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Trump says Iran is violating the nuclear deal. It isn’t.

Alex Ward
An Iranian woman and her son walk past Shahab-2 (L) and Shahab-3 missiles on display in front of a large portrait of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in a square in south Tehran.
Atta Kenare | AFP | Getty Images

Donald Trump really, really hates the Iran nuclear deal and wants to pull the US out of it. And it's now starting to look like he might actually try to do it.

Last month, the president — after a long, drawn-out battle with his top national security officials — reluctantly agreed to certify the deal for the next three months. But according to a recent report in Foreign Policy, the president has assembled a special team of White House aides whose sole task is to figure out a way to claim that Iran is violating the deal. That way he can say it was Iran's fault the deal fell apart, not his.

There's just one problem: Experts, including the International Atomic Energy (IAEA) — the nuclear watchdog agency in charge of verifying Iran's compliance with its obligations under the deal — says that Iran is in compliance.

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To get around that pesky detail, Trump and his team will probably try to make the case that Iran is violating the "spirit" of the deal, if not the letter. And they'll most likely point to Iran's ballistic missile tests as evidence of this, as well as other provocative behavior such as launching a space rocket.

But while those actions are all troublesome, experts say that none of them violate the nuclear deal — even in spirit.

"The truth to what Trump is saying is that Iran is doing a lot of bad things that are against the interests of the United States and our partners and allies," says Jon Finer, who was the chief of staff and policy planning director for former secretary of state John Kerry. "How that connects to the nuclear deal is where his logic falls apart."

In fact, some experts believe if anyone isn't abiding by the deal's spirit, it's Trump.

The nuclear deal is about just one thing: Iran's nuclear program

It's worth taking a brief pause to go over what the Iran deal, formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), actually involved — and what it didn't.

Under the deal, a group of countries — the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, Germany, and the European Union — agreed to lift crippling sanctions imposed on Iran's nuclear program, giving it greater access to the global economy.

In return, Iran agreed to take concrete steps to curb its nuclear program, limiting it to strictly peaceful applications, and to allow intrusive inspections of key nuclear facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency to ensure compliance.

That's it. There was nothing in the deal that said Iran would agree not to test ballistic missiles, or to stop sponsoring terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, or to improve its human rights record at home.

And that's no accident. "By design, the JCPOA is focused on one issue only: Iran's nuclear program," explains Suzanne DiMaggio, an Iran expert at the New America think tank. You see, it's not that the Obama administration and the other countries involved wouldn't have loved to get a deal that included all those other things. It's just that Iran flat-out refused to budge on any of that stuff.

The only thing they were willing to negotiate on was their nuclear program. That's it. Because the Obama administration felt that Iran's nuclear program was the biggest, most pressing threat, they agreed to leave all that other stuff out and focus the deal exclusively on the nuclear program.

But, by that same token, the agreement doesn't preclude the US or any other country from punishing Iran for its non-nuclear activities. That's why the US was able to impose sanctions after Iran carried out missile tests on July 18.

"You could say it's a terrible deal because it doesn't cover Hezbollah, and Syria, and Yemen, and missiles, and human rights," says Ernest Moniz, Obama's energy secretary and top Iran deal negotiator. "That's not what the agreement is."

And by the very narrow terms of the agreement they did sign, Iran is in compliance. "There's no legitimate grounds for saying that Iran is violating the deal, or acting inconsistent with spirit of the deal," says Kelsey Davenport, a nonproliferation expert at the Arms Control Association.

So that's that, right? Well, not exactly.

The UN Security Council resolution that endorsed the Iran deal includes language specifically about Iran's ballistic missiles. "Iran is called upon not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology, until the date eight years after the JCPOA Adoption Day," it reads.

The phrase "called upon" is pretty ambiguous. It doesn't necessarily mean "forbidden." It basically just means "it would be nice if you didn't." So when Iran tests ballistic missiles — as it has both in 2016 and in 2017 — it's probably violating at least the spirit of that UN resolution, if not the letter of it.

"The ballistic missile tests are inconsistent with UN Security Council resolutions, but this is separate from the nuclear deal," Davenport noted.

Iran says the US is violating the deal's spirit. Experts agree.

There's a case to be made that the Trump administration is not abiding by the spirit of the deal.

Trump has been trying to get other countries to stop doing business with Iran since at least May. Recall the deal's main trade: Iran stops its march toward a nuclear weapon, and the other countries give it more access to the global economy. The experts I spoke to said Trump's actions don't break the deal, though.

But Iran was clearly upset by this. In an interview with CNN's Fareed Zakaria in July, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that "the United States has failed to implement its part of the bargain," citing the fact that Trump had "used his presence in Hamburg during the G20 meeting in order to dissuade leaders from other countries to engage in business with Iran."

And according to Richard Nephew, who coordinated sanctions policy at the State Department under Obama, Iran may have a case.

"If he truly did wander around the G20 and said, 'Don't do business with Iran,' I think that's a pretty reasonable argument for the Iranians to make," Nephew, now a senior research scholar at Columbia University, said in a recent interview with my colleague Zeeshan Aleem.

"It's easily a violation of the spirit of the deal," Nephew added. "Based on a plain-text reading of the [nuclear deal], I would characterize that to be a breach of our obligation."

So we're now at a dangerous point: Two adversaries are accusing the other of breaking their pledge. That's bad news when you're talking about nuclear weapons. "I'm concerned we've entered an escalatory spiral where the US and Iran are feeding opponents of the deal on both sides," says Davenport.

So what happens if the deal collapses?

Since the deal went into effect, Iran has eliminated 98 percent of its stockpile of highly-enriched uranium, a key ingredient in making nuclear weapons; removed 13,000 centrifuges, which are used to enrich elements, like uranium, to make a nuclear bomb; and destroyed the core of its nuclear reactor at Arak, halting its production of weapons-grade plutonium (another nuclear ingredient).

Before Iran took those steps, most analysts estimated that Iran would be able to build a nuclear bomb in just two or three months if it decided to do so — what experts refer to as its "breakout time." Now, thanks to the nuclear deal, that breakout time has grown to at least one year. That may not sound like a huge difference, but it really is: It means that we would have an entire year to figure out how to respond, instead of having to make a crisis decision in just a few months.

If the deal collapses and Iran once again ramps up its nuclear program, it could shrink that breakout time back down. But instead of just bringing us right back to where we started, we'd now be in a situation where we'd already tried diplomacy, and failed.

Experts believe it's highly unlikely that Iran — or the parties to the agreement, for that matter — would be willing to renegotiate a deal all over again, especially one that is even broader than the current one. Which means the options for stopping Iran's nuclear program would be reduced to much more drastic options — including military action.

Trump likes to think of himself as a deal-maker. But if he continues as he's going, he'd be a deal-breaker — and likely making things worse than they are now, according to Nephew.

"Your cure may be worse than your illness," he told me.