Shortly after U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei pledged that Iran would not tolerate the simultaneous restriction of its economy and its nuclear program. “This bad dream will never come true,” Khamenei said in June 2018.
Yet Iran has accepted exactly that. Iran has continued to comply with the restrictions on its nuclear program under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which was implemented three years ago this month. And Trump reimposed unilateral sanctions in August and November 2018, which means that Tehran is also bearing severe economic costs. Iran has never before endured this combination of economic sanctions and nuclear restrictions. As policymakers and analysts debate how and whether to keep Iran in the JCPOA, it is important to understand why Iran has stayed put in the first place—and will likely continue to do so this year.
We should not begin by imagining that Iran will stay in the nuclear agreement regardless of the cost—or that its leaders are counting on simply waiting out Trump. In fact, withdrawing from the agreement, or taking small measures to violate it, could help Iran build leverage against the United States for future talks, even while distracting the country’s population by reinforcing the government’s mantra of resistance. Nor does Tehran need to fear that withdrawal will necessarily lead to war: Iran could take small steps to violate the agreement that would not meaningfully affect its breakout time—the time required to produce enough nuclear material for a bomb—and then argue that the steps are easily reversible should the United States return to negotiations.
Rather, the Iranian leadership, through its complex and opaque national security decision-making process, has apparently conducted a cost-benefit analysis and decided to stay. The decision is likely based primarily on economics, but is also driven by strategic considerations and the diplomatic benefits of staying in the deal.
The most salient factor in Iranian calculations is economic. Since
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