If Trump wants new Iran talks, he needs new goals too
The following editorial appears on Bloomberg Opinion:
President Donald Trump seems to be setting the stage for renewed talks with Iran over its nuclear program, raising the prospect of easing U.S. sanctions in exchange for a meeting with the Iranian president. Unless he reconsiders his goals for these negotiations, he's going to make a serious mistake.
After abrogating the nuclear deal that his predecessor signed with Iran in 2015, Trump has stated his basic conditions for a new one: "no nuclear weapons, no ballistic missiles and a longer period of time." That last phrase is the problem. It refers to the "sunset provisions" included in the previous agreement that defined exactly when some of its key terms would expire, thus allowing Iran to resume enriching uranium to high levels.
Almost as soon as the deal was signed, critics warned that these provisions would only defer Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons until 2030, when they were set to expire. President Barack Obama's administration contended that, even if Iran were so inclined, it would take a year - what nuclear scientists call "breakout time" - to make a bomb. This, the Obama team thought, would be time enough for the world to pressure leaders in Tehran to desist.
That timeline was hopelessly optimistic, as events have since shown. It has taken Iran mere weeks this summer to blow past the agreed-to limits on its stockpile of enriched uranium. It is now threatening to deploy more advanced centrifuges, greatly shrinking the time required to reach weapons-grade.
Nor is there any doubt that Iran wants nuclear weapons. Abundant in oil and gas, it has no other rational reason for a nuclear program. A previous covert effort to make such weapons ended only when the regime was caught red-handed operating a secret uranium-enrichment facility at Natanz and a heavy-water facility in Arak.
Perhaps the biggest drawback of the sunset provisions was that they were shortsighted. By the time they kicked in, Iran would've had 15 years to collect hundreds of billions of dollars in oil revenue, build up its military strength, and boost its support for proxies like Hezbollah. The regime would be in a far stronger position to resist international sanctions, and a future American president would find it far harder to rally support, at home or abroad, for a punitive military operation.
Iran would also be more deeply integrated into the world economy, greatly raising the cost to all nations of trying to rein it in. It's hard to imagine Europe - by then used to selling Iran billions of dollars' worth of Airbus passenger jets, Mirage fighters and Mercedes sedans - going along with any renewed sanctions, let alone a military campaign.
It was for these reasons that Rex Tillerson, Trump's first secretary of state, characterized the 2015 deal as "kicking the can down the road again for someone in the future to have to deal with." Kicking it a little further, as Trump now proposes, would not make the deal stronger; it would give Iran still more time to build up a war chest and yet more leeway to make a breakout for nuclear weapons.
In contrast, Iran right now is the weakest it has been in decades, and manifestly wilting under Trump's "maximum pressure" campaign. Rather than push for an extended sunset, Trump should hold out for a complete termination of Iran's nuclear activities and an end to its other threatening behavior - such as its ballistic-missile program and its support for terrorist groups across the Middle East - in exchange for readmission into the world economy.
This chance may never come again.