The new president is an avowed enemy of the agreement with Tehran. But tearing it up is easier said than done.
- By Arthur MacMillanArthur MacMillan is a Paris-based journalist for Agence France-Presse (AFP). Until last summer, he was the agency’s deputy bureau chief in Tehran. He is also an international security fellow at New America.
Ever since Donald Trump told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) that his “No. 1 priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran,” the nuclear agreement has faced frequent predictions of its demise. Trump’s election was seen as heralding the death knell of the deal: On the campaign trail, after all, he said the Islamic Republic was the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, a threat across the Middle East, and a country that has covert cells ready to inflict carnage around the globe. Allowing Iran access to billions of dollars in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program, he argued, was not in America’s or the world’s interests.
Opponents of the deal have clung to the AIPAC speech ever since Trump delivered it in March. But their hopes that he will abolish the agreement, or at least pare it back, always rested on shaky ground. Trump was unable to sustain his own argument during the speech, shifting dramatically just six minutes after he’d promised to scrap the agreement. “At the very least, we must enforce the terms of the previous deal to hold Iran totally accountable,” he said.
Confirmation hearings for senior officials in the incoming administration have laid bare the gulf between Trump’s campaign rhetoric and realistic policy options. His new defense secretary said at his confirmation hearing that America must honor the deal, and his nominee for CIA director placed the emphasis on enforcement, saying the agency must be “rigorously objective” on Iran. Neither spoke of a renegotiation.
International inspectors say Tehran is complying with the agreement. The one technical breach — excess production of heavy water that can be used to produce plutonium, a possible route to a bomb — was quickly rectified when Iran shipped it out of the country last November. Officials in Tehran said they had seen the heavy water restriction as a guideline, not a hard target. Iran has its own grievances, blaming U.S. banking restrictions for making it hard for European money to reach Tehran. Iran’s argument that this amounts to a breach is difficult to sustain. Such financial restrictions have long been in force under sanctions imposed for non-nuclear reasons, such as human rights or terrorism, which fell outside the nuclear deal.
There is no doubt that initial hopes for a broader Iran-U.S. détente withered in 2016. In Tehran, the regime’s opinion of the United States remains defined by the 1979 revolution: Just days before Trump’s electoral victory in November, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said the campaign had proved what he referred to as the moral shortcomings of the United States. The one communication channel that Khamenei allowed — between Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and his U.S. counterpart, John Kerry — has also expired, with no signs of a replacement. The U.S. Navy and ships from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps continue to skirmish around the Strait of Hormuz. A serious clash seems possible.
The debate surrounding the Iran deal’s future under Trump, however, has largely ignored one salient fact: The nuclear agreement was never between Washington and Tehran. It involves five other major partners — Britain, China, France, Russia, and Germany — none of which are interested in renegotiating the “better deal” that Trump has said he can get. The agreement has also been enshrined in a U.N. Security Council resolution, which if violated by the United States would enrage not only Tehran but also the other signatories.
“If unreasonable moves are made by Trump, and Iran continues to abide by the nuclear commitments, Europe, Russia, and China are highly likely to side with Iran, and the unified stance on sanctions in pre-2013 days will be broken,” said Ellie Geranmayeh, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
The fracturing of this international consensus would make any multilateral effort, akin to the past sanctions regime that brought Iran to the negotiating table in the first place, impossible. Iran has already begun to open its doors to foreign investors: It has increased its global oil exports to pre-sanctions levels and signed major business contracts with foreign companies, including multibillion-dollar orders with Airbus and Boeing to replace its civilian air fleet. The latter contract was Iran’s first deal with a U.S. aviation firm since the Islamic revolution of 1979, marking a concrete sign of change within the regime.
Europe’s desire to do business has been led by Germany — though the gains have been smaller than anticipated. European banks, which were previously fined by U.S. regulators for breaching sanctions, remain wary of doing business in Tehran. Russia, China, and increasingly Turkey have endeavored to fill the gap, seeking to make deals in local currencies rather than the dollar.
The quest for investment explains Iran’s determination to stick to the nuclear deal. Khamenei, who has the final word on all policy matters in the Islamic Republic, backed the accord for economic reasons. The 77-year-old supreme leader wants Iran to overtake Saudi Arabia as the Middle East’s dominant economic power, adding to Tehran’s political and military strength. Insiders in Tehran say this was the biggest factor in his decision to support President Hassan Rouhani’s government in the nuclear talks. Despite his skepticism of diplomacy, Khamenei conceded that Shiite Iran could never supplant Sunni Saudi Arabia economically unless sanctions were lifted.
The nuclear deal has already served as a catalyst for economic growth in Iran. When Rouhani was elected in 2013, the economy was in a deep recession. For the six-month period ending in September last year, it grew at 7.4 percent. No wonder Rouhani wants to keep the deal in place.
“Renegotiation is out of the question,” the Iranian president said last week.
But there remains one way Trump could unilaterally sabotage the agreement. As president, he could allow waivers of past Iran sanctions, signed by former President Barack Obama under executive order, to lapse. Doing so would reinstitute penalties against non-Americans for dealing with Iran in banking, insurance, energy, shipping, and many other industries. This would unwind the whole agreement, according to Geranmayeh. “If Trump fails to renew these [waivers], sanctions snap back, essentially,” she said.
Refusing to sign the waivers would seem to go against the advice of retired Gen. James Mattis, Trump’s choice for secretary of defense and a frequent critic of Iran. At his confirmation hearing on Jan. 12, Mattis pointed out the undesirable consequences of the United States going rogue.
“It is an imperfect arms control agreement; it’s not a friendship treaty. But when America gives her word, we have to live up to it and work with our allies,” he said.
Trump’s pick for CIA director, Rep. Mike Pompeo, is also outspoken on Iran, but he struck a different note in his confirmation hearing. The Kansas congressman named Russia, China, North Korea, and the Islamic State when asked to list the biggest threats to the United States, omitting Iran from the category. “While I opposed the Iran deal as a member of Congress, if confirmed, my role will change,” to verifying that Iran was complying with its terms, Pompeo said. The Iranians, he added, are “professionals at cheating.”
In Tehran, the biggest concerns are Trump’s general unpredictability, the “Iranophobia” of his cabinet appointees, and that pressure from Congress could derail the deal. On Jan. 21, one day after Trump’s inauguration, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he intended to discuss Iran with the new president. The Iranian government isn’t sanguine about Trump, and both Khamenei and Rouhani have become increasingly bellicose about the United States since November.
But it’s also true that Iran no longer feels isolated. Under the anti-Western presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran was not considered a worthy diplomatic partner by many countries. Rouhani was elected to change that — and he has. The president, who faces a re-election race in May, still aims to stop Tehran and Washington from slipping toward confrontation, but he and other Iranian officials believe they are better positioned to respond to a hostile U.S. administration than before.
“Iran has the option of restarting its nuclear program if it is forced to do so,” said Foad Izadi, a U.S.-educated professor at the University of Tehran.
For all of Trump’s barbs, his stance on Iran has been littered with as many contradictions as in other policy areas. He has said he is not interested in regime change in other countries and argued that Iran and Russia are fighting terrorism in Syria and Iraq more effectively than the United States. Such statements, combined with his “Make America Great Again” slogan, suggest that as president he will place greater emphasis on domestic policy than on international affairs.
If he tries to reverse the Iran deal, however, he could very well find himself disappointed. Trump admitted in the AIPAC speech that he was a “newcomer to politics.” Managing relations with Tehran will certainly be a challenging introduction.
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