Video: Opinion writer Jason Rezaian explains how the Iran deal is about much more than just nuclear negotiations. (Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)
It looks increasingly likely that President Donald Trump will pull the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal on May 12, as he has threatened to do since he was a candidate. I have yet to hear an argument about any clear benefit that would be gained from abandoning an international agreement that, by all measures, Iran is living up to.
Three things the United States stands to potentially lose, though, are easier to explain and must be considered before the decision is made.
To be very clear, there are no new arguments to support the crisis being manufactured by the deal’s opponents. The agreement is working for all the parties involved, with the possible exception of Trump, who appears intent on simply dismantling any tangible remnants of the Obama legacy.
On Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used a live broadcast to dramatically reveal thousands of documents that his country’s spies allegedly seized from raids on a secret site in Iran. Contained in the trove is information already well known by the United States, other world powers and the International Atomic Energy Agency, the world’s nuclear watchdog.
As others have pointed out, this known information — that Iran lied about for years — was exactly why we needed the nuclear deal in the first place. Not only does the deal make an Iranian bomb impossible; it also allows for intrusive inspections of Iran’s nuclear sites, which is the first thing we risk losing if we exit the deal.
Besides the obvious goal of cutting off the possibility of Iran ever creating a nuclear weapon, the deal was meant to give Tehran the chance to become a more responsible and productive member of the international community. For Iran that meant, crucially, the ability to conduct business normally with the rest of the world. The lifting of sanctions and the promise of foreign investment were the incentives for Iran to enter into this agreement. So far these benefits haven’t materialized.
The mullahs have been testy about all of this, and now they are finally facing the reality that Trump may very well follow through with this misguided campaign promise, which would likely mean a fresh round of sanctions. So what can Iran do in return? Well, it has few means to inflict great harm on the United States or our domestic nationals, but it can hurt Americans in the region.
In a video message posted Thursday on YouTube, Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said that his government would not renegotiate the landmark deal brokered in 2015. He promised that Iran would respond in the manner of its choosing if the United States decides to abandon the accord. Zarif advised the U.S. government that “it and only it will have to accept responsibility for the consequences.”
This could be read as a thinly veiled threat from Zarif that Iran is liable to act in ways that defy diplomacy and international norms. He is essentially washing his hands of the situation and alerting Washington that more extreme elements of the regime — Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, for example — will be emboldened to increase their asymmetrical havoc in places where the United States or its allies are engaged in armed conflicts, just as they have done in the past.
Pulling out of the deal, then, also exponentially raises the prospect of a direct military confrontation with Iran. The United States and Iran are closer to that now than they have been in years. Israel has already inflicted casualties on the Iranians in one of its recent strikes in Syria.
One key benefit of the nuclear negotiations has been the opening of direct lines of communication between Tehran and Washington. Both Zarif and former secretary of state John Kerry credited that regular contact with defusing a crisis in the Persian Gulf in early 2016 when American sailors strayed into Iran’s territorial waters. Those channels will be the first casualty if the nuclear deal breaks down.
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has forbidden his diplomats from engaging with American officials on any subject outside of the nuclear talks, but at quarterly meetings on the deal’s status, U.S. and Iranian diplomats have used the opportunity to conduct sideline discussions on matters of shared concern. These meetings are currently the only points of direct and official contact between the governments. If the deal falls apart, those meetings end.
Khamenei could change his mind on that, but it is highly improbable that he would alter course any time soon, which means that Americans currently unjustly imprisoned in Iran could be stuck there for many years.
International trade, regional security and the potential for military conflict are big-ticket geopolitical concerns, but cutting off communications with Tehran effectively ensures a longer stay in prison for American hostages currently being held by the Islamic republic as political bait.
With Trump raising the possibility that three more American citizens could come home from North Korea ahead of his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the Trump administration and its diplomats should be doing everything in their power to bring back fellow citizens unjustly held in Iran, too.
Incomprehensibly, officials at the State Department tell me that there are currently no meaningful talks taking place now to bring those Americans home. I think about the continued ordeal of those Americans and their families. Leaving them behind would be on the shortlist of the biggest failures of Trump’s political career thus far.
Jason Rezaian is a writer for Global Opinions. He served as The Post’s correspondent in Tehran from 2012 to 2016. He spent 544 days unjustly imprisoned by Iranian authorities until his release in January 2016.