Kevin Lamarque / Reuters U.S. President Donald Trump speaks about Iran and the Iran nuclear deal, October 13, 2017.

How to Save the Iran Nuclear Deal

A Grand Bargain That Can Satisfy Both Trump and the Deal’s Supporters

After a year of complaining about the Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), U.S. President Donald Trump finally resorted to threats. In January, he gave Congress and Europe an ultimatum: if they did not fix what he considered the agreement’s shortcomings by May, he would kill the deal.

Trump’s chief objection is that certain restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program expire, or “sunset,” after 10–15 years. He has also raised concerns about Iran’s support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and various Shiite militia groups in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, and has decried the absence of measures to address Iran’s ballistic missile program. These latter concerns are broadly shared, but Trump seems to harbor unrealistic expectations that the nuclear agreement address all of Iran’s problematic activities. In the rough and tumble world of international diplomacy, it is impossible to get a perfect deal. And the JCPOA stands as a meaningful framework for nuclear arms control, offering a robust inspections regime that ensures compliance. More important, the JCPOA is far superior to the alternatives: allowing Iran, which had already reached the nuclear threshold when the deal was signed, to continue moving forward or else pursuing U.S. military action to set Iran back.

Many who originally opposed the JCPOA—including National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson—now support maintaining it. They fear that if the United States walks away from the agreement, it will be blamed for the JCPOA’s collapse. Iran could then restart its nuclear program while the international community, split over whether to continue honoring the deal, would be unable to collectively isolate Iran. But given Trump’s threats and the looming May deadline, the question is now whether Europe and members of Congress can address Trump’s concerns with the JCPOA while setting implementation on a more stable long-term path to ensure that it survives. 

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