Can the Iranian Nuclear Deal Survive the Trump Presidency?
Donald Trump’s shocking victory will bear important, albeit unclear, implications for a variety of America’s bilateral relationships, few more important than its relationship with Iran and the impact that may have on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Throughout his campaign, Trump made no secret of his opposition to the deal. In March, when he addressed the annual AIPAC meeting in Washington, Trump declared that his “number-one priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.” Shortly after the news of Trump’s victory, Reuters reported that the election’s outcome had placed JCPOA on “shaky ground,” and one knowledgeable commentator said simply “say goodbye to the Iran deal.” Yet even if Trump takes action to retard JCPOA’s implementation, he cannot singlehandedly tear the nuclear deal to shreds.
The JCPOA is not a bilateral agreement between Washington and Tehran, but rather one between seven governments, many of which do not share Trump’s sentiments. While the U.S. has of course not hesitated historically to lead the charge and go its own way with respect to foreign policy, implementation of the JCPOA was not achieved without much multilateral effort, and it is presumed that most, if not all, of the other participants will not wish to squander the Agreement based on U.S. election promises or the whims of Mr. Trump. Assuming that Iran remains compliant with the JCPOA’s terms, no one expects the Europeans to re-impose sanctions on Iran, even if the U.S. chooses to impose its own in response to ongoing ballistic missile tests, sponsorship of State Department-designated terrorist organizations such as Lebanese Hezbollah, and/or human rights abuses.
That said, if the U.S. Congress votes to nullify the agreement and Trump formally does so, the other participants to the Agreement (most importantly, Iran) will no doubt be forced to consider the implications of such action on both the sanctity of the Agreement as well as the degree to which it is likely to remain in force should sanctions be re-imposed by Washington. It is also important to remember that even after Trump takes office, the rule of law will still prevail and Trump (and his Republican majority-controlled Congress) have many other ‘priorities’ that will take precedence over the JCPOA and America’s relationship with Iran.
As the EU continues to suffer from economic ills, Europeans have great incentive to take advantage of the opening of Iran’s economy to increase their exports to a market of 80 million people, as major economic powers in the continent such as France, Germany and Italy did prior to the imposition of sanctions. It speaks volumes that after Trump’s triumph, France’s Total declared that the U.S. election “does not change anything,” after the energy giant announced a major investment in Iran’s gas sector. As many expected Hillary Clinton to become America’s 45th president, although she backed the JCPOA, her hawkish rhetoric on Iran likely caused EU governments and companies concern about the potential risk of doing business with Iran from an international compliance standpoint. Trump’s rhetoric is every bit as much of a concern to the EU as it is to Tehran for the same reason. Put simply, the European economy stands to benefit from the preservation of the JCPOA and Iran’s reintegration into the global economy.
Then there is Russia. Given that Trump has vowed to improve Washington-Moscow relations and partner with Russia to fight Islamic State in Syria, the Kremlin has vested interest in maintaining the JCPOA to ensure that the Middle East’s balance of power does not shift against Iran. Moscow and Tehran have much common cause in the region and the two powers are largely working in tandem to advance their shared interests. As Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s rule remains threatened by foreign-backed Sunni militias, Vladimir Putin will probably use his leverage with Trump to pressure his administration to preserve the JCPOA. When all is said and done, Trump must seriously consider Moscow’s concerns if he is to make good on his commitment to work with the Kremlin to counter radical Islam in the Middle East. After all, if Trump wants a reliable partner in Russia, and Moscow will expect something in return.
However, Trump’s rhetoric against the nuclear deal could impact the domestic political environment in Tehran by strengthening the arguments of Iran’s hardliners, who have criticized Rouhani for trusting the U.S. enough to sign the JCPOA. As such factions in the Islamic Republic have their own interests in reversing the partial thaw in Washington-Tehran relations from the Obama presidency, it is unclear how Trump’s triumph will shape Rouhani’s political future, as he must convince Iranians before his reelection bid next year that the JCPOA served Tehran’s interests. Iran’s testing of ballistic missiles in the Persian Gulf, which the Obama administration has been duly noted and objected to, has potential by itself to reverse the improvement already seen in U.S.-Iran relations, with Rouhani paying a big political price.
It is also unclear how the Islamic Republic will fit into the Trump administration’s overall foreign policy agenda, given all the peripheral factors that will contribute to the decision-making process. Washington’s defense and foreign policy establishment are overwhelmingly supportive of the JCPOA and regard it as a solid safeguard against Iran’s ability to weaponize the country’s nuclear program in the coming fifteen years. Given that the threat of a nuclear armed Iran was Israel’s basis for issuing military threats against the Islamic Republic, efforts to undermine the JCPOA would perhaps further incentivize Tel Aviv to consider bombing Iranian nuclear facilities, as unlikely as this may now appear. Recall that the recently deceased Shimon Peres claimed that it was his intervention that ultimately stopped Bibi Netanyahu from doing just that. Peres is gone, but Netanyahu remains in power, and his dislike of the JCPOA remains undiminished.
Despite appearances, a ‘neo-isolationalist’ Trump administration would presumably view negatively the implications of an Israeli strike on Iran, which would certainly require the U.S. to draw itself into a potentially new and catastrophic war in the Middle East. But the 45th president and his administration may have their own interest in not undermining the JCPOA. In sum, there could be much space between Trump’s campaign rhetoric regarding the JCPOA and his decisions about the nuclear deal as president, when strategic considerations rather than anti-Obama/anti-Clinton talking points actually shape decision making. Trump has already backtracked and watered-down any number of other campaign promises, so it would not be unreasonable to assume that something similar may ultimately be expected vis-à-vis Iran and the JCPOA.
Not only would a Trump administration’s attempts to scrap the deal create new frictions in Washington’s relations with the EU, Russia, and China, such efforts to undermine the JCPOA could complicate America’s alliances with other major economic powerhouses (such as India, Japan, and South Korea) which were not part of the P5+1 but have much to gain from continuation of the JCPOA. Additionally, Washington’s allies in the Arabian Peninsula (such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) which had reservations about the JCPOA’s strategic ramifications– will likely have their own economic and political reasons to pressure the U.S. to keep it in place. At a time when geo-sectarian temperatures are rising in the Middle East, such a scenario poses a host of security risks for the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, which would find themselves in a vulnerable position should an Israeli-Iranian war erupt. However, Saudi Prince Turki bin Faysal is pushing hard in Washington for an American push to renegotiate the JCPOA and weaken Iran while softly pushing for a route to decrease sectarian tensions.
Ultimately, as a highly divisive president-elect, Trump – who already faces major challenges to his legitimacy from large segments of the U.S. population – and his administration will have to tread carefully politically. Trump’s mandate has little, if anything, to do with a more hardline stance against Iran. From a foreign policy perspective, it has much more to do with deepening cooperation with the Kremlin to counter Sunni extremists – itself a strategy which will unofficially lead to more U.S.-Iran alignment – even if that is not Trump’s intention. He will have to work with a foreign policy and defense establishment which will resist any effort to unravel the internationally-backed Iranian nuclear deal, especially if Washington’s close allies continue to find Tehran complicit with its terms., Although Trump will likely attempt to reduce the pace of the JCPOA’s implementation, it does not appear that the outcome of the U.S. presidential election will sound the death knell of the JCPOA. There are simply too many centrifugal forces working in favor of the JCPOA and against its nullification for that to happen.
This article was originally posted in the New Atlanticist.