The Iran Deal Isn’t Dead—Yet

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani makes a speech during a signing ceremony after a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Azeri President Ilham Aliyev (not seen) in Baku, Azerbaijan, August 8, 2016. REUTERS/Alexander Nemenov/Pool

Dov Zakheim, Paul Pillar and Zalmay Khalilzad discussed the topic at an event at the Center for the National Interest.

When President Donald Trump announced on May 8 that America would be withdrawing from the Iranian nuclear deal—officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—he created an international furor. Tensions have flared in the Middle East after both Trump’s announcement and America’s official opening of its embassy to Israel in Jerusalem. The withdrawal from the JCPOA saw crowds of Iranians protesting against America and the embassy move saw protests, rioting and the shooting of fifty-eight Palestinians who attempted to cross the border into Israel.

To assess the implications of the American withdrawal from the Iran deal, the Center for the National Interest convened a panel moderated by Zalmay Khalilzad, the former ambassador to the United Nations, Afghanistan and Iraq. The panel discussed a variety of topics, including the possibility of salvaging the JCPOA, if Iran would leave it, whether war is likely, if United States would impose sanctions on European companies in Iran and how that might impact transatlantic relations.

Paul Pillar, a professor at Georgetown University and former National Intelligence officer for the Middle East region, argued that there was a chance of saving the deal. He suggested that so far Tehran “will explore as far as it can with the remaining five members keeping some version of the JCPOA in place.” Pillar also said that if he was “to lay odds right now” on whether the deal would be standing minus the United States in one year that it would be “somewhere around one chance in three and two chances in three that we won’t.”

Dov S. Zakheim, the Vice Chairman for the Center for the National Interest and former Under Secretary of Defense under President George W. Bush, argued that the odds ought to be flipped: “There’s a 66 percent chance that this thing can be saved.”

The question, of course, is how this could be done. After all, maintaining the JCPOA would require the reentrance of the United States or a lot of heavy-lifting by the parties still in the agreement to keep it going. The permanent members of the Security Council—Russia, China, the United Kingdom and France—are the remaining parties, including Germany.

Some experts have argued that any number of these remaining signatories could seek to prompt Iran to adhere to the nuclear deal, especially if they offered major financial incentives or made side agreements that addressed some of Iran and America’s mutual security concerns. For instance, Pillar believes that Europe is determined to make the JCPOA work since the deal “has been working as certified by the IAEA, ” and that is sufficient for the Europeans. Another approach might be for European allies to seek agreements that reduce Iran’s ballistic missile program or that extend the sunset clauses in the original JCPOA.

Zakheim suggested that the only way to salvage the deal would be for Trump to delay the implementation of secondary sanctions. Otherwise, he suggested, NATO might be in serious trouble. According to Zakheim:

He could do what he’s doing on tariffs, which is to say, first he imposes them, then he moderates them, lifts them, cuts deals about them. The bark seems to be much greater than the bite every single time. And so if he did the same thing with secondary sanctions… that gives everybody a little more breathing room. It allows the [Iranian] President to turn around to the crazies and say “Wait a minute this thing might still work he [Trump] hasn’t done what he said he would do.”

However, another dilemma is whether or not Iran would even be willing to remain in the deal or to trust America again anytime soon. Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, was in attendance at the event and said that he didn’t think the deal would survive. The ambassador stated:

Of course we are deeply disappointed by U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to unilaterally give up commitment to the JCPOA... [I]t seems to me that sometimes the administration decides to take some bad experience from the Soviet Union. If you remember the slogan of the Soviet Union, “first we destroy, the second we create.” What we see now? First let’s destroy Iranian deal, and then let’s create something special. What does it mean something special? It’s not clear at all. Who will start such negotiations?... As to me, as to Russian side, we are satisfied with what Iran is doing with IAEA.