Turning Our Backs on the Iran Deal Would Be a Big Mistake

President Donald Trump, right, welcomes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel to the White House on Monday, March 5, 2018.

Source Tom Brenner/The New York Times/Redux

Why you should care

Because President Trump is leaning against the international consensus on Iran. 


John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

OZY senior columnist John McLaughlin teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and was deputy director and acting director of the CIA from 2000 to 2004. Follow him on Twitter: @jmclaughlinSAIS

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent presentation on Iranian nuclear deceptions was coordinated with the White House and clearly designed to give President Donald Trump ammunition should he decide on May 12 to scrap the 2015 agreement with Tehran — a move that appears increasingly likely. Pulling out of the agreement could add a new element of instability to the Middle East, open a breach with key allies, hand a propaganda victory to Russia, send a counterproductive message to North Korea and even add major new tensions to U.S. domestic politics.

Netanyahu’s presentation was an impressive display of the Israeli intelligence service’s capabilities. Mossad somehow managed to filch about 55,000 pages of Iranian documentation showing Iran’s intention early in the last decade to build a nuclear weapon. Netanyahu came up with no “smoking gun” proving that Iran is currently building a weapon in defiance of the 2015 pact. But he was able to credibly claim that it had lied in asserting it never had any intention of doing so.

Proponents of the agreement answered that no one ever doubted Iran was lying and had planned to build a bomb — and that this was part of the rationale for trying to roll back its program and monitor its compliance through the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which continues to maintain that Iran is meeting its obligations. Under the pact, Iran agreed to give up 98 percent of its enriched uranium, 14,000 of its 20,000 centrifuge enriching machines, plug up its heavy water reactor for producing plutonium and agree to enrich no uranium above 3.67 percent before 2030 (enrichment of about 90 percent is needed for a weapon). 

A clash between Iran and Israel is almost inevitable, and Tehran moving back toward nuclear weapons would only accelerate this trend. 

The so-called “sunset clauses” allowing Iran to phase some of its activities back in after 10, 15 and 25 years are a weakness in the agreement. But proponents argue that the agreement buys time and that without it Iran could have had a bomb in a few months. If it backslides now, the argument goes, we will have plenty of notice and ample time — not to mention the same options we had before the agreement — to stop them. Most experts estimate it would take Iran about a year to build a bomb if it complied with the agreement fully for 10 years.


If Trump jettisons the agreement, the Iranians say they will consider the deal broken and feel free to resume their nuclear activity. None of the other signatories — France, the U.K., Germany, Russia, China and an EU delegate — want to leave the deal, but Iran is unlikely to try staying in it with just these parties. Also, if the U.S. reimposes sanctions on Iran, it will make it difficult for these countries, some of whom deal heavily with U.S. financial institutions, to stay in. They have all urged Trump to keep the agreement, so his departure would widen the breach that already exists with most of the other parties. 

Russia has worked hard to signal in the Middle East that it is a more reliable partner than Washington and would seize on a U.S. withdrawal to drive home the point. 

Iran’s return to a nuclear program, meanwhile, would prove troublesome and dangerous to the two countries that have criticized the agreement most: Saudi Arabia and Israel. Saudi-Iranian relations are already volatile, and an Iranian move to go nuclear would only add to the possibility of a clash. Israel, for its part, faces an increasingly dangerous northern border because of Iran’s buildup in Syria. A clash between Iran and Israel is almost inevitable, and Tehran moving back toward nuclear weapons would only accelerate this trend. 

Inside Israel, the reaction to Netanyahu’s “show and tell” was mixed but leaning toward skeptical, if the press and elite commentary are indicative. The typical takeaway was puzzlement over Bibi’s intentions. War with Iran? Just a message to Trump and the American public? A distraction from his domestic troubles (he’s embroiled in a corruption scandal)? So, among Israelis, there was more nervousness than cheerleading. 

In the United States, Trump dumping the agreement could reverberate in U.S. politics in important ways. Trump, new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and new national security adviser John Bolton are all sharply critical of the agreement and, based on their public comments, ready to dump it. Defense Secretary James Mattis has criticized the agreement but recommends staying in it. Mattis has had tensions with Bolton in the past, and it is not out of the question that a decision to dump the Iran agreement could leave Mattis feeling isolated and weighing whether to stay in government. This would be regrettable, because Mattis has been a steady hand in a chaotic administration.

Finally, tossing out the Iran agreement would leave the North Koreans with little confidence that the United States under this president — or a later one — would honor any deal reached on its nuclear program. Trump argues the contrary. He says canceling the Iran pact would tell Pyongyang that Washington plans to drive a hard bargain. But the North knows that already, so it’s not clear that it needs proof, particularly in the form of an action that will only add another conflict to the high pile of U.S. national problems. 

The bottom line: The Iran nuclear agreement is not perfect, but it is the product of maddeningly complex diplomatic negotiations over many years. It is, like most diplomatic achievements, something seldom seen these days in our own politics — a compromise. It holds some dangers but also some opportunities. Pulling out now, in the face of all the problems this would trigger, would seem a perfect illustration of that old saying: “The perfect is often the enemy of the good.”   


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