Home/Daniel Larison/The Colossal Blunder of Reneging on the JCPOA

The Colossal Blunder of Reneging on the JCPOA

Iran President Rouhani and U.S. President Trump. Drop of Light/Shutterstock and Office of President of Russia.   

Bret Stephens tries to claim that reneging on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) has been good for the U.S.:

It’s been nearly a year since Donald Trump made the decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, to loud cries that it would bring nothing but woe to the United States and our interests in the Middle East.

So far, the result has been closer to the opposite.

Nuclear deal opponents always argue in bad faith, and Stephens’ latest column is no exception. For starters, virtually no one said that reneging on the deal would bring “nothing but woe.” It was nonetheless an irrational, costly decision whose costs continue to add up as time goes by. Some of the worst-case scenarios have not yet happened, but reneging on the deal has done nothing but harm U.S. interests and our relations with major allies. No one can point to any real gains for the U.S., and even by the Trump administration’s own standards their Iran policy has failed to achieve anything. U.S. relations with European allies have come under significant strain, and their determination to sustain the deal has led them to create workarounds to allow legitimate trade with Iran to continue. Pressuring Iraq to join the anti-Iran sanctions has likewise strained relations with Baghdad and contributed to the backlash against the U.S. there.

Stephens applauds the damage that the reimposition of U.S. sanctions is doing to Iran’s economy, but inflicting pain for its own sake is pointless cruelty. The U.S. gains nothing from this, and it imposes enormous costs on the Iranian people who bear most of the burden. The sanctions were originally created to pressure Iran into making the concessions on the nuclear issue that they have made. The sanctions cannot do anything except inflict damage on Iran’s economy because Iran’s government is already doing the things that were required to get them lifted. Strangling Iran’s economy doesn’t make the U.S. any safer, but it does make us seem treacherous and underhanded in our dealings with other states. Reneging on the JCPOA has inflicted diplomatic and political costs on the U.S. that make it more difficult for any other government to trust ours to honor its side of agreements, and it has made a mockery of our government’s commitment to nonproliferation.

It needs to be emphasized here that all of the costs of reneging on the deal are purely self-inflicted. The president pandered to the ideologues and hard-liners that hated the deal from the beginning and made an unnecessary, irresponsible decision to give up on a successful agreement. Meanwhile, the vast majority of arms control and nuclear experts opposed the decision. All that the U.S. had to do to keep faith with Iran and the other parties was to lift sanctions and keep them lifted. It cost us nothing to do this, and it created an opening for reduced tensions and improved relations with Iran that stood to benefit both of our countries and the surrounding region. Throwing that away has gained the U.S. nothing, and it has isolated the U.S. internationally from almost all other governments that support the agreement. Any fair and honest reckoning of the costs and benefits of Trump’s decision to renege would show that the U.S. is now in a worse and weaker position than it was before that decision. It is the definition of a foreign policy fiasco.

U.S. withdrawal has not caused the agreement to collapse yet, but that is only because all of the other parties to it have made concerted efforts to keep it alive in spite of completely unwarranted sanctions. Contrary to hawkish predictions that Iran would cheat on the agreement, Iran has fulfilled its obligations to the satisfaction of the IAEA for more than three years. Even though Iran has received very few of the promised benefits for complying with the agreement, Iran has done what it said it would do. That doesn’t line up very well with the Iran hawks’ usual picture of a fanatical government hell-bent on acquiring a nuke. As a nonproliferation agreement, the JCPOA continues to work as intended despite the active sabotage of the Trump administration. That is a testament to the value of the agreement and to the overwhelming international consensus in favor of it. The U.S. has stupidly and unnecessarily broken with that consensus for the sake of its obsession with hostility towards Iran.

This bit may be the least credible part of Stephens’ column:

The point isn’t to punish Iran for punishment’s sake. It’s to create leverage for a better nuclear deal.

If unjustly reimposing sanctions on Iran was meant to “create leverage for a better nuclear deal,” it has completely failed. Iran has no interest in renegotiating the agreement that it has honored from the start, and it has no reason to trust the government that just went back on its word that it will obtain sanctions relief by offering more concessions. Quitting agreements does not create additional leverage on the other parties to an agreement. It necessarily weakens the U.S. position by making our promises seem worthless. A “better” deal isn’t possible, but then Iran hawks’ interest in one has always been disingenuous. They have never wanted a “better” deal. They have wanted Iranian capitulation. That is reflected in the preposterous demands that Pompeo made last year. No Iranian government would ever agree to the vast majority of those demands, and they amount to abandoning its foreign policy and its nuclear program. Stephens marvels that “any of it should be controversial,” which should tell you how clueless he is.

It’s worth noting here that Stephens has been and still is one of the most fanatical opponents of the nuclear deal. When the P5+1 concluded the interim nuclear deal, the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), in 2013, he asserted that forerunner to the JCPOA was “worse than Munich.” Anyone who invoked Nazi appeasement in the context of negotiations for a nonproliferation agreement has no credibility to chide anyone else about anything related to foreign policy.

Stephens declares:

Non-nuclear states that sponsor terrorism and subscribe to millenarian ideologies should never have access to any part of the nuclear fuel cycle, ever.

Here he is falling back on an old, discredited trope of Iran as a “martyr-state” to support his fanatical position that Iran shouldn’t have a nuclear program at all. Not only is the Iranian government not filled with “millenarian” zealots (they are interested in self-preservation and staying in power just like any regime), but Stephens ignores that Iran is entitled to possess and develop nuclear technology for peaceful purposes under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). If the U.S. seeks to deprive them of that access, they might end up choosing to go the North Korea route by leaving the treaty and developing nuclear weapons. That isn’t the most likely outcome right now, but the more that the U.S. pressures Iran the greater their incentive to acquire a nuclear deterrent becomes.

Stephens concludes:

The Trump administration has succeeded in dramatically raising the costs to Iran for its sinister behavior, at no cost to the United States or our allies.

U.S.-European relations are frayed and probably worse than at any time since the Iraq war debate, and those strains have mostly been caused by the administration’s bankrupt Iran policy. Our government has violated the JCPOA and the Security Council resolution that endorsed it, and that has both left the U.S. isolated on this issue and weakened our position internationally. Our allies have been forced to defend themselves against U.S. sanctions, and their efforts to circumvent the sanctions will have longer term negative consequences for U.S. foreign policy. The Iranian government’s behavior has not changed significantly, and the costs borne by the Iranian people are very high. Our government is inflicting collective punishment of an entire nation for no good reason, and we are teaching another generation of Iranians to loathe and distrust us. Stephens can ignore reality if he wants, but the costs to the U.S. and our allies are real and growing.

Reneging on the nuclear deal was a destructive and stupid move, and the U.S. will be paying for it for years to come. If it hasn’t led to the worst possible outcomes yet, that doesn’t change the fact that it has been a colossal blunder and a huge own goal by the Trump administration. It isn’t surprising that a hardened ideologue like Stephens defends such a bad decision, but his readers are poorly served by his propaganda masquerading as analysis.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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