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This week, United States sanctions that were lifted after the signing of the 2015 agreement on Iran’s nuclear program began to be reimposed following the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the deal, whose other signatories were Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and the European Union. With saber-rattling renewed between Tehran and Washington —  but economic stress in Iran prompting some Iranians, if not yet their leadership, to consider President Trump’s offer to negotiate with “no preconditions” — a review of the original deal’s terms and pitfalls is in order.

The 2015 agreement required Iran to give up and limit or suspend a substantial part of its nuclear material and activity: Iran was obligated to eliminate roughly 97 percent of its uranium stockpile, dismantle and put under seal two-thirds of its centrifuges, cap uranium enrichment at levels considerably below weapons grade and remove the core of its plutonium reactor. The deal also required Iran to accept extensive monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and it required Iran to pledge never to obtain a nuclear weapon.

But, of course, the deal was very far from air-tight:

  • It has sunset clauses, with many of its key provisions expiring in only 10, 15 or 20 years (the ban on constructing advanced centrifuges will begin to expire in 2023, most other nuclear restrictions lift between 2026 and 2031, and IAEA access to key nuclear facilities ends in the five years beginning 2036) 
  • It does not provide for “anywhere, anytime” inspections — at suspect sites not specified in the agreement, inspectors can be forced to wait up to 24 days for access
  • It leaves in place (and legitimizes) substantial Iranian nuclear infrastructure, with a still-modest potential “breakout time” to weapons-grade uranium production
  • It doesn’t resolve the problems of Iranian advanced weapons development, terrorism, regional destabilization (particularly but not only in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen) and annihilationist threats against Israel; in fact, the U.N. ban on Iranian arms imports and exports will lift in 2021, and the U.N. ban on assistance to Iran’s ballistic-missile program will end in 2024
  • It provided for the release of as much as $150 billion that could then be funneled to Iran’s military and terrorist proxies
  • It led to an immediate surge of new foreign investment in Iran with more revenue — well over $100 billion — as well as legitimacy for the Iranian regime
  • It disrupted the painstakingly built international (including U.N. and EU) sanctions against Iran
  • Not least, it left American partners, including key Arab states, feeling vulnerable, with some potentially inclined to enter into a nuclear arms race with Iran.

While the IAEA has reported finding no evidence of major Iranian noncompliance with the deal thus far, Tehran has a long record of able deception and of violating commitments — as reconfirmed in the extensive intelligence material recently made public by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, refuting Iran’s claim that its supreme leader forbade outright any pursuit of nuclear weaponry.  

One significant and underreported reality about the U.S. pullout from the deal is that it reflected, and solidified, growing Arab-Israeli alignment focused on containing the Iranian threat. This, if nothing else, is a silver lining to the Iranian problem, and the U.S. is a critical partner in encouraging Arab-Israeli reconciliation and cooperation.
At the same time, does the potential unraveling of the nuclear deal help or hurt the most extreme elements in Iran? It isn’t easy to say. The hardline Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, which maintains significant power in Iran’s economy, finds ways to benefit from especially difficult times, and the nuclear deal was associated with the relative “moderates” in Iran. At the same time, economic strain in Iran builds pressure against the regime — as seen in the most recent popular protests calling for an end to corruption and an end to the foreign adventurism that has made Iran the world’s leading state-sponsor of terror. 

Global observers continue to assess the initial U.S. nuclear talks this year with North Korea. How are those negotiations influencing, and also being influenced by, the Iran experience? Iran has told North Korea that it can’t trust the U.S. to stay in a deal — though American firmness on Iran had at least set a high bar for the North Korean process. On the other hand, North Korea, unlike Iran, is already known to have nuclear weaponry. Will Iran be tempted to follow Pyongyang’s lead in engaging in new talks, or, prioritizing its saving of face, will it refuse to renegotiate the deal of 2015?

In the meantime, primary focus has been on the response by European allies to the U.S. withdrawal. While the Europeans became politically and economically wedded to the deal — and have already now been reeling over separate disagreements with the U.S. over the Paris climate accord, free trade agreements, tariffs, and NATO and other coalitions — European government officials have started acknowledging that it will be difficult to maintain the deal without American participation, since European companies will not want to lose access to the U.S. market by violating Washington’s reimposed sanctions on Iran.

If, in fact, Europe is unable to preserve the economic incentives needed to keep the Iranians themselves in the nuclear agreement, and it collapses, the question is: what happens next? Russia and China would likely veto attempts to reinstate U.N. sanctions. Iran, perhaps just short of provoking outright war, will almost surely make a point of ramping up nuclear activity. Iran will also continue to want to extract a price from Israel for the U.S. pullout —just as it and its proxies such as Hezbollah are already keen to undermine Arab-Israeli partnership and to recoup popular credibility among Arabs, lost in the bloody sectarian war in Syria, by again attacking Israel. And Israel, for its part, has made clear that it will act against the build-up of Iranian military positions in Syria to match those it established in Lebanon along the border with Israel. Russia has reportedly signaled that it will help maintain distance between the Iranians and Israel’s boundaries, although both Russia and Iran have served as critical allies preserving the rule of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

Only time will tell whether a more dependable, comprehensive and lasting resolution of Iranian nuclear and other destabilizing activities will be achieved. However, to achieve it, common purpose will be needed. If such commonality can be reached by many Arabs and Israelis, it should be between the U.S. and Europe, as well as India, Japan and others who are being pressed to wean themselves off of Iranian oil. No less, commonality can and must be reached between Republicans and Democrats, who long shared a bipartisan recognition that the Iranian threat is an existential one for indispensable allies of the United States.


David J. Michaels is Director of United Nations and Intercommunal Affairs at B’nai B’rith International, where he began working in 2004 as Special Assistant to the Executive Vice President. A Wexner Fellow/Davidson Scholar, and past winner of the Young Professional Award of the Jewish Communal Service Association of North America, he holds degrees from Yale and Yeshiva University. Click here to view more of his content.