WASHINGTON – When Donald Trump withdrew the US from an international arms control agreement with Iran earlier this month, Washington’s foreign policy establishment fought passionately over the path forward. Reasonable people disagreed. But nonproliferation experts united in their criticism of Trump, fearful that his actions risked undermining global efforts to limit the spread of nuclear weapons.
Former and current UN and US nuclear experts focused on the technical aspects of what was a remarkably granular document– to the chagrin of its detractors – insisting that the Iran deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), includes some of the strictest and most intrusive nuclear inspections ever designed.
Many in the field remain impressed that the 2015 agreement secured monitoring of the entire supply chain that once fueled Iran’s nuclear program, from the mines and mills that produce its raw materials to its storage facilities, to the research centers and the enrichment sites themselves.
But opponents of the JCPOA have long disagreed with this assessment, noting that the deal did not grant inspectors access to Iran’s military facilities. This created a blind spot for nuclear watchdogs precisely where Iran had previously experimented with nuclear weapons technology.
Trump quits Iran nuclear deal, reimposes sanctions on Tehran (Reuters)
Inspections could theoretically take place directly parallel to active weapons research and development, unbeknownst to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the critics claimed, pointing to the existence of an archive of Iranian atomic files publicly revealed by Israel this month that were previously unknown to the IAEA.
This ongoing policy debate – over the most effective way to limit and control the physical levers of Iran’s nuclear weapons program – produced a nonpartisan divide over the merits of the 2015 accord. Much of the disagreement was not over the nefarious and destructive nature of the Iranian government, on which most parties agreed, but over more technical matters such as oversight and verification tactics.
And yet, technical debate seems to have had little impact on Trump’s political decision to pull out of the JCPOA – much less on his strategy after withdrawal.
Neither Trump nor Mike Pompeo, his new secretary of state, has laid out in detail a doctrine combating the spread of nuclear weapons. The Trump administration has not offered a comprehensive plan that will compel Iran to concede more than it did over nine years of sanctions and talks – initially held with Britain, France and Germany, before they expanded to the full UN Security Council – beyond demanding its leaders come to heel under a new round of crushing economic constraints.
And if the technical standards outlined in the JCPOA were insufficient to Trump, he is unlikely to be satisfied with the outcome of nuclear talks with North Korea – even if those go well. Pyongyang does not merely possess a uranium enrichment program, as Tehran does, but a declared military weapons program spread across countless sites throughout the country and stocked with up to 60 nuclear bombs.
In both cases, Trump has taken maximalist positions, demanding full disarmament, a complete dismantlement of nuclear infrastructure and absolutist access for inspectors to any site at any time, effectively requiring the governments to relinquish their sovereignty. Many argue this is justified in the cases particular to these rogue nations. That might be so, but getting their leaders to agree to such terms through diplomatic means would be an unprecedented, impractical feat.
So far, this is all we have to work on as we try to glean a Trump doctrine still early in this chaotic presidency. Trump is in the middle of several high-stakes games of chicken and we don’t know what it takes to make him blink – to offer concessions – or how the games might end if he never does.
In some ways, the Trump team is looking at the dilemma of a nuclear Iran through the same lens as the Iranians themselves, because the technical process of their nuclear work has been weaponized by their leaders for strategic means.
Iran has discovered a state of being in which it can achieve regime security and potential for power projection enjoyed by nuclear-weapons states, just without being burdened by all the costs of constructing the bomb itself – a “nuclear threshold” position achieved in a Goldilocks-period of uranium enrichment where it perfects the miniaturization of warheads and delivery systems, and stockpiles excessive amounts of fissile material enriched to the highest acceptable grade without putting all of the pieces together.
If this is the Iranian strategy, as the US intelligence community concluded in 2013, the nuclear deal cannot only be viewed as a strictly technical nonproliferation document.
Suddenly, the status of Iran’s nuclear program cannot only be gauged and measured by nuclear scientists assessing yellowcake sourcing and centrifuge efficiency. It must also be seen through a strategic lens, as the Iranians see it, if and when world leaders conclude that the aims toward which Iran has used its nuclear work run contrary to their national interests.
That seems to be the case today with Trump’s policy on Iran – and it might justify his decision to link the Iranian nuclear file with all of the other files of concern to the US with respect to the Islamic Republic, including its human rights abuses, its ballistic missile work, its support for terrorist organizations and the march of its Revolutionary Guard Corps across the Middle East.
But paradoxically, this linkage, while perhaps justified in a moral sense, complicates any realistic strategy going forward meant to thwart any one of these “malign” Iranian activities. In demanding that Tehran categorically end its nuclear work, abandon its support for Syria’s Bashar Assad, withdraw from Yemen, end its indefinite detentions of political prisoners without trial, cease all ballistic missile activity and end support for Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Hamas in Gaza, the US risks accomplishing nothing – and perhaps exacerbating everything.
It is a doctrine, indeed, of all-or-nothing. It’s an American bullishness that, to a portion of the president’s domestic audience, presents the sort of tough leadership that helped get him elected. And it’s an approach that Trump has applied to every major negotiation he says he is interested in pursuing thus far, whether it be with Iran or North Korea, or even between Israelis and Palestinians.
His approach only tells us what we already knew: Trump wants big deals. It has not yet told us how he will get there.