Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s press conference, in which he revealed that Israel had snatched from under the noses of the Iranians thousands of files outlining Tehran’s secret nuclear program prior to 2015, was certainly a tour de force. Whether it will result in the complete scrapping of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, formally known by its cumbersome title, Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, is an entirely different matter.
Netanyahu’s primary audience was, of course, Donald Trump. The president has long been a vocal opponent of the Iran deal, but since taking office chose to waive the reimposition of American sanctions that would be triggered if the deal were revoked. With Trump having made it clear that he is tired of granting waivers on sanctioning Iran, Netanyahu was seeking to push the president over the goal line.
On its face, he seems to have succeeded. The president announced on May 8 that he was withdrawing the United States from the Iran deal and preparing to reinstate all the sanctions that had been waived in order to keep the deal in force.
Two critical factors could complicate Trump’s decision, however. First, Trump is in the midst of an unprecedented effort to resolve the long-standing Korean crisis and persuade North Korea’s mercurial but shrewd leader, Kim Jong Il, to terminate his nuclear program. Trump seems to believe that his action against Iran strengthens his negotiating hand against North Korea. The opposite may be the case. Walking away from the Iran deal now would make it considerably harder to consummate a similar or even more restrictive agreement with the North Korean leader.
Second, if Trump were to impose new and tougher sanctions against third-country firms trading with Iran, he would have to consider the potential responses of Iran’s leading European trading partners, France and Germany — and the European Union, for that matter, in both countries play an outsized role.
France, as much as Britain, is currently America’s leading security partner, joining American forces in the attack on Syria’s chemical facilities, partnering with the United States in operations against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and working alongside American troops in fighting ISIS and other terrorists in Africa. Germany remains a crucial NATO partner and has committed to increasing its defense expenditures in the face of a growing Russian threat to European stability. It is also the economic arbiter of the EU and would play a critical role in any effort to avoid a trade war between the European Union and the United States. Should Trump’s sanctions extend to European firms dealing with Iran, all bets would be off regarding French and German military and economic cooperation with Washington.
On the other hand, it is possible that just as Trump has exempted a number of nations from the tariffs on goods they export to America, he will exempt the Europeans from sanctions that he would impose as he walks away from the JCPOA. In that case, the impact of his actions would be far less significant for Iran, whose trade with the U.S. is dwarfed by its dealings with Europe.
In any event, it is unclear how terminating the agreement alters the Iranian-Israeli balance of power. Netanyahu’s own security officials have reluctantly concluded that the deal, as bad as it is — with sunset provisions that are too short, with no restraints on missile development, and with no provision for access to Iranian military facilities — is better than no deal at all.
Moreover, Iran’s leaders and generals would have to account for Israel’s potent missile defenses while at the same time recognizing that if indeed, as is widely believed, Israel has a strategic nuclear capability, it could annihilate their country. Neither the ayatollahs nor the Iranian Republican Guard have ever demonstrated any suicidal inclinations. On the other hand, senior Israeli defense officials feel that the more immediate Iranian threat is from its efforts to establish permanent bases in Syria, which would open a new and dangerous front against Israel.
For all of these reasons, Trump would do well to adopt, even at this late stage, French president Emanuel Macron’s proposal that in place of jettisoning the agreement, to focus on expanding it to resolve the issues that the Obama Administration neglected to address. Iran has said that it will not negotiate over these issues, but that is but an opening gambit. If Donald Trump is really a deal-maker, that is the deal he must deliver.
Dov S. Zakheim served as a U.S. Under Secretary of Defense (2001-2004) and Deputy Under Secretary of Defense (1985-87).