There seems to be no end to nuclear crises these days.
As North Korea’s Kim Jong Un plays nuclear chicken with the great powers, another dangerous moment is approaching. The world awaits President Trump’s decision – due Oct. 15 – on how he will handle the 2015 deal with Tehran that curbed Iran’s nuclear program in return for the lifting of international sanctions.
In his U.N. speech Tuesday, Trump called the deal one of the worst he’s ever seen. And it does indeed contain big flaws, most notably its failure to constrain Iranian missile development, and a sunset clause that frees Iran to resume uranium enrichment and centrifuge production in a decade.
Trump’s disdain for the deal has raised speculation he will trigger a process that could lead to its termination. Another opponent of the deal, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, called for the global community to “Fix it or nix it” with an emphasis on “Nix it.”
But “Fix it” is the option Washington and its allies should be addressing. Indeed, there is surprising agreement from both security moderates and hawks – including Israeli military and intelligence brass – that scrapping the deal would be the worst option of all.
To understand why, one needs to look back at the situation prior to the negotiation of the Iran deal under President Barack Obama. At that time, Iran had amassed all the accoutrements – thousands of centrifuges, enriched uranium stockpiles, plutonium production – of a bomb.
No matter how harsh the international sanctions, Iran had made clear it wouldn’t abandon its weapons program. With Israel in the lead, war talk was building.
But U.S. and Israeli security experts believed that bombing Iran would not have eliminated secret nuclear sites or prevented Iran’s eventual reconstitution of its nuclear program free of any international inspections. It would, however, have embroiled the United States in another major Mideast war.
So, if war was not an option, the need to stop Iranian nuclear progress by other means was urgent. “There is no debating,” I was told in 2015 by Ami Ayalon, a former head of the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic intelligence service, “that Iran was two to three months from having enough (fissile) material to make a bomb.”
Under the nuclear deal, Tehran had to store centrifuges – under regular international inspection – and ship fissile material out of the country. “The deal pushes Iran back for the next 10 to 15 years from when they will have that material,” Ayalon said at the time.
So in the short term the world was definitely better off, even if the deal was imperfect. As Efraim Halevy, a former director of Mossad (Israel’s CIA) put it, “In the Middle East, a decade is eternity.” According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Israeli military and intelligence officials still oppose a U.S. withdrawal from the accord.
True, in the long run, Iran will be free to resume its program (although the U.N. inspections would continue for decades). But that leaves time to try to rectify some of the deal’s omissions.
Unlike the crisis with North Korea, the moment of truth is not upon us – unless, that is, Trump decides on an approach that kills the Iran deal outright, which would leave the United States diplomatically isolated. “We don’t need another nuclear crisis at the moment, and (scrapping the deal) would have no international support outside Israel and the Gulf,” says the Brookings Institution’s Robert Einhorn, whose nuclear expertise extends back four decades.
“There is a near consensus among skeptics and supporters,” adds Einhorn, “that the deal is imperfect and has shortcomings we have to correct, (especially) the sunset provisions.”
So the big question is how to rectify those shortcomings. (Note: Dealing with Iran’s bad behavior in the Mideast was never part of the nuclear accord and must be countered by separate efforts from Washington and its allies.)
Trump’s preferred approach is to renegotiate the treaty. But efforts by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last week to persuade European allies to try this were rebuffed; nor would Russia or China (who were also party to the pact) be interested. And Iranian leaders say they won’t go along.
Trump may take another path, and refuse to certify by an Oct. 15 deadline that Iran is meeting its treaty obligations. Such decertification would free Congress to pass new Iran sanctions in violation of the agreement – which would mean the United States was walking away.
However, this would put the onus for sinking the accord squarely on Washington, since even Tillerson has admitted Iran has been technically in compliance with the deal’s requirements. In this case, neither the Europeans nor Russia or China would be likely to renew sanctions. And Iran would be free, if it so chose, to resume its production of fissile material suitable for bombs.
Far better to take the approach of French President Emmanuel Macron, who said at the United Nations: “Terminating (the deal) today with nothing to replace it would be a grave mistake.”
Instead, Macron proposed that the allies work on a possible second accord with Tehran that would address two crucial flaws in the 2015 agreement: controlling Iran’s development of ballistic missiles and how to curb Iran’s nuclear program after 2025, when key limitations expire.
Of course, exerting unified leverage on Iran for a second deal would be tough, and Tehran resistant, but the allies should be focused laserlike on this issue, and also on how to intensify international monitoring of the treaty.
“We need to be more demanding but not cast aside what we have reached in previous agreements,” Macron said. Maybe he can persuade his new buddy, Donald Trump.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, firstname.lastname@example.org.