This January, President Donald Trump issued a warning to France, Germany, the U.K., and every other party that negotiated the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), otherwise known as the Iran nuclear deal. If the weaknesses of the deal are not fixed by May 12 of this year, Trump declared, the economic sanction waivers that granted Tehran economic relief will not be signed again. "And if at any time I judge that such an agreement is not within reach," the president stated, "I will withdraw from the deal immediately."
Trump's warning was amplified on April 30, when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a presentation about a trove of intelligence files recently acquired concerning Iran's nuclear program. Netanyahu, who was supported by visual aids, graphs, and a stack of documents prominently displayed for the cameras, was no doubt trying to capture Trump's attention about Iran's chronic duplicity and dishonesty.
Yet it would be diplomatic malpractice to walk away from the JCPOA at this time. Indeed, to tear up the nuclear deal would enable the very habitual lying that Netanyahu is worried about. We should be crystal clear about one thing: Were the nuclear agreement to disintegrate, the United States would be reverting back to the 2010-2012 time-period—a time when Iran had far more freedom to pursue its nuclear work and when the option of a preventive U.S. military strike on Tehran's nuclear facilities was considered a viable and even likely option.
The culmination of three years of intensive back-and-forth negotiations, the JCPOA is castigated by some as an inappropriate and dangerous giveaway to the mullahs in Tehran in exchange for temporary caps on its uranium enrichment and plutonium programs. Yet in the view of many others, the deal is a durable and stringent non-proliferation accord that prevents Iran from attaining threshold nuclear status by opening up its facilities to unconditional monitoring. Under either view, it is indisputable that the JCPOA kicked the military confrontation can down the road. To rip up the deal or walk away from it prematurely—even if the Trump administration does so after inconclusive talks with the Europeans on a "fix" by May 12—would in effect rewind the calendar right back to 2012. An imperfect nuclear agreement that the Iranians have nonetheless been complying with will thus have been sacrificed for political purposes, with the added cost of resurrecting the possibility of preventive military action by the U.S.
To be fair, we do not know for certain how Iran would react in the event the White House left the JCPOA. France, Germany, the U.K., and the European Union are exploring the option of maintaining their part of the deal in return for the Iranians keeping their commitments. However, given the dominance of the U.S. financial system, Tehran may conclude that they are entitled to full relief from nuclear-related sanctions as codified in the JCPOA and to which all parties agreed to. A far likelier response from Tehran would be a decision to begin enriching a larger stockpile of uranium at a level closer to weapons-grade, perhaps curtailing the IAEA's access to its facilities in the process. Were Iran to take such an action, the foreign policy establishment in Washington would perceive it as completely unacceptable under international non-proliferation norms and as grounds for possible punitive retaliation. It is not difficult to imagine an administration, confronted with bipartisan pressure and stocked with hawkish advisers, caving in to that pressure in order to destroy Iran's nuclear infrastructure—a contingency that would put U.S. troops in the region at greater risk of violent Iranian retaliation and severely undermine America's credibility with allies and partners.
This is not a situation the Trump administration should embrace. The Middle East has enough problems to cope with. A potential clash with the United States on one side and the Iranians and their network of proxy militias on the other would make the invasion of Iraq look like a minor blip in history.
Is there an exit ramp on this road towards confrontation? Yes, there is. But Washington will miss it if the Trump administration is not far more cognizant of the costs associated with a withdrawal from the JCPOA.
Iran is unquestionably a destabilizing actor in relation to its neighbors and to the region in general. This activity includes the violation of numerous U.N. Security Council resolutions; the breaking of arms embargoes; material support to regional terrorist groups; and an expansion of its military presence. None of these activities, though, will be addressed by unnecessarily putting at risk an agreement that the IAEA, the U.N., and the U.S. intelligence community have all verified is placing a wall between the Iranian government and a nuclear weapons program.
President Trump has defined his foreign policy as "principled realism," a welcome shift in direction from the hawkish liberal internationalism and neoconservatism of the past. Jettisoning a nuclear deal that is working, despite the problems buried in the text, would run counter to the realism embedded in the Trump administration's national security doctrine. And it may very well put the United States in the position of fighting a fourth war in the Middle East, a possibility the American people are neither prepared for nor willing to support.