He’s done it.
After years of condemning the Iran nuclear deal, President Donald Trump dealt a perhaps-fatal blow Tuesday to the tattered accord, declaring it “defective at its core” and announcing his intent to withdraw from the 2015 agreement.
“This was a horrible one-sided deal that should have never, ever been made,” Trump said. “It didn’t bring calm, it didn’t bring peace, and it never will.”
Specifically, the president pledged to re-impose some of the previous U.S. sanctions on Iran, the indispensable step in terminating one of the most contentious arms control agreements in recent history.
The controversy is sure to go on, with the deal’s defenders warning that Trump’s decision could lead to the collapse of U.S. relationships in Europe, spiking oil prices, or even war in the Middle East.
More likely, after all the noise dies down, there will be a new round of arms control negotiations between the United States and Iran. Every president since the advent of the Islamic Revolution has tried diplomacy with Iran, and the Trump administration may not be different. As such, there are important lessons to learn from the demise of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA, as the deal is formally known.
From the outset, the JCPOA contained the seeds of its own destruction. In contravention of decades of bipartisan arms control policy, the JCPOA conceded an indigenous enrichment capacity to an adversarial nation; Iran was allowed to continue enriching uranium while modernizing its atomic infrastructure. This original sin was the most consequential one.
But former Secretary of State John Kerry’s reckless diplomacy did not stop there. In the process of prolonged negotiations, Iran injected a cluster of “sunset clauses” in the accord that carefully conformed to its research and development plans. Tehran had no use for its stock of primitive centrifuges, which it was happy to mothball, and needed eight years to develop advanced centrifuges. And that was precisely the duration of one of the most catastrophic of the JCPOA’s sunset clauses: eight years. Once Iran’s enrichment program relies on machines that can operate with efficiency at high velocity, then a small cascade of them can reliably produce weapons-grade uranium without the risk of timely detection. More so than any other issue ballistic missiles or a leaky inspection regime it was such sunset clauses that undermined the deal’s value and durability.