two years finally arrived at an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. And this week, one of the accord’s loudest critics—president Donald Trump—had to formally admit to Congress that the Iranians continue to uphold their side of the bargain.
The agreement was a classic illustration of realpolitik: adversaries sitting down and haggling, and walking away with a product requiring each side to give up leverage to get something important. Tehran’s uranium enrichment and plutonium programs would be severely hindered; IAEA inspectors would be permitted to roam Iran’s declared nuclear facilities whenever they wanted; two-thirds of Tehran’s enrichment centrifuges would be rendered inoperable and placed under IAEA seal; and Iran would be prohibited from pursuing a nuclear weapon for the remainder of its time as a nation. In exchange, Iran would receive the cash frozen in overseas banks, an amount of money that the Iranian government desperately wanted and likely needed. Non-US energy companies, banks, and businesses were also now allowed to engage in transactions with Iranian entities, as long as those entities weren’t sanctioned for terrorism or human rights abuses.
The deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was perhaps the most divisive foreign policy issue that the US Congress debated since the New START agreement in 2010. Democrats viewed the accord as a monumental achievement of breathtaking proportions, while other Democratic lawmakers supported it more in deference and loyalty to president Obama than to any particular love for the deal. Republicans, in contrast, were vociferously opposed to the concessions that the White House handed over. Former House speaker John Boehner vowed to do everything in his power to stop the JCPOA, full stop. When secretary of state John Kerry testified to defend the deal to his former colleagues on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he was essentially laughed off by Republicans as wanting an agreement far more than the Iranians did; in one particularly heated moment, senator Jim Risch of Idaho told Kerry that he got “bamboozled” and outsmarted by Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, after spending a year trying to coax allies on Capitol Hill to block the JCPOA from going into effect, stated bluntly on the same day that the deal was signed that “Iran is going to receive a sure path to nuclear weapons.”
Fortunately, all of the doom-and-gloom hasn’t come to pass. Despite all of the dire predictions to the contrary—that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei would tear up the accord as soon as the UN Security Council sanctions were suspended, or that Tehran would use the $100 billion in sanctions relief for a region wide campaign of terrorism—the JCPOA has by all objectionable standards turned out to be far more durable and successful that originally thought. According to the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Iranians have chosen to use the majority of the $100 billion for domestic purposes like rebuilding infrastructure and injecting some juice into an economy that was handicapped during years of international sanctions. While it’s certainly true that the IRGC’s budget has grown since the JCPOA was signed and implemented, the widespread assumption in Washington that the Iranian military and security services would be the main winners of the nuclear agreement haven’t panned out. Indeed, $50 billion—half of the money—was earmarked just to pay back the debts that Iran accrued.
As to the heart of the matter—Iran’s nuclear program—the JCPOA has been an effective instrument in degrading Iran’s nuclear capability and putting an otherwise untrustworthy nation under the spotlight of international monitors. In report after report, the IAEA has verified that the Iranian government has upheld its obligations. The plutonium reactor at Arak remains filled with concrete; 15,000 centrifuges remain locked under IAEA supervision; and Tehran continues to provide inspectors with timely access across the entire uranium chain. When problems have arisen over heavy water production, the issue has been dealt with through the Joint Commission that was set up as a negotiating channel between the P5+1 and Iran. The IAEA’s inspection regime is so strict—in fact, the most intrusive that the IAEA has ever conducted—that even if Iran sought to hoodwink the international community, they wouldn’t likely be able to get away with it.
Want further proof that the JCPOA is a durable accord? You need look no further than the behavior of the agreement’s original opponents, many of whom have been curiously silent about the deal since it has been in effect.
Prime minister Netanyahu, perhaps realizing that the JCPOA isn’t the disaster he thought it would be, barely talks about the Iran’s nuclear program at all anymore. He may still personally hate the deal, but much of Israel’s national security establishment would beg to differ. Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence and one of the senators who voted against the deal when it was debated in 2015, is now on record lauding its effectiveness. “The JCPOA,” Coats reported, “has…enhanced the transparency of Iran’s nuclear activities, mainly through improved access by the IAEA.” Senator Bob Corker, the man who presided over the resolution of disapproval process and the lawmaker who gave secretary Kerry an earful of criticism during and after the negotiations, even advised then president-elect Trump to keep the deal in place. Tearing it up, Corker said, would be a mistake.
Enter president Trump, who frequently referred to the Iran deal as the worst agreement he had ever witnessed in his lifetime—a bad deal that would be ripped apart as soon as his administration was fully staffed. As president, he has taken the opposite approach, convinced by his national security advisers to let the JCPOA live. Indeed, just this week, Trump begrudgingly recertified Iranian compliance, an exercise that keeps the arrangement in effect for at least another 90 days.
Even so, we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves or take the first two years of good implementation and assume there won’t be problems over the next two. The JCPOA, like most agreements in international diplomacy, isn’t all sunshine and roses. The most important limitations on Iran’s uranium enrichment program run out in 10-15 years. If Tehran wanted to pick up where it left off, there is nothing in the agreement that would really stop them from doing so. At its most elementary level, the JCPOA is a short-term impediment to what most of the world believes is a long journey by the ayatollahs to attain the nuclear deterrent. The Obama administration’s proclamation that the JCPOA would provide moderates in the Iranian political system with the opportunity to one-up their more principlist and ultra-conservative rivals was always naive. Unless Ayatollah Khamenein wakes up and suddenly transforms into a reformer, Washington, Europe, and the Arab world shouldn’t expect Iranian foreign policy to change.
But a short-term break in Iran’s nuclear work is still better than no break at all. The heavy hitters on president Trump’s national security team, like secretary of state Rex Tillerson, defense secretary James Mattis, and national security adviser H.R. McMaster, wouldn’t have recommended another certification if they didn’t think America’s interests were best served by keeping the deal in place.
Thankfully, the president took their counsel. Assuming Iran continues to fulfill the terms of the accord, Trump should forget about his campaign pledge to tear up an agreement that both the IAEA and US intelligence officials say is restraining Iran’s nuclear program.