Iran made the latest move of noncompliance, but the path to war was paved by the United States’ withdrawal from the agreement.
The agreement never really got a chance to take hold, however, because the U.S. broke its word. In a fit of personal pique at his predecessor — and with the encouragement of Israel and the Gulf Arab states — President Donald Trump violated the accord by unilaterally reimposing sanctions and waging a “maximum pressure” campaign aimed at collapsing the Iranian economy.
The deal has been on life support ever since.
Now, the Iranians may be ready to pull the plug on this sick patient. This week, Iran informed the International Atomic Energy Agency that it would be removing 27 cameras that monitor nuclear sites — cameras that were installed as part of the 2015 agreement. This move was described by IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi as a “fatal blow” to the agreement, in a statement that also called on both sides to return to the deal.
Grossi is right that the nuclear deal may now be in its final days. But it would be wrong to attribute its death to this final step — which comes only after years of overt violations by the United States.
The U.S. and Iran now appear to be on a glide path to a conflict that no one wanted.
The U.S. and Iran now appear to be on a glide path to a conflict that no one wanted and that diplomats spent years of negotiations trying to avoid. When the deal was signed in 2015, it seemed these efforts had borne fruit. The successful push by hawks aiming to kill the agreement has now brought things to a breaking point. The original motive of the nuclear deal was to avoid a war over this issue that was already looming a decade ago. With no deal, we might again be hurtling toward exactly that war.
Under Trump, the Iranian government continued to partially comply with the nuclear deal in the hopes of reviving it if a Democratic administration came back into power. President Joe Biden did win the White House in 2020, but instead of going back to the deal, he has chosen to maintain the sanctions that Trump imposed — the very measures the nuclear deal was intended to lift.
The sanctions devastated the Iranian economy and drove millions of middle-class Iranians into poverty. If they are lifted in future — doubtful, at this point — it is still unlikely that Iran would ever get the investment from Western companies that it hoped to receive following the original deal. It’s clear now that U.S. sanctions on Iran could be reimposed with any shifting political winds in the U.S. That is a situation which makes it virtually impossible for foreign enterprises to invest there.
The Iranian side lost much when the deal was torpedoed. Now the international community is going to take a possible hit to its aim of stopping nuclear proliferation. The removal of some of the surveillance cameras at nuclear sites means that the world is moving closer to the murky status quo ante that existed before the 2015 nuclear deal.
Although Iran has not said it would build a bomb, whatever nuclear activities that it conducts now will be done with drastically diminished international oversight. The IAEA, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, has already said that it believes that Iran is only “weeks away” from having a significant enough quantity of enriched uranium to put them within reach of a bomb. The loss of their surveillance capacity now means Iran could cross that threshold without them even knowing.
“Today, the IAEA is ‘flying blind’ about the details of Iran’s activities because it is unable to retrieve surveillance data being stored on the agency’s cameras as a consequence of U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal in 2018,” said John Tierney, executive director of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in a press release about the news of the camera removals. “These new steps mean the IAEA is losing more data every day and it will be harder to trace every aspect of Iran’s nuclear program should negotiators find a diplomatic off-ramp to escalation. Once again, the United States, and the world, are better off with the limitations on Iran’s nuclear program than without them.”
At first blush, it might make sense to blame Iran for the rapidly closing window of a revived nuclear deal. Yet to do so ignores the history of the deal and absolves the U.S. of its actions: Why should Iran be expected to continue its compliance during talks over a new deal while the U.S. has not taken any steps toward restoring its own compliance?
The removal of the cameras is another sign of the failures of Washington’s posture toward Iran. The Trump administration bet that it could simply strong-arm Iran into sacrificing its nuclear program without offering sanctions relief or any other concessions in return.
Even though Trump did not want to suffer the consequences of a full-scale conflict with Iran, his withdrawal from the deal has set up for exactly that outcome: The U.S. will continue to reap what Trump sowed. Although Biden served as vice president in an administration that had made the nuclear deal a diplomatic centerpiece, he has been unwilling to return to compliance in a manner that might salvage the agreement.
With nuclear monitoring now curtailed, the same hawks that have long pushed for attacking Iran’s nuclear program will continue to do so. Although Iran has little hope of coming out victorious in a direct confrontation with the U.S. and its allies, it has advanced ballistic missile capacity as well as proxies on standby in many countries. A war with Iran would mean casualties and suffering for the U.S. and its allies unlike any of the wars with nonstate actors that America has fought in the two decades since 9/11.
The U.S. will continue to reap what Trump sowed.
A new war in the Middle East is simply not worth it from the perspective of U.S. interests. The best-case scenario is a signed agreement that controlled Iran’s nuclear program, while giving the Iranians a piece of the global economic pie that would be theirs to lose. Obama himself calculated that such an outcome made the most sense for all involved. Due to the structural inability of the U.S. government, including the Biden administration, to stick to its signed diplomatic agreements, the war that Obama tried to avoid may yet break out.
The deal to avert confrontation was already in hand. We should remember, as costs of the conflict mount, that it was the U.S. that blew up the off-ramp.