University of Notre Dame
Kroc Institutde for International Peace Studies

George Lopez is the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., Professor Emeritus of Peace Studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.

Since the election of Donald Trump, members of the arms control community have argued that the new administration must keep the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action [JCPOA] based on the unprecedented compliance of the Iranians in fulfilling each part of their pledge to denuclearize. Those touting the success and benefits of the agreement note that the United Nations Security Council endorsed the JCPOA by approving Security Council Resolution (SCR) 2231 (January 2016), following certification by the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] that Iran was in full compliance with the provisions of the agreement.

Unfortunately, in an Administration that eschews facts and is committed to implementing policy via swift proclamations and executive orders, the prima facie case for preserving the agreement because it works carries little weight. But what might persuade Trump and his advisers to preserve the agreement is its elasticity and potential utility for addressing security issues with Iran and with other states bent on building nuclear weapons. This factor may become especially relevant in light of the January 29 Iranian missile test. The combined workings of SCR 2231 and the IAEA provide Trump with one of his most valued tools – leverage.

As new U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley observed in her initial remarks to the Security Council, Resolution 2231 has built in mechanisms designed to handle crises regarding certified violations of the JCPOA or matters of interpretation regarding actions that may violate its spirit. The Council’s investigative monitoring group established by SCR 2231 is charged with assessing such potential violations. It has also been charged with scrutinizing the missile test. If the monitoring group finds that there has been a violation, the U.S. could invoke the ‘snap-back’ sanctions arrangement that is part of the JCPOA. This allows any of the parties to the negotiations to re-impose the sanctions that were suspended as part of the nuclear deal. Thus, Trump can utilize existing checks and balances within the Resolution to leverage greater Iranian compliance on missiles – or at least to bring Iran into direct negotiations about these security concerns.

More far-reaching leverage comes in key elements embedded in the Iran agreement that have led to a more nimble, effective and innovative IAEA. The more empowered UN nuclear agency can be a Trump Administration ally in an uncertain nuclear world. The IAEA gained expertise and intrusive inspection authority for monitoring Iran’s nuclear facilities and supervising the blending down and removal from the country of about 98 per cent of its low-enriched uranium. The IAEA continues to verify that the Fordow uranium enrichment site now produces only isotopes for domestic industries.

Another area of JCPOA success is the prohibition on Iranian production or acquisition of specific high-level technologies that are central to nuclear weapons development. The banning, elimination and on-site monitoring of such systems, including computer simulators and detonation systems, has never occurred in any other case of proliferation control. Layered on this restriction is the creation of a procurement channel for sensitive dual-use goods, in which the IAEA can intrusively verify that listed end uses and destinations of goods are accurate. These innovations have far-reaching implications for how future nuclear agreements – with North Korea or others – might be designed. The longer the JCPOA continues to operate successfully, the greater the leverage it provides in dealing with other nonproliferation cases.

The IAEA has provided extensive and widely disseminated reports on all the activities mentioned above. The result is full disclosure and transparency that builds confidence among skeptical nations and even in Iran. This is because such reports limit ambiguity that can lead to distrust among parties and false accusations based on speculative knowledge.

The importance of generating this knowledge-based confidence cannot be exaggerated. One only needs to recall the experience of the UN monitoring team and IAEA presence in Iraq during the 1990s. U.S. leaders did not have confidence that they had eliminated Saddam’s weapons. The resulting uncertainty was used as a justification for going to war. The IAEA provides the needed confidence for war avoidance in the U.S.-Iranian case.

The combined strength of the JCPOA, SCR 2231 and the work of the IAEA provides Trump unique leverage in a world of nuclear dangers. Trump can go one up on Ronald Reagan, who famously said, “trust but verify” regarding Soviet arms treaty compliance. Trump can now say, “We can trust because the IAEA verifies.”