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Is the U.S. about to ‘cheat’ on the Iran nuclear deal? Here’s how this could backfire.

- October 17, 2017

President Trump’s decision not to certify Iranian compliance with “the spirit” of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal, leaves the United States in a somewhat unexpected position.

Trump effectively turned the JCPOA issue over to Congress to decide whether to reintroduce sanctions against Iran. Here’s the problem: Reimposing sanctions while Iran is in compliance with the deal would constitute a U.S. violation of the JCPOA.

In most U.S. Arms Control debates, including agreements with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the central concern was what would happen if the other side cheated. Would we see Soviet violations and catch them in time? Implicitly, the assumption has been that the United States would be complying, and carefully monitoring the other side for violations — our concern was about being the “sucker” not the “cheater.”

Multiple analyses of the Iran deal decertification announcement look at Iran’s compliance details, and lay out possible implications and alternatives for what may happen next. I see a different set of implications, though, one that stems from the JCPOA’s tough monitoring regime.

The inspection regime could help Iran make its case against the U.S.

We tend to think of inspections as a burden on the state being monitored, in this case Iran. The JCPOA includes some of the most intrusive monitoring provisions used in arms control, including on-site inspections and continuous monitoring of some facilities.

No monitoring system is perfect, and Iran could hide weapons-related activities, in principle. But the JCPOA monitoring regime makes it difficult for Iran to cheat — and unlikely that any cheating would go unnoticed.

Inspections can also restrain the observing side, in this case the United States. Suppose a scenario where the U.S. accuses Iran of noncompliance due to cheating on agreed-upon limits or bans. If there were no third-party inspections, the United States might claim its intelligence sources had detected nuclear activities in Iran. Secret information would give the United States greater latitude to make assessments and argue that the failure of the deal is Iran’s fault.

Under the JCPOA, the International Atomic Energy Agency, an independent body, carries out inspections and extensive monitoring. The large volume of information collected on Iran’s activities would give Iran ample evidence to claim that yes, it has kept up its end of the bargain.

The more intrusive and independent the monitoring regime, the more difficult it is for the United States to rely on undisclosed sources and claim that its actions are a justifiable response to Iranian bad behavior — rather than a U.S. violation of the JCPOA terms.

Inspections have benefits for Iran in that they keep the United States honest. Indeed, the IAEA, European partners, nongovernmental experts, and even U.S. senior officials have stated that current evidence indicates Iran is abiding by the JCPOA.

President Trump’s attempt to square the circle, decertifying but then punting to Congress the question of whether to reapply sanctions, actually gives Iran more ammunition to claim it is the wronged party. The position implies the United States cannot even try to claim it has intelligence on Iranian nuclear activities and does not challenge the findings from international monitoring efforts.

Iran isn’t likely to make additional concessions

The Trump administration claims it wants to negotiate a different deal, which would pressure Iran into granting more access and extending the duration of limitations on its nuclear program. However, if the current deal fails, Iran isn’t likely to accept more concessions.

In particular, U.S. demands for more information would not only limit Iran’s ability to hide nuclear activities but would also undermine Iran’s national security capabilities — like protecting itself from attack.

In a new working paper, Andrew Coe and I argue that in designing monitoring for an arms control agreement, states face a trade-off between having enough transparency to observe compliance and needing sufficient safety from observation that could jeopardize their security. For example, visiting all Iranian military facilities could be very useful in verifying that the country was not conducting any nuclear work — but would also reveal military targets that could be exploited in the event of a conflict.

If Iran decides that information sharing in a current nuclear agreement will leave the regime more vulnerable in the future, including beyond the nuclear context, Tehran will have few reasons to renegotiate the deal.

Because of this trade-off, states have to make compromises to get an arms control agreement. They can intentionally limit the scope of inspections to avoid giving too much access to military information. In the U.S.-Soviet context, for example, the two sides often drafted highly precise inspection rules limiting what could be seen, how and when, while foregoing the “anytime anywhere” inspection options.

The possibility of a U.S. violation of the JCPOA suggests Iran might actually prefer to accept the burden of inspections — up to a point — rather than allowing a more powerful adversary to rely on its own determinations. But Iran’s openness has limits, and the JCPOA provisions (which go further than U.S.-Russia agreements and indeed most arms control cases) are likely close to the line. U.S. demands for more access could backfire into the deal breaking down, leaving no access at all.

After a violation, what next?

A U.S. violation of the JCPOA has a number of broad implications. Potential cooperation partners — perhaps North Korea, or Russia — may see the United States as unreliable. Allies may be less willing to join U.S. bargaining efforts, concerned they might be left to uphold deals after the United States reneges on its part of the commitment.

But there has been less discussion of another implication. A U.S. violation will make future agreements more difficult to negotiate.

To guard against the possibility of arbitrary U.S. determinations of noncompliance, other states could call for more intrusive monitoring, to have ways to demonstrate their full compliance. However, opening up to greater foreign observation would create additional safety concerns for a state’s other military capabilities and or even regime survival where autocrats fear assassination or coup. The need for extra monitoring as insurance against possible U.S. accusations would scuttle many deal negotiations because the need to maintain secrecy is likely to outweigh the benefit of such openness.

The JCPOA, with its tough monitoring regime, is not kind to cheaters on either side of the bargain. The Trump administration may find that the monitoring provisions intended to restrain Iran may also complicate future U.S. negotiation efforts and undermine U.S. credibility.

Jane Vaynman is an assistant professor of political science at Temple University.