President-elect Donald Trump will inherit a daunting array of tough foreign policy challenges. For the foreseeable future, this list will not include the risk of a nuclear-armed Iran — unless he takes the dangerous step of sabotaging the agreement or allowing it fall apart due to neglect.
The historic deal negotiated between the United States, its partners, and Iran in July 2015, has put Tehran’s nuclear activities under strict limits and intrusive monitoring for well over a decade. As a result of the agreement, it would take Tehran over a year to obtain enough enriched material for bomb. When President Barack Obama began his second term in 2013, the timeline was two to three months.
The deal also put in place a multilayered inspections regime that covers every element of Iran’s nuclear-fuel supply chain, including continuous surveillance on key nuclear facilities. The inspections regime provides the highest possible assurance that if Tehran tried to cheat on its commitments, it would be caught.
Tehran also agreed to permanently forgo certain types of experiments with explosives relevant to developing a nuclear weapon. In exchange, Iran received relief from U.S., EU, and U.N. nuclear sanctions.
As a result of these restrictions, when President-elect Trump takes office, the United States and our allies and partners in the Middle East do not face the prospect of Tehran obtaining nuclear weapons.
Despite the deal’s success, Trump claimed during the campaign that he would walk away from the successful deal at hand and try to renegotiate a “better” agreement. One of the candidates reported to be under serious consideration as his secretary of State, John Bolton, has urged Trump to “abrogate the Iran nuclear deal in his first days.”
So far, Mr. Trump has not explained how he would accomplish this better deal, why our European allies or partners, whose cooperation would be essential, would go along, nor has he acknowledged the grave security consequences of walking away from an existing agreement that is effectively blocking Iran’s pathways to the bomb.
The consequences of the deal falling apart due to Washington’s actions would be significant: It would open the door to a nuclear-armed Iran sooner than later, and would increase the likelihood of yet another, very costly war in the Middle East.
In addition to losing enhanced international monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program, Iran could take steps to ramp up its nuclear activities such as increasing uranium enrichment capacity and enriching to levels closer to weapons grades. Iran could quickly move back to where its program was in 2013 — capable of producing enough bomb-grade material for a nuclear weapon in two to three months or less.
The nuclear agreement is not a deal solely between the United States and Iran. Washington worked with Russia, China, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom to build an international sanctions regime to pressure Iran to the negotiating table and then reach a deal to block Iran’s pathways to nuclear weapons. None of these countries have any intention of walking away from the agreement. Just days after Trump was elected, the EU’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, who led the group of countries in negotiations with Iran, said it is in European interest and UN interest to “guarantee that the agreement is implemented in full.”
If the Trump administration walks away from the nuclear deal, it would also send a dangerous message to our European allies, Russia, and China that the United States cannot be trusted to honor agreements and commitments.
After sending such a message to the international community, Trump would be hard-pressed to build an international sanctions coalition strong enough to push Iran back to the negotiating table.
A better strategy for the Trump administration will be to ensure that the agreement is fully implemented and that the International Atomic Energy Agency has the inspectors on the ground and resources it needs to keep Iran’s nuclear activities under a microscope.
Trump does not have to face the challenge posed by a nuclear weapons program in Iran — unless he brings it on himself and the people of the United States. And if the Trump administration and the Republican-led Congress break the Iran nuclear deal, they will own the grave consequences.
Kelsey Davenport is the Director for Nonproliferation Policy at the Arms Control Association.