Should the US Withdraw from the Iran Nuclear Deal?

US Secretary of State John Kerry, and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, right, meet at Palais Coburg Hotel, where the Iran nuclear talks are being held, in Vienna, Austria, Tuesday, July 14, 2015.(Joe Klamar/Pool Photo via AP)
US Secretary of State John Kerry, and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, right, meet at Palais Coburg Hotel, where the Iran nuclear talks are being held, in Vienna, Austria, Tuesday, July 14, 2015.(Joe Klamar/Pool Photo via AP)

Joseph V. Micallef is a best-selling military history and world affairs author, and keynote speaker. Follow him on Twitter @JosephVMicallef.

During the 2016 presidential campaign then candidate Donald Trump described the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA,) otherwise known as the "Iran nuclear deal," as "the stupidest deal of all time," and vowed that if he became president he would "rip it up."

The JCPOA was certainly the most significant and the most controversial of the Obama administration's foreign policies.

It was widely criticized by conservatives for being horribly one-sided in favor of Tehran and for lifting the economic sanctions against Iran without effectively eliminating the long-term threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon or its ongoing missile development program. Critics also say it would not curb Tehran's aggressive and destabilizing policies in the Middle East.

In turn, the Obama administration insisted that, "the agreement will block all of Iran's pathways to a nuclear weapon," and that it would put off for another 15 years Tehran's ability to field atomic weapons.

The Obama administration never submitted the agreement to the U.S. Senate for formal ratification, insisting that the agreement was an accord and not a treaty requiring Senate approval. In response, Congress passed the Iranian Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA).

The legislation gave Congress the right to review any agreement reached by the P5 +1 Committee (the 5 Permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) with Iran. It also requires the president to certify every 90 days that Iran was in compliance with the JCPOA.

Unlike the other parties to the JCPOA, the U.S. did not revoke the sanctions following the acceptance of the agreement. Washington simply elected not to enforce the existing sanctions

If the President makes a determination that Iran is no longer in compliance with the terms of the JCPOA, then it will be up to Congress to decide whether to waive the noncompliance or vote to begin enforcing the existing sanctions.

In addition, according to the JCPOA, if Iran is found to have violated any aspect of the accord, the UN mandated sanctions will automatically snap back for a period of 10 years, with the possibility of an additional five-year extension.

Any dispute that cannot be resolved by the Joint Committee under the JCPOA will be referred to the UN Security Council for resolution.

Was the JCPOA a good agreement for the United States?

The terms of the JCPOS require Iran to:

Reduce its stockpile of enriched uranium by 98 percent to 300 kg (660 lbs.) for the next 15 years. The level of enrichment is limited to no more than 3.67 percent. That level is sufficient to power a nuclear reactor. Weapons grade uranium, on the other hand, needs to be enriched to at least 90 percent.

The number of centrifuges must be reduced from 20,000 to 6,104.

1,044 of those centrifuges will be installed at the Fordo enrichment facility where they will be used to produce radioisotopes for medical, scientific and industrial uses. The Fordo facility will not be permitted to enrich uranium for a period of 15 years and instead will be turned into a nuclear science and physics research center.

The Natanz facility, the other location where uranium was being enriched, will be limited to no more than 5,060 of the oldest and least efficient centrifuges. These will be used to enrich uranium to a level of 3.67 percent for use as nuclear fuel for Iran's domestic reactors or for sale in the international uranium market.

The heavy water reactor in Arak will be redesigned to be a heavy water research reactor. Most importantly, the spent fuel from the reactor will be exported. No reprocessing to extract the weapons grade plutonium it contains will be permitted.

The 20 tons of heavy water held at the Arak facility will be reduced to six tons and be earmarked for making medical isotopes. The balance will be shipped to a third country and eventually to the United States for safekeeping.

Iran will not be allowed to build any additional heavy water reactors or stockpile any additional heavy water for a period of 15 years.

Tehran has also agreed to allow inspection of its nuclear facilities, including military sites, and to comply, within no more than 24 days, with any request by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for access to a facility.

In addition, the UN arms embargo on Iranian arms shipments will continue for five years. Iran will also be banned from importing any technology that can be used for ballistic missile development for an additional eight years. Iran also has agreed not to engage in any research and development activities that contribute to the development of a nuclear weapon.

In return, the EU will remove sanctions on Iranian petroleum exports and its banking sector as well as key industrial sectors like the automotive and aerospace industries.

The U.S. in turn will stop enforcing sanctions against any domestic or foreign companies that do business with Iran. All UN mandated sanctions against Iran will be dismantled.

Was this agreement a good deal for the United States? That all depends on your perspective and what assumptions you make about the state of Iran's nuclear development program.

The agreement, if it is adhered to, does block Iran from developing the components it would need to construct a nuclear bomb. It no longer has access to plutonium from the Arak facility and it is prevented from enriching uranium to a weapons grade level.

Tehran can restart some aspects of its nuclear program after eight years, but the prohibition on producing plutonium or weapons grade uranium effectively prevents it from developing an atomic device for the next 15 years.

On the other hand, while its footprint has been dramatically reduced, Iran was able to keep its basic nuclear infrastructure under the guise of maintaining a research program and manufacturing radioactive isotopes.

This "dual use" structure means that Tehran will find it at easier to scale up a nuclear weapons development program in the future than if it had completely dismantled its existing program.

There are only 12 countries, in addition to Iran, which currently enrich uranium. All but three, Japan, Netherlands, and Germany, have active weapons development programs.

Radioactive isotopes are readily available on the international market. Tehran did not need to retain a uranium enrichment capability to have access to them. By doing so on the pretext of wanting or needing to manufacture radioactive isotopes, it was able to legitimately preserve a portion of its enrichment capability.

Secondly, although a reduction of centrifuges from 20,000 to six thousand is a significant step, that still leaves Iran with more centrifuges than either Pakistan or North Korea had when they developed their nuclear weapons.

While the smaller number of centrifuges will slow down the pace at which sufficient quantity of weapons grade uranium will be produced, it still gives Iran the ability to do so should it break the agreement.

Contrary to many media reports, the centrifuges have not been destroyed. They are now decommissioned and in storage under the supervision of the IAEA. Technically, they are to be used for spare parts as needed.

How close was Tehran to developing an atomic device? The Obama White House claimed that Iran could have accelerated its enrichment efforts so that its "breakout time," the time necessary to produce enough weapons grade uranium for an atomic bomb, could have been reduced to two or three months.

In theory, that means that a bomb could have been constructed before IAEA inspectors would have been aware of the effort.

Atomic weapons are notoriously fickle. Although this is now 75-year-old technology, there are still plenty of things that can go wrong, as North Korea's long list of failed tests demonstrates.

Just because you have enough weapons grade uranium to make a bomb doesn't mean you can have a functioning nuclear weapon overnight.

Moreover, even if you have a nuclear weapon, you still need a means to deliver it. In theory, you could just put a bomb on a truck, drive it to its destination and detonate it. In practice, it's a little more complicated.

A missile is the most effective and credible way of delivering an atomic weapon. That means in addition to actually developing an atomic device, you need to be able to shrink it down so it fits into the nose cone of a missile.

You also need a missile with sufficient range, accuracy and robustness to actually deliver the warhead to its intended target. None of this is insurmountable, but neither is it easy.

Even with the steps it has already taken, however, if Tehran was to break the JCPOA, its breakout time would still be around a year. That would make it more likely that IAEA inspectors might get alerted to the effort, but it would not preclude producing enough weapons grade uranium to construct an atomic bomb.

Was deferring some 15 years into the future Iran's ability to develop an atomic weapon in return for lifting the economic auctions that were constraining its economy a good tradeoff for the United States and its allies?

The presumption underlying the agreement is that in 10 to 15 years, when the agreement will need to be revisited, Tehran will be easier to work with than it is now. That may well be true, but there is no assurance of that and the evidence to date does not appear to make that likely.

Secondly, in lifting the sanctions, Iran was able to ratchet up its oil exports, get access to the Western financial system and get control of around 100 billion to 150 billion in funds and assets that had been frozen.

Moreover, by normalizing its relations with the West, especially with the EU, it gained access to non-military technology it had previously been denied.

All of these developments make Iran much stronger than it was under the sanctions regime and enhances its ability to project power in the Middle East. It also allows it to strengthen its various proxies, like Hezbollah.

Thirdly, the agreement did not eliminate the prospect that Tehran will develop nuclear weapons, it simply deferred it into the future. In other words, it did what politicians are prone to do with a pressing problem; push it far enough ahead in time that it becomes someone else's problem.

As noted earlier, however, the price of that deferral is to make Iran a far more powerful opponent of the United States in the short-term.

Whether the tradeoff made sense depends on how close you think Iran was to actually developing nuclear weapons.

If Tehran was only a few months away from developing such weapons, then lifting the sanctions in return for deferring the problem for another 15 years would have been prudent.

The Obama administration insisted that Tehran was on the verge of developing such weapons. This seems unlikely. If there was any evidence to that effect it has not been made public.

If Tehran was still years away from having a functional nuclear weapon, then the U.S. traded lifting the sanctions for a capability that Tehran wouldn't have had any time soon.

That doesn't mean that it wouldn't have had that capacity eventually or that deferring it into the future might not have been an attractive option for the U.S. If the JCPOA pushed the likelihood of an Iranian bomb from five years out to 15 years out, that is still a valid accomplishment.

It does mean, however, that there was no rush to complete an agreement and that further negotiations might have resulted in a more favorable outcome.

The rush to get an agreement done, ostensibly because Tehran was on the verge of having a nuclear weapon, was likely driven more by the desire of the Obama administration to add a successful agreement to its foreign policy legacy than the danger that Iran would soon have a nuclear device.

In other words, it was more about a president's vanity than it was about American security.

Critics of the agreement have argued that the JCPOA did not address Tehran's missile program or its destabilizing behavior in the Middle East. This is true and these are valid points. To be fair, however, in a negotiation you don't get everything you want. Otherwise it would be a capitulation not a negotiation.

The Obama administration did claim that it had side agreements, more in the way of understandings than a formal agreement, that Tehran would curb its missile development and its support for organizations that the U.S. government has labeled as terrorists.

Both the U.S. and Iranian governments made public more detailed notes of their agreement. The narratives, however, did not agree and key points were disputed by Tehran.

Specifically, on July 22, 2016, Abbas Araghchi -- Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister and its chief negotiator at the P5 +1 talks -- declared that the agreements reached at the negotiations that led to the JCPOA did not place any limitations on Iran's missile development or on its ability to finance and arm its proxies in the Middle East.

Neither, according to Araghchi, did it place any limitations on Iran's non-nuclear weapon's capabilities.

While the failure of the JCPOA to address these later points is a legitimate criticism of the agreement, the fact that Iran has continued an active missile development program, or continues to finance and arm its proxies in the Middle East, does not mean it is violating the agreement.

The UN Security Council Resolution 2231 urged Tehran to suspend its missile development program for eight years, but did not legally require it to do so as part of the JCPOA.

Both the Trump White House and many leading conservatives have argued that Iran is cheating and is already violating the accords.

The IAEA insists that it has not found any substantive evidence that Tehran is not adhering to the accord. That doesn't mean that it isn't cheating.

As former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld so eloquently put it, there are some things that, "we don't know we don't know." It does mean, however, that to date, there is no evidence that Tehran has failed to live up to the agreement.

Should the U.S. pull out of the JCPOA?

Opponents of the agreement, most notably, former UN Ambassador John Bolton, have argued that Tehran has already violated the agreement and that the U.S. should therefore pull out of it and immediately reinstate sanctions. Specifically, Bolton has identified four issues:

  1. Iran is operating more advanced uranium-enrichment centrifuges than is permitted and has announced that it has the capability to mass produce centrifuges.
  2. It has exceeded limits on the production and storage of the heavy water being used for the production of radioactive isotopes.
  3. Tehran has covertly procured nuclear and missile technology outside of the framework specified in the JCPOA.
  4. It has refused to allow IAEA inspectors access to nuclear search and military facilities.

Let's deal with each of these charges in turn:

According to the IAEA there is no evidence that Tehran is operating more advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges than is permitted under the JCPOA.

In April 2017, Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, announced that Tehran is prepared to mass-produce advanced IR-8 centrifuges on "short notice." Under the JCPOA, Tehran can operate only one advanced IR-8 centrifuge.

Critics have argued that Iran has already produced more than six IR-8 centrifuges, but this has not been confirmed by the IAEA.

Declaring that you are prepared to mass produce advanced centrifuges is not a violation of the JCPOA unless you actually produce them. Manufacturing the components and stockpiling parts would certainly allow for a rapid scale up.

It is not clear whether stockpiling parts but stopping sort of assembling them is a violation of the JCPOA, although it certainly goes against the spirit of the agreement.

It is true that Iran did violate the quota on the maximum amount of heavy water it could retain. Tehran claimed that this was merely an error and that it has been rectified.

While technically a violation, it has little practical consequence unless you have the means to convert that heavy water into weapons grade plutonium. Tehran had that ability while the Arak reactor was operating. Now, it's a moot point.

The question of whether Iran has procured nuclear and missile technology outside of the framework specified by the JCPOA is unclear. The JCPOSA specifies Nuclear Suppliers Group "trigger list" items.

This trigger list also includes dual use items (i.e., those items that have both military and civilian uses). According to the IAEA, Tehran has not obtained any trigger list items outside of the framework specified by the JCPOA.

The issue here is dual use items. What constitutes a dual use item is subject to some interpretation. Just because an item isn't listed on the trigger list doesn't mean that Tehran can't find a military application for it in its missile development program.

It's likely that Iran is exploiting loopholes in the trigger list to import technology that has applications to its missile development program and that is not expressly prohibited under the JCPOA.

The final issue is that of inspections. When the agreement was first announced, U.S. negotiators said it included inspection of Iranian military facilities, something that the Iranian government has long insisted it would not grant.

The JCPOA does not mention military facilities specifically; it does however specify that IAEA inspectors are allowed to visit "any suspicious sites" that inspectors have reason to believe are engaging in illicit activity.

Subsequently, Iranian officials have declared on several occasions that Tehran will not grant access to military facilities. The IAEA, however, has not yet asked for any such access so the point is moot.

Should the IAEA ask to inspect facilities on a military base that it believes may be engaging in prohibited activity and be denied access, then that denial would constitute a breach of the JCPOA.

Would the U.S. be better off to withdraw from the agreement? It is hard to see how. First, there is little support among the other members of the P5 + 1 committee to cancel the agreement and restore sanctions barring clear evidence that Iran has violated the agreement. Any U.S. actions therefore would not be matched by any of the other members.

From a practical standpoint, there is little the U.S. can do to constrain Iran's behavior in the Middle East. The U.S. does not need to pull out of the agreement to impose new economic sanctions on Iran.

It can do so in response to Tehran's continued missile development program, its human rights abuses or its aggressive and destabilizing foreign policy in the Middle East.

It's hard to see how such actions will prove effective, however. Washington has been sanctioning Iran for the better part of 40 years--ever since the takeover of the American embassy in Tehran in 1979.

It's unlikely U.S. sanctions alone will have much impact on Tehran's behavior. There is little in the way of economic or trade activity between Iran and the U.S.

The U.S. can expand its sanctions to include foreign companies that trade with Iran. Such sanctions would prove more onerous and would discourage some companies from dealing with Iran, but it would also create conflicts with America's EU allies and further isolate Washington on the issue.

The range of possible military responses is also limited. A ground invasion of Iran to force a regime change is not viable. Such an undertaking would prove extremely difficult and would completely upend the Middle East. Nor, in any case, is there any political support for such an action.

The impact of military strikes to destroy Iran's nuclear facilities is also limited. Many of the facilities are deep underground and heavily reinforced.

So-called bunker buster bombs might succeed in damaging or destroying a facility, but there is no assurance that would be enough to prevent Iran's development of a nuclear weapon. For now, diplomacy, as limited as its effectiveness might be, remains the best option.

Moreover, without concrete evidence that Tehran is violating the JCPOA, a unilateral U.S. withdrawal simply undermines the credibility of U.S. diplomacy.

Diplomatic agreements are meant to be binding obligations on the United States. They are not supposed to be set aside by an incoming administration simply because they didn't like the agreement.

There is no question that the JCPOA has some serious shortcomings. It's questionable whether the tradeoff of lifting sanctions in return for a deferral and scaling back of Iran's nuclear program was in the long-term interest of the U.S.

If the deal was flawed, that is ultimately the fault of the Obama administration. But flawed or not, the deal has been made. Sanctions have been lifted, Iranian frozen assets have been released and Tehran has been granted access again to Western markets and the international financial system.

This is now a fait accompli. Pulling out of the agreement won't reverse any of this. In fact, it could present the U.S. with the worst possible outcome: a lifting of sanctions and the ability of Tehran to return to its nuclear development program should it choose to do so.

Tehran is unlikely to do that, since such an action might precipitate a return of EU sanctions. From Washington's standpoint, however, today's reality is what it must ultimately deal with, not the reality it wishes the Obama administration had left it.

For now, American interest is best served by continuing to participate in the JCPOA while at the same time vigorously enforcing its provisions and continuing to look for and document any evidence of Iranian violations.

That does not mean that the U.S. should not address the continuation of Iran's missile development program, is funding and arming of subversive organizations in the Middle East or its aggressive foreign policy.

Rather, it means that pulling out of the agreement will not resolve any of these issues. Addressing these additional issues, will require a different framework and agreement.

Imposing new economic actions may allow the White House and Congress to show that they are tough on Iran, but from a practical standpoint, they alone will not resolve the issues that Washington has with Tehran.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of

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