APN Backgrounder: What You Need to Know as Trump Decides Iran Deal’s Fate


Q. Let’s start at the beginning. What is the Iran nuclear deal?

A. Also known by its formal title – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – the Iran nuclear deal is designed to constrain Iran’s ability to build nuclear weapons. It does so by placing significant and verifiable checks on Iran and particularly on its ability to produce the highly enriched uranium or weapons-grade plutonium necessary for a nuclear bomb. The JCPOA was the product of years of negotiations between the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – the US, Great Britain, France, Russia, and China – plus Germany) which stretched back to the George W. Bush Administration. The agreement was signed on July 14, 2015.


Q. Why is the Iran nuclear deal back in the headlines now?

A. President Trump faces an October 15 deadline to re-certify Iranian compliance with the deal. This is not a requirement of the JCPOA itself. Rather, it is a requirement of Congressional legislation known as the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA) of 2015. INARA stipulates that the President must certify every 90 days that Iran is continuing to uphold its obligations under the JCPOA. Since becoming President, Donald Trump has certified Iranian compliance twice. Nonetheless, Trump has made clear repeatedly his opposition to the Iran nuclear deal, including on the campaign trail, when voicing frustration after recertifying Iranian compliance in July, and in his belligerent debut speech to the UN General Assembly. In Trumpian fashion, he teased the world with an announcement in late September that he had decided whether or not to certify Iranian compliance – and would “let you know what the decision is.” Reportedly, Trump has decided to decertify the deal, with an announcement coming later this week.

Q. What will happen if Trump makes good on his threats to decertify the deal?

A. Decertification by Trump will not automatically kill the Iran deal. If Trump had wanted to do that, he could have done so last month when he faced a September 15 deadline to determine (as the President must do every 120 days) whether to continue sanctions relief for Iran. In return for adhering to restrictions on its nuclear program, Iran’s payoff under the JCPOA was the removal of crippling sanctions imposed by the international community, including the United States. If President Trump declined to renew the sanctions waiver, the United States would be in material breach of the terms of the JCPOA. As Robert Malley, who served on the American team which helped to negotiate the Iran deal, stressed in his briefing call with Americans for Peace Now, Trump can decide at any time to reimpose sanctions on Iran. And yet, Trump chooses not to kill the deal. Instead, he appears poised to go the route of decertification. This would not kill the deal; it would punt the issue to Congress (as Trump has done before, on issues ranging from DACA to health care and tax reform).

Q. What will happen if/when Trump punts the JCPOA back to Congress?

A. Congress will have 60 days in which to decide whether to reimpose sanctions on Iran. The fight in Congress would be fierce with the outcome unclear. Many in Congress opposed the JCPOA when it came into force in 2015. Senate Republicans, joined by four Democratic colleagues, came up just short of advancing a vote on a resolution to reject the JCPOA; the House voted 245 to 186 to find President Obama out of compliance with INARA. There are signs, however, that the mood in Congress is shifting. Senator Bob Corker, Republican Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was a vocal opponent of the JCPOA when it came into being; more recently, he has indicated that the deal should be strongly enforced, rather than torn up. (Corker has also made headlines for his extraordinary warning that Trump’s reckless threats could be setting the United States “on the path to World War III.”) Representative Ed Royce, Republican Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has made the same volte-face. Senator Ben Cardin and Representative Ted Deutch, prominent Democrats who opposed the JCPOA in 2015, have both called on President Trump to recertify Iranian compliance.


Q. Is Iran abiding by its obligations under the JCPOA?

A. Yes, it is – despite the fact that opponents of the Iran deal warned that Iran could never be trusted to uphold the agreement. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu famously made this claim in his March 2015 speech to Congress that aimed to derail the JCPOA. In fact, the agreement hinges not upon trust, but on verification. So how do we know that Iran is complying? Let’s start with the national security advisers closest to President Trump who have confirmed, at times grudgingly and at the risk of angering their mercurial boss, that Iran is in compliance. In recent testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Secretary of Defense James Mattis was asked whether he believes it is “in our national security interests at the present time to remain in the JCPOA.” Mattis answered: "Yes, Senator, I do." He went on, in response to a follow-up question: "I believe at this point in time, absent indications to the contrary, [the JCPOA] is something the President should consider staying with." General Joseph Dunford, who serves as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – America’s highest-ranking military officer and principal military advisor to the President, Secretary of Defense, and the National Security Council – agreed, in his own testimony to the same Senate committee. Dunford testified, “The briefings I have received indicate that Iran is adhering to its JCPOA obligations.” Asked whether the Iran deal has decreased the Iranian nuclear threat, he answered, “Yes, the JCPOA has delayed Iran’s development of nuclear weapons.” And, crucially, we have the verification reports of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which is conducting regular, intrusive inspections in Iran’s nuclear facilities and just confirmed for a ninth time that Iran is upholding its end of the nuclear deal.

Q. OK, Iran is complying. But is the JCPOA a good deal?

A. Much of the commentary on the Iran nuclear deal, both positive and negative, comes from pundits, analysts, and advocates without deep knowledge of nuclear physics. That is true of us at Americans for Peace Now. It is not true of Dr. Earnest Moniz, Secretary of Energy under President Obama and the principal American negotiator on the JCPOA. A decorated nuclear physicist at MIT who was involved in the US nuclear weapons program for decades, Moniz knows what it takes to build a nuclear bomb – and he makes clear that the 159 pages of unprecedented detailed requirements in the JCPOA present a formidable barrier to Iran going nuclear. Moniz is not alone. Prominent scientists with expertise in nuclear weapons technologies have declared their hope that the Iran nuclear deal would serve as a “guidepost to future nonproliferation agreements.” As former Secretary of State John Kerry indicates, the JCPOA negotiators learned their lessons from a nuclear deal with North Korea that fell apart 20 years ago. That 4-page agreement dealt only with plutonium. By contrast, the JCPOA deals with all of Iran’s potential avenues to a nuclear weapon and draws upon the transparency rules of the IAEA’s Additional Protocol, which were designed to prevent a North Korea redux. No country has gone nuclear with the intrusive verification procedures of the Additional Protocol in place. Before Iran received any sanctions relief under the JCPOA, it complied up front: by eliminating 97 percent of its uranium stockpile, eradicating the core from its Arak reactor (thus preventing production of weapons-grade plutonium), destroying over 13,000 centrifuges, terminating enrichment of uranium at its Fordow site, and opening up to the IAEA’s intrusive inspections program.

Q. What about the JCPOA’s sunset clauses?

A. Despite the crucial accomplishments of the Iranian nuclear deal, critics have continued to attack it. In a speech before the neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute last month, US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley outlined what was supposed to be an indictment of the JCPOA. (In fact, it contained substantial falsehoods.) One of the supposed flaws in the Iran deal cited by Haley is that it contains sunset provisions and therefore does not guarantee that Iran’s nuclear program will be eliminated forever. Haley is correct that there are elements of the JCPOA that expire in 10, 15, and 20 years. Others do not: for example, as a signatory to the JCPOA and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran’s obligation not to build nuclear weapons is permanent. Fundamentally, the critics’ argument about the sunset clauses is nonsensical and makes the perfect the enemy of the good. If those who want to tear down the deal had their way, we would go back to the pre-JCPOA days when there were no curbs at all, of any length of time, on Iran’s nuclear program. Because of the Iran deal’s restrictions, the length of time it would take Iran to produce weapons-grade uranium if it decided to go all-out in pursuit of a nuclear weapon (a so-called “breakout scenario”) has increased to 12 months and it will remain so over the next decade. Do we really want to rewind the clock to mid-2013, when Iran’s breakout time was a mere one to two months?

Stephen Walt frames the issue nicely by changing the scenario to 1948. What if Joseph Stalin had offered to terminate the Soviet Union’s efforts to build an atomic bomb for up to 15 years, giving up a substantial portion of the USSR’s enriched uranium and allowing intrusive inspections, and in return asked only for some economic concessions? What if Stalin also made clear that he would retain the ability to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes and would continue to try to spread Communism to Eastern Europe and other parts of the world – such that the Cold War would continue but with the USSR as a non-nuclear state for as long as the agreement remained in force? Walt concludes that Harry Truman, George C. Marshall, and Dean Acheson would have taken such a deal and their Republican successors Dwight D. Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles “would have moved heaven and earth to keep it in force.” Unfortunately for the world, no such deal was ever on the table and the Soviet Union surprised the West by testing an atomic weapon in 1949. We are fortunate, thanks to the unflagging efforts of the P5+1 negotiators to have the JCPOA in place today. We must fight to keep it that way – and to extend the deal as its relevant provisions approach their expiration dates.

Q. But what about Iran’s ongoing threatening behavior throughout the Middle East?

A. It is absolutely true, and of substantial concern, that Iran continues its menacing activities in the Middle East – particularly its bolstering of Hizbullah, support for Bashar al-Asad’s regime in Syria, attempts to consolidate its influence in both Syria and Iraq, and missile development. (It is worth noting that these developments would not have been possible absent the American decision to launch a disastrous war against Iraq in 2003 – the proponents of which are the loudest voices calling for scrapping the JCPOA and moving toward an even more catastrophic military conflict with Iran.) The American negotiators of the JCPOA were keenly aware of, and concerned about, Iran’s threatening regional behavior but made a deliberate decision to focus on the single most important problem posed by Iran: the nuclear threat. Bringing in other issues would have given Iran the opportunity to propose a quid pro quo, trading concessions on regional policies for lesser restrictions on its nuclear program. The fact is that dealing with these regional issues would be exponentially more difficult if we were facing a nuclear Iran. Take it from the Israelis, those who are among the most threatened by Iran’s aggressive behavior. Members of Israel’s top military and intelligence brass – highly respected individuals like Uzi Arad, Carmi Gillon, Ami Ayalon, Amram Mitzna, and many others – have concluded that the JCPOA is good for Israel, enabling it to deal with Iran as a non-nuclear adversary.

Q. What about the possibility of getting a better deal?

A. This brings us to the claim that Trump’s decertification of the Iran nuclear deal will pave the way for Congress to put in place new sanctions that will pressure Iran to make concessions beyond what it agreed to in the JCPOA. There are many problems with this argument, which Colin Kahl lays out in his excellent piece in Foreign Policy. Worth highlighting here are the following points. Iran has made it abundantly clear that it will not capitulate to unilateral American demands for more concessions, a point that has united both pragmatists and hardliners within the Iranian government. And there is every reason to believe that threats of further American economic pressure would not force the Iranians to cave. After all, the regime views total capitulation to American demands as a much bigger threat to its legitimacy and longevity than additional American sanctions. And we’re talking about a regime that endured far greater economic hardships (not to mention hundreds of thousands of casualties) during the Iran-Iraq war before it finally agreed to a truce after eight years. In addition, this time the United States would be going it alone. Our partners in the P5+1, even our European allies (to say nothing of Russia and China) have made it clear that they will not support American efforts to renegotiate the JCPOA, while reaping the benefits of economic ties with Iran. Just how do Iran deal opponents plan to produce better results with less leverage? Kahl sums it up: “It is literally insane to believe that it is possible to produce 150 percent of the current deal with 50, 70, or even 99 percent of the leverage the United States possessed in 2015.”


Q. Would it really be so bad if the US withdrew from or decertified the JCPOA?

A. President Trump seems determined to follow Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s enjoinder, delivered to the UN General Assembly, to “fix it or nix it.” That is a terrible idea. Let’s highlight the top four reasons why:

(1) Relations with our allies. Absent any evidence that Iran is violating the terms of the JCPOA, decertification of the accord by President Trump threatens to (further) erode relations with our closest partners, on whose cooperation we depend to face global challenges from Iran to North Korea to climate change.

(2) American credibility. Reimposing US sanctions on Iran in violation of the JCPOA would show the world that it is Washington, and not Tehran, that cannot be trusted to keep its word. As Ernest Moniz puts it: “When the Iran nuclear agreement was concluded more than two years ago, many questioned whether Tehran would live up to its terms. Incredibly, now it’s our continued compliance that’s in question.” And with it, our credibility is on the line.

(3) North Korea. The real nuclear crisis the world is currently facing is the one with North Korea. Not only does it make no sense to manufacture a second one where it does not currently exist, thanks to the JCPOA, slashing American credibility at this critical juncture would give North Korea zero incentive to engage in diplomacy with the United States that would roll back its nuclear program.

(4) Armed conflict with Iran. Decertifying the JCPOA will strengthen the hand of Iran hawks who want to exercise the military option (and there isn’t any good one) for eliminating any nuclear threat from Iran. The threat of escalation and miscalculation with an adversary with whom the US has not had direct communication links since 1979 is simply too high – and unnecessary.

Q. So what can I do to protect the Iran deal?

A. It’s imperative that we do all we can to marshal our resources to defeat efforts to sink the Iran deal. Here’s what you can do:

(1) Check for updates

APN has been a go-to resource for all things related to the JCPOA and we will continue to be in the future. Be sure to listen to our briefing call with Robert Malley on the future of the Iran deal. Check the Iran resource center on the APN website for the latest updates. We’ll keep you informed.

(2) Contact your elected officials

We anticipate that President Trump will decertify the Iran deal, kicking its fate to Congress. At that point, we’ll need 51 Senators to stand up in favor of the deal. As soon as that happens, APN will help you reach your elected officials to voice your support for the JCPOA. Be sure to check back here.

(3) Donate to APN

If you value our research and advocacy in support of the Iran deal, and want to make sure that APN has the resources to keep up the fight, we’d greatly appreciate your support.