The way forward on the Iran nuclear deal under President Trump
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The way forward for the Iran nuclear deal under President Trump is to tighten enforcement of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, aka, the nuclear deal) and impose sanctions on Iran’s ballistic missile program rather than dismantle the JCPOA.

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On Mar. 26, 2016 at an American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) meeting, coauthor Raymond Tanter heard Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceTrump digs in on criticism of Democratic governors Trump signs T coronavirus relief package Arizona lawmaker warns Pence state may end coronavirus testing due to shortage MORE declare, “After decades of simply talking about it, the president of the United States is giving serious consideration to moving the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.”


If President Trump were to relocate the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, however, it is likely to be opposed by many American allies like Saudi Arabia that are important in pushing back against Iran in the region.  The relocation of the U.S. Embassy to Israel distracts from the greater issue of how to restrain Iran’s malevolent influence in the Middle East in the context of the JCPOA.


In prior years, AIPAC policy conferences focused on hot topics like the Iran nuclear deal; the 2017 conference, however, centered on adjusting to new realities like the JCPOA. Issues considered at one of this year’s breakout sessions dealt with “Holding Iran Accountable,” and the discussion centered on conversations between two types of pundits in Washington: those focused on the Iran nuclear deal and those on non-JCPOA topics like non-nuclear sanctions, ballistic missile testing, state-sponsorship of terrorism, arms shipments to Hezbollah (Party of God), and human rights violations by Iran.

The key matter at hand remains the way forward for the Iran nuclear deal under President Trump. He has already indicated an unwillingness to accept the deal as written under the auspices of the previous administration and the other major powers.


There are several topics the Trump administration confronts regarding the JCPOA: heavy water, inspections, compliance, and nuclear sanctions. Heavy water reactors permit use of natural uranium as fuel, while light water reactors require enriched uranium, which is much more difficult to produce. As a member of Congress, President Trump’s Director of Central Intelligence Agency, then-Rep. Mike Pompeo cosponsored a bill passed by the House on July 13, 2016, that prevents Iran from purchasing heavy water from the United States.

Inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities are necessary to ensure compliance, so Iran is unable to “breakout,” “sneakout,” or “creepout.” The last one concerns both open and covert, legal and illicit activities designed to negate JCPOA restrictions prior to the agreed-upon time in which Tehran would be able to do so.

In prepared remarks before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa, Michael Eisenstadt of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy (TWI) testified that although Iran’s missiles are conventionally armed, many could deliver a nuclear weapon if Iran were to ever acquire such a capability. While the nuclear accord will likely defer such an eventuality, it did not impose new constraints on Iran’s missile program.On the contrary, UNSCR 2231 of July 20, 2015, loosened them, with provisions for lifting them in eight years, if not sooner.

In exchange for Tehran’s agreement to the nuclear deal, the Obama administration granted Iran flexibility for ballistic missile testing. UNSCR 2231 certified the deal, replacing the prohibition with accommodating language: “Iran is called upon not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons.”  

As reported by The Hill, on May 31, 2016, Sens. Robert MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezHillicon Valley: Facebook launches portal for coronavirus information | EU sees spike in Russian misinformation on outbreak | Senate Dem bill would encourage mail-in voting | Lawmakers question safety of Google virus website Democratic senators press Google over privacy of coronavirus screening site Menendez calls for 'Marie Yovanovitch bill' to protect foreign service employees MORE, (D-NJ) and Mark KirkMark Steven KirkOn the Trail: Senate GOP hopefuls tie themselves to Trump Biden campaign releases video to explain 'what really happened in Ukraine' Why Republicans are afraid to call a key witness in the impeachment inquiry MORE, (R-IL), introduced legislation in 2015 that would extend the sanctions law for 10 years. Sen. Kelly AyotteKelly Ann AyotteLobbying World On the Trail: Senate GOP hopefuls tie themselves to Trump GOP fears Trump backlash in suburbs MORE, (R-NH), backed by 18 other GOP senators, introduced a separate bill to extend the law through 2031 and require new sanctions tied to Iran’s ballistic missile program.

On Mar. 23, House and Senate legislators introduced bills that would increase sanctions on Iran for its ballistic missile tests and other destructive behavior. Tzvi Kahn, a senior Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, states that, “The two bills are consistent with U.S. obligations under the 2015 nuclear deal, represent a bipartisan effort to advance an objective that both President Trump and President Obama have endorsed: deterring Tehran’s non-nuclear aggression in the region.”

The foregoing issues were raised in the context of candidate Trump’s stated view that the Obama administration negotiated badly: At one time, he called for tearing up the nuclear deal: “My number one priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran,” coauthor Tanter heard Trump tell the AIPAC Policy Conference in Mar. 2016. Immediately after the election, on Nov. 14, 2016, however, one of Trump’s advisors said if Trump cannot renegotiate its terms, he may kill it.

Soon, President Trump must decide whether to extend executive order waivers the Obama administration used to suspend some of the non-nuclear sanctions imposed on Iran and how scrupulously to hold the Iranian regime to account for infractions of the JCPOA. On Mar. 1, 2017, Laurence Norman of the Wall Street Journal reported that European officials are growing in confidence President Trump will not shred the nuclear accord. “The test of that will come in May, when the president must decide whether to extend executive waivers that the Obama administration used to suspend some sanctions.”

The way forward

In testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Feb. 17, 2017, David Albright, President of the Institute for Science and International Security and a former weapons inspector whom the Trump administration has consulted on the Iran nuclear deal, testified at a congressional hearing entitled “Iran on Notice.”

Albright’s bottom line: “The Trump administration appears committed to maintaining the JCPOA. This decision makes good sense. But the administration also recognizes that if the deal is to survive and serve U.S. national security interests, the JCPOA needs to be more strictly enforced and interpreted, and its most significant weaknesses need to be corrected.” We concur with the views of Albright as a point of departure for President Trump to consider, per some of his short-term steps.

First, insist Iran create and implement a strategic trade control system that meets international standards and will be subject to review by the Joint Commission mentioned in the JCPOA; second, plug the loopholes in the JCPOA, including ambiguities that permit Iran to obtain heavy water that has not been approved by the “Procurement Working Group;” third, draw on the expertise of the U.S. Department of Justice to pursue extradition and prosecution of  those involved in outfitting Iran’s nuclear, missile, or conventional weapons programs in defiance of U.S. laws and sanctions.

In short, the way forward for the Iran nuclear deal under President Trump is to renegotiate the JCPOA, rather than dismantle it.

Dr. Raymond Tanter served as a senior member on the National Security Council staff in the Reagan-Bush administration and is now Professor Emeritus at the University of Michigan. Edward Stafford is a retired Foreign Service officer; he served in Political-Military Affairs at the State Department, as a diplomat with the U.S. Embassy in Turkey, and taught at the Inter-American Defense College.

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