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Are we safer? One year later, Iran nuclear deal in Trump crosshairs

modes of thought

Trump’s complaints about the deal echo those of Republican critics. But many analysts say critical elements of Iran's program have been curtailed, and Iran says it will not renegotiate.

Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, who is also a senior nuclear negotiator, speaks with media in his press conference in Tehran, Iran, Jan. 15, 2017. Iran says the nuclear deal between the Islamic Republic and world powers 'will not be renegotiated.'
Vahid Salemi/Associated Press | Caption

President Donald Trump has been so virulently opposed to the landmark Iran nuclear agreement – once declaring his “No. 1 priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran” – that on the eve of his inauguration last week, Iran sent a warning.

“These are all slogans,” said President Hassan Rouhani, about the deal agreed to with six world powers in July 2015 that significantly curbs Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

Any renegotiation, he declared, was “out of the question.”

As President Trump signs one executive order after another on key campaign promises, it is not yet clear whether the fate of the nuclear deal will be immediately subject to the presidential pen.

The answer to a central question may inform action: Are we safer with the Iran nuclear deal than without it?

Many analysts – and apparently even Israeli security officials – say yes, noting that since former President Obama's choice to favor diplomacy over war, critical elements of Iran’s program have been curtailed, such that the potential “breakout time” to a weapon has moved from several weeks to more than a year. Lowering tension on the nuclear file, however, has not diminished continued concerns in Washington about Iran’s missile program and involvement in Syria and Iraq, with its own forces and proxy Shiite militias.

Still, analysts recall dark days before the deal in which Iran’s surging capabilities all appeared to risk another Middle East war. Those included moving in one decade from 300 to some 19,000 spinning centrifuges to enrich uranium, for example, and the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists as well as US-Israeli cyber attacks. 

“The nuclear deal removed the existential threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon, and took the Iranian nuclear program off the daunting array of policy challenges that the US is facing,” says Kelsey Davenport, a nonproliferation expert at the Washington-based Arms Control Association (ACA), which backed the deal.

By contrast, North Korea’s nuclear program is today “much more of a threat” because Pyongyang has tested warheads and is developing longer-range ballistic missiles, compared with Iran’s program, “which is restricted and highly monitored,” says Ms. Davenport. 

“If the Iran deal falls apart and Iran resumes some of its questionable nuclear activities, it will destabilize the region and create another crisis that the US will have to spend political capital and time trying to resolve,” adds Davenport. “That’s completely unnecessary, given the agreement that’s in place is working.” 

In marking the one-year anniversary on Jan. 16 of “implementation day” of the 159-page agreement, Mr. Obama said the deal “achieved significant, concrete results in making the United States and the world a safer place” that “verifiably” prevented Iran from choosing a path to a weapon.

In exchange for easing sanctions, Iran reduced by 98 percent its stockpile of enriched uranium – the raw material for making a bomb, if enriched to high enough levels – mothballed 13,000 centrifuges, reconfigured a deeply buried enrichment site, altered a reactor so it would not produce plutonium, and now allows far more intrusive inspections.

Many restrictions, however, such as the number and quality of centrifuges, and size of its enriched uranium stockpile, will disappear after 10 or 15 years, though strict inspections will continue indefinitely. Obama said the deal had to be measured against the alternatives of “an unconstrained Iranian nuclear program or another war.” 

'An imperfect agreement'

But the deal has many detractors, and Trump’s complaints about it echo those of Republican critics. His national security adviser, former Defense Intelligence Agency chief Lt. Gen. (ret.) Michael Flynn, has said, “regime change in Tehran is the best way to stop the Iranian nuclear weapons program.” Such criticism often hinges on the fact that the deal has a narrow nuclear focus; it deliberately does not address other issues and continued lack of mutual trust over them.

Former Marine Gen. (ret.) James Mattis, who is to be sworn in today as Trump’s defense secretary, however, appears to have a more nuanced view.

The deal was “an imperfect arms control agreement, it’s not a friendship treaty,” Mattis said during his Jan. 12 Senate confirmation hearing. “But when America gives her word, we have to live up to it and work with our allies.”

And even though Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lobbied hard against the deal, his security establishment now reportedly agrees that the deal should not be tampered with, but instead vigorously enforced.

“The recommendation of all the security branches, from Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to the Mossad and Military Intelligence, is unequivocal: not to beg the Americans to reopen the nuclear agreement,” Al-Monitor website reported this week.

The politics factor

“Are we safer, or not?” asks Shahram Chubin, an Iran security expert based in Geneva for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Everybody knows … that the alternative to the agreement was letting Iran carry on pretty much unimpeded.”

The discussion “has been muddied” by interested parties like Saudi Arabia, Israel, and right-wing Republicans, who have connected the deal – which addressed the nuclear issue only – to missiles and Iran’s regional behavior, says Mr. Chubin.

“The whole debate in the US the last two years … has been totally distorted by American politics. You won’t hear one European echo any of this,” says Chubin.

“If the agreement is renounced by Trump … then the US would be back to Square One, which is: Do they want a war?”

Former US Secretary of State John Kerry, who spent weeks in direct negotiations with his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif over the course of two years, has said categorically that the deal prevented a war.

Another fruit of the close contact from the negotiations was a swift resolution in January 2016 after Iran’s Revolutionary Guard captured 10 US Navy sailors who had strayed into Iranian waters in the Persian Gulf. What would have in the past almost certainly turned into a drawn-out crisis with a possible military action, was resolved overnight by telephone.

Not without flaws

Yet the deal has not been without flaws. Analysts say that technical infringements, such as Iran twice exceeding limits on heavy water production, by fractions of 1 percent of the permitted 130-metric ton cap, were quickly identified by the UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and fixed by Iran. Slow sanctions relief and easing banking restrictions has angered Iran. 

“In its transactional nature lies the accord’s vulnerability: it has not begun to transform the enmity between Iran and the US, leaving it exposed to an unstable political environment,” says a report by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) published last week.

“Trump is the first US president in more than two decades who enters office not needing to worry about Iran crossing the threshold to nuclear weaponization undetected,” says ICG.

“If he tries to adjust the [deal] unilaterally through coercion, the accord may not survive, reigniting the nuclear crisis,” warns ICG. While a bid to renegotiate “might achieve a better-for-better arrangement,” adds the report, it “strains credulity” to expect that Iran would accept less for more, and “ignores the lessons of the decade-long nuclear standoff and the realities of Iranian politics.”

Due to political change in Washington, opponents of the deal have easier methods than unilaterally dismantling it, which would anger fellow signatories like Russia, China, and the EU.

“Without a doubt, this Trump administration and the Republican-led Congress is more hawkish on Iran and will pursue a more hostile policy that includes more sanctions for human rights violations, for support of terrorist activity or ballistic missiles, and these measures could infringe upon the deal,” says Davenport of the ACA.

“They could provoke Iran to take a retaliatory move and create an escalatory spiral that eventually causes the deal to fold,” she says. “For some anti-deal opponents, that is their strategy, to squeeze the deal to the point where it implodes.”