- By Ilan GoldenbergIlan Goldenberg is a senior fellow and director of the Middle East Security program at the Center for a New American Security. Previously, he served as chief of staff to the special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, supporting Secretary of State John Kerry’s initiative to conduct peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. From 2012 to 2013, he served as a senior professional staff member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. From 2009 to 2012, he was first a special advisor on the Middle East and then Iran team chief in the office of the undersecretary of defense for policy.
The collapse of the Republican healthcare bill is good news not only for President Barack Obama’s signature domestic achievement, but also for one of his central foreign policy accomplishments — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Two years ago I argued that the Iran deal would be the foreign policy equivalent of Obamacare and today that looks more likely than ever. Both face similar political dynamics and are extraordinarily complicated to unwind, meaning that in the near term they will most likely stay in place. However, lack of focus on implementation or quiet steps by a new administration to actively weaken and undercut them could result in their long-term collapse.
The JCPOA and Affordable Care Act were both extraordinarily complex and imperfect agreements because they had to meet the needs of so many stakeholders and also tackled incredibly complex subject matters. The Trump administration felt this challenge as it tried to negotiate new legislation that met the needs of both the Freedom Caucus and moderate Republicans while facing unified opposition from Democrats and major concerns from insurers, hospitals, doctors, and most importantly, the American public.
The Iran deal is similarly complicated. It is not just a deal between the United States, and Iran but also includes the world’s other great powers — China, France, Germany, Great Britain, and Russia. If the United States walked away from the agreement it would need these countries’ support to meaningfully reimpose sanctions, and unless Iran was seen as clearly at fault, it would be unlikely to get that support. The result would an Iran deal “death spiral” with a new world in which the sanctions regime against Iran is dramatically weakened even as the limitations imposed by the nuclear agreement come off.
Moreover, the Trump administration has a broad international agenda that will be difficult to accomplish without cooperation from these countries. Taking a step to unilaterally walk away from such a high-profile agreement would undercut America’s credibility in other spheres and make it more difficult to negotiate with these partners on other more pressing matters.
Congress is the other key stakeholder and still has the power to kill the nuclear agreement by passing new sanctions that violate the JCPOA. But it is unlikely to muster the votes to do so. Just as the House voted under the Obama administration time and again to repeal the Affordable Care Act, it also had no problem generating overwhelming support for draconian sanctions on Iran because it knew they would never become law. The Obama administration would always negotiate out the worst elements and eventually come to agreement on a middle ground approach that gave it leverage with Iran but did not threaten the JCPOA or ongoing negotiations.
Under President Donald Trump, Congress has suddenly become much more measured. The bipartisan Iran sanctions legislation introduced in both houses right before last week’s American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference was quite tame. Both pieces of legislation could worsen the environment and undermine trust between Iran and the United States. Both could use some fixes, which would make them less likely to violate the nuclear agreement. And passing anything before having greater clarity on the Trump administration’s broader strategy is a mistake. But neither piece of legislation explicitly violates the nuclear agreement.
In 2015, 42 Democrats in the Senate took a major risk by choosing to support the agreement when it was first signed. They now have the ability to filibuster any legislation that they believe would kill the JCPOA and are not going to reverse their positions. On top of that, Democrats who opposed the deal and a number of Republicans also acknowledge that given the complexities of unwinding it, legislation that would be seen as a clear violation is not a good idea. Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Bob Corker has publicly acknowledged as much, and notably during Speaker Ryan’s speech to AIPAC last week he railed against the nuclear agreement but ultimately called for tough enforcement — not repeal.
The JCPOA and Obamacare are also similar in that both were ultimately about central ideological fights between Obama and a Republican Congress that ultimately are not as high of a priority for Trump. At its core, Obamacare became an argument about differing worldviews, with Republicans arguing for less government involvement in healthcare and Democrats arguing for a greater government role. The nuclear agreement was a proxy for a broader ideological debate about America’s role in the world, and specifically Obama’s view that the United States should diplomatically engage with its adversaries — a view harshly opposed by congressional Republicans.
Unlike congressional Republicans, Trump never made repealing Obamacare his central domestic message, instead focusing on economic nationalism, trade, and immigration. And this prioritization showed during the effort to repeal it, when the White House allowed Speaker of the House Paul Ryan to drive the process. Indeed, left to its own devices without a push from Congress, the Trump administration may never have pursued this legislative initiative in the first place.
In the same way, while Trump railed against the Iran deal during the campaign, he rarely called for undoing it, instead focusing his primary foreign policy messages on terrorism, getting U.S. allies to pay more for their own defense, and better relations with Russia. And since coming into office — while placing Iran “on notice,” and aside from one stray tweet from the president — the Trump administration has continued to state that it will enforce the nuclear agreement. Indeed, even as Vice President Mike Pence railed harshly against Iran during his speech in front of AIPAC last week, he was careful to not imply in any way that the administration was walking away from the nuclear deal.
Still, like Obamacare, the Iran deal is far from completely safe and could be quietly undermined. The Trump administration could try to undermine Obamacare through a number of steps such as discouraging enrollment, not enforcing the individual mandate, cutting subsidies, or weakening support for the insurance exchanges. This could over time cause Obamacare to collapse.
The Iran deal is in a similar spot. The administration could discourage economic investment in Iran that was expected as part of the nuclear agreement. Under the Obama administration, the Treasury and State Departments went out of their way to explain the terms of the agreement to international business executives so that they would understand and avoid some of the major risks associated with investing in Iran while steering clear of violating the many sanctions still on the books. The Trump administration is not going to pursue this type of proactive outreach, but the real question is whether the Treasury Department starts to reinterpret sanctions relief under the nuclear deal in ways that discourage investment in Iran.
Indeed, Iran was already quite frustrated with the pace of sanctions relief under Obama. Much of this was Iran’s fault, as Iranian President Hassan Rouhani sold the deal to his public and Supreme Leader Ali Khomeini by exaggerating the economic benefits. However, in the aftermath of Trump’s election there has also been greater hesitance by companies to invest, and if that continues or is exacerbated it may lead to frustration on the Iranian side that eventually results in Iran walking away.
The Trump administration could also kill the agreement over time through the way in which it negotiates with Iran over small violations that will inevitably occur. The JCPOA establishes a joint commission that includes all of the parties to the agreement, which meets regularly and ensures implementation is on track. In a number of cases early in implementation Iran was technically in violation and the Obama administration used the joint commission to quickly and quietly call Iran out and force it to come into rapid compliance. But in a similar scenario, the Trump administration might instead loudly and publicly confront Iran in a manner that causes it to escalate and undermines the agreement.
There is also the possibility that as the Trump administration takes a harder line with Iran in regard to its regional behavior and also reduces the level of diplomatic engagement, tensions in areas outside the nuclear agreement could lead to an escalation that eventually leads to the deal’s collapse. The Trump administration is rightfully looking for ways to push back on Iran’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Shia militias in Iraq, and Houthi rebels in Yemen, and will take a more aggressive approach than the Obama administration did. This by itself should not threaten the nuclear agreement, but if it leads to a highly escalatory incident that launches the United States and Iran into direct military conflict, the effects could include the collapse of the JCPOA.
The risk of this type of miscalculation increases as the overall environment gets worse. While Congress and the Trump administration have been careful to not explicitly try to kill the deal, the recently introduced legislation and the intense rhetoric towards Iran at AIPAC sewed further mistrust. And thus far the new administration does not appear to be keeping open a diplomatic channel with Iran, which is a major mistake. The Trump administration should reconsider and keep open a dialogue between Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif.
Ultimately, neither the Iran deal nor the Affordable Care Act are guaranteed to succeed. Both will face significant pressures in the years ahead from an administration that has not bought into either. And in the case of the JCPOA, Iranian decision-making and domestic politics also remain major wildcards. But supporters of the Iran deal should be reassured by the early experiences in trying to overturn Obamacare. Turns out it is much easier to rail against a complex deal you oppose then unravel and replace it with something better.
Photo credit: Speaker of the House Paul Ryan addresses the AIPAC policy conference in Washington on March 27, 2017. NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images