by Paul R. Pillar*
Donald Trump appears poised to make one of the most damaging moves yet of his presidency: to pull out of the multilateral agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which severely restricts Iran’s nuclear program and closes all pathways to a possible Iranian nuclear weapon. Iran is adhering—as inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency have repeatedly certified—to its obligations under the agreement. Despite this record, Trump’s administration already has been violating U.S. obligations, by withholding licenses for commercial transactions permitted under the accord and by actively discouraging other countries from conducting normal commerce with Iran. Trump has been chomping at the bit to withdraw from the JCPOA altogether. He reportedly has been restrained from doing so only by the strong urging of senior subordinates who understand that such a step would be contrary to U.S. interests and to the interests of nuclear nonproliferation.
With Trump’s dismissal of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, some of the most significant restraints on Trump’s impulses are gone. The replacements, Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, have been just as viscerally opposed to the JCPOA as Trump and can be expected to encourage, rather than restrain, his destructive impulses.
Nothing good can come of a U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA. The very best scenario one could hope for, in which the other six parties to the agreement keep some version of it going without U.S. participation, would mean isolation of the United States rather than Iran and additional divisions and acrimony between the United States and its allies. Other scenarios in which the JCPOA collapses—as suggested by some statements from Iranian officials that if the U.S. pulls out, so will Iran—are even worse. This would mean the end of all the special restrictions that the JCPOA placed on Iran’s nuclear program. It would mean Iran could reopen shut-down facilities, enrich as much uranium as it wanted to as high a level as it wanted, and get back to where it was before the JCPOA went into effect, which was within striking distance of building a nuclear weapon. And just as was the case before the negotiations that led to the JCPOA got under way, Iran’s likely response to more and more pressure from the United States would be to spin more and more enrichment centrifuges.
Paul R. Pillar retired in 2005 from a 28-year career in the U.S. intelligence community. His senior positions included National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia, Deputy Chief of the DCI Counterterrorist Center, and Executive Assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence. He is a Vietnam War veteran and a retired officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. Dr. Pillar's degrees are from Dartmouth College, Oxford University, and Princeton University