As expected, President Trump has pulled out the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,and reactions ran the spectrum. Pulling out of JCPOA has be called an act of “vandalism,” a “disaster,” and according to Bernie Sanders, “has put America on the path to war.”
The goal of the deal was to halt the Iranian pursuit of a nuclear weapon. In exchange for stopping its program, as well as shipping its enriched uranium abroad and allowing inspections, Iran had 100 billion dollars unfrozen and would be given permission to engage with the world economy, sanction-free.
Trump objected to the deal because the more intrusive measures retarding Iranian nuclear progress expire after 10 years. He objected to Iranian behavior because that they were testing intercontinental ballistic missiles and building a military network in Syria. Apparently, both of these warranted a withdrawal.
For the record, I think it was a bad deal but not because of the reasons raised by Trump. The Iran deal was bad because it only addressed Iran’s nuclear program and not the source of their nuclear ambitions.
There are number of explanations for why states seek nuclear weapons, but the historical record of nuclear proliferation is clear. As of today, there are 9 nuclear states. What each state had in common when they initiated their program was their security environment. Each and every state that has successfully gone nuclear was at one time a threatened state which could not outsource its protection to a more powerful ally. Non-threatened states that can go nuclear, such as Norway or Mexico, do not need them. States without the material or knowhow, such as Tanzania or Laos, for obvious reasons never do either. Threatened states which can outsource its security to a reliable ally, such as West Germany, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia, Japan, and South Korea, also do not acquire the bomb.
The conditions that convince a state to embark down the costly and controversial path towards nuclear weapons apply to Iran perfectly.
Since 1979, the state of Iran has had to exist in a highly unstable and hostile security environment. They have a Sunni regime to both the left (Saudi Arabia) and right (Pakistan), one of which is nuclear. Until 2002, they had a Baathist regime which they fought a bloody 8 year war against. And then there is the United States, which overthrew the democratically elected Mossadeq government, has upended three neighboring regimes in the last 15 years, supported Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war, and on a routine basis openly debates if it should attack Iran. Iran’s only benefactor, Russia, is viewed skeptically and considered unreliable. Frankly, when Iran looks beyond its borders, it sees a deeply hostile environment with itself in the center, largely alone.
This environment is rarely appreciated by the United States and is why the Iranian program makes perfect sense from a security perspective.
To note that there are structural reasons as to why Iran pursues nuclear weapons doesn’t excuse the government’s behavior. Iran is a terrible regime and routinely violates the basic human rights of its citizens, especially those already vulnerable, such as women and homosexuals. But that has nothing to do with their nuclear program. The issue is that American foreign policy is contradictory. America simultaneously pursues both regime change and denuclearization in Iran. The more the United States seeks to reform the domestic politics of Iran, the stronger the regime’s demand for nuclear weapons grows. Until this contradiction is sorted out, no treaty will be of any real value.