Iran Nuclear Agreement: Listen to Voices of Experience

James Clapper (US Coast Guard Academy via Flickr)

by Paul R. Pillar

Donald Trump appears poised to make one of the most damaging moves yet of his presidency: to pull out of the multilateral agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which severely restricts Iran’s nuclear program and closes all pathways to a possible Iranian nuclear weapon. Iran is adhering—as inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency have repeatedly certified—to its obligations under the agreement. Despite this record, Trump’s administration already has been violating U.S. obligations, by withholding licenses for commercial transactions permitted under the accord and by actively discouraging other countries from conducting normal commerce with Iran. Trump has been chomping at the bit to withdraw from the JCPOA altogether. He reportedly has been restrained from doing so only by the strong urging of senior subordinates who understand that such a step would be contrary to U.S. interests and to the interests of nuclear nonproliferation.

With Trump’s dismissal of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, some of the most significant restraints on Trump’s impulses are gone. The replacements, Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, have been just as viscerally opposed to the JCPOA as Trump and can be expected to encourage, rather than restrain, his destructive impulses.

Nothing good can come of a U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA. The very best scenario one could hope for, in which the other six parties to the agreement keep some version of it going without U.S. participation, would mean isolation of the United States rather than Iran and additional divisions and acrimony between the United States and its allies. Other scenarios in which the JCPOA collapses—as suggested by some statements from Iranian officials that if the U.S. pulls out, so will Iran—are even worse. This would mean the end of all the special restrictions that the JCPOA placed on Iran’s nuclear program. It would mean Iran could reopen shut-down facilities, enrich as much uranium as it wanted to as high a level as it wanted, and get back to where it was before the JCPOA went into effect, which was within striking distance of building a nuclear weapon. And just as was the case before the negotiations that led to the JCPOA got under way, Iran’s likely response to more and more pressure from the United States would be to spin more and more enrichment centrifuges.

While all this was happening, the absence of the unprecedently intrusive international inspections provided under the JCPOA would once again allow Iran to continue its nuclear activities mostly in the dark. The Trump administration would have a new nuclear crisis, totally of its own making, at the very time that efforts to deal with the problem of North Korea’s nuclear weapons enter a critical period.

Trump’s animus toward the JCPOA, like much of the opposition to it, is rooted in political impulses that have nothing to do with the terms of the agreement. For Trump, the overriding motivation, as with much of the rest of his presidency, has been to undo whatever his predecessor did. With Bolton, there is the further inclination to oppose diplomacy generally and to look to military force as the solution to any foreign problem.

In times such as these, guidance should come from those whose dedication to U.S. national security interests is unquestioned, whose detachment from current political fights is sufficient for their advice to be shaped by long-term concern for those interests, and whose experience gives them deep understanding of the issues and problems involved. Such people are to be found in a group of more than 100 American national security leaders who, calling themselves a National Coalition to Prevent an Iranian Nuclear Weapon, issued today a statement supporting adherence to the JCPOA. The signatories include several dozen retired generals and admirals from the U.S. military as well as 31 former ambassadors, including five former U.S. ambassadors to Israel. There are also former members of Congress, both Republican and Democrat, including former chairs of the foreign relations and armed services committees. Former senior executive branch officials, and those who have studied intensively from the outside the problems of relations with Iran and of nuclear proliferation, have also put their names on the letter. These leaders would disagree among themselves on many issues, but they agree on the wisdom of maintaining the landmark agreement that is the JCPOA.

Paul Pillar

Paul R. Pillar is Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Studies of Georgetown University and an Associate Fellow of the Geneva Center for Security Policy. He retired in 2005 from a 28-year career in the U.S. intelligence community. His senior positions included National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia, Deputy Chief of the DCI Counterterrorist Center, and Executive Assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence. He is a Vietnam War veteran and a retired officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. Dr. Pillar's degrees are from Dartmouth College, Oxford University, and Princeton University. His books include Negotiating Peace (1983), Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy (2001), Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy (2011), and Why America Misunderstands the World (2016).



  1. This issue is not about Iranian nuclear weapons; it is about a U.S. war against Iran.

    It has been the consensus position of all U.S. intelligence agencies since 2007 that Iran has had no nuclear weapons program since 2003. Mossad and European intelligence agencies agree.

    From the beginning, the Iranian Nukes Myth has been pushed by Israel’s right-wing politicos and their fellow travelers in the U.S. to goad the U.S. into waging war against Iran. President Barack Obama finessed the issue without calling them liars by pushing for the successful adoption of the JCPOA.

    Getting rid of the JCPOA would clear the decks for a new round of false pro-war propaganda aimed at “stopping” Iran from fielding nuclear weapons. And that is the game that is afoot.

  2. from the National Defense Strategy–Iran is one of the “big four” —
    “China is a strategic competitor using predatory economics to intimidate its neighbors while militarizing features in the South China Sea. Russia has violated the borders of nearby nations and pursues veto power over the economic, diplomatic, and security decisions of its neighbors. As well, North Korea’s outlaw actions and reckless rhetoric continue despite United Nation’s censure and sanctions. Iran continues to sow violence and remains the most significant challenge to Middle East stability” [sic].

    The leader of the free world (trademark pending) must have enemies in order to remain as a national security state with a huge “defense” budget. It couldn’t be otherwise. So Iran serves the purpose — it is destabilizing the Middle East! . . .Who would have ever imagined that we would be immersed in such verbal garbage from people whom we pay to govern us.

  3. “While all this was happening, the absence of the unprecedentedly intrusive international inspections provided under the JCPOA would once again allow Iran to continue its nuclear activities mostly in the dark.”

    Which will give Trump and his new Neocon pals the excuse they’ve been looking for to launch a pre-emptive war against Iran. They might even get a Security Council Resolution in support of this aim. Iraq 2.0 here we go.

  4. ”Getting rid of the JCPOA would clear the decks for a new round of false pro-war propaganda aimed at “stopping” Iran from fielding nuclear weapons. And that is the game that is afoot”…PE Merrell

    Exactly. Deja vu…Iraq style propaganda all over again.

  5. Yes destabilizing the middle east!
    Lets understand why this evil Iranians like to destabilize everything in brief.
    The middle east was going to be stabilized by seeds of ISIS spread in Iraq by US occupation, which were watered by Saudi mony and ideology and caressed by Israel and others. While ISIS was too fast at start but they were rightly counting on putting it in under control after they succeed to secure their state of Levant replacing both Iraq and Syria. They relied on oil export and weapon and money import which could readily be controlled by triangle allies whenever they want. It was the plan for a new middle east with a second Saudi in place as a solution to strategic US losses caused by Iraq invasion. A totalitarian system in which minority leads the majority, however US was happy apparently for the same reason that now is happy with Saudi and Bahrain.
    That’s why US helps to Iraq during ISIS peak was cut and the they were forced to borrow jet fighters from Iran and relied on their help. So from here the destabilizing role of Iran becomes evident. Putting a stop on ISIS project, which seemed to run smothly until the evil Iranians came and even helped long isolated Russia to get involved and find a honor and foothold in middle east affairs.
    So don’t believe the repeated myth that US has no strategy for the middle east, it had a good one, and it was working well! In fact the strategy was clear to politicians but heavier than to be digested by mass media and delivered to common people like us! If Iran remained silent like a potato until to be fryed by ISIS of course they were as good as Saudis to US!

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