Here’s What to Expect Now That Trump Has Withdrawn From the Iran Nuclear Deal
The United States will be worse off once the smoke clears.
On Tuesday, U.S. President Donald Trump fulfilled one of his campaign promises and took the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. In doing so, he broke the United States’ commitment to implement the deal in good faith and, notwithstanding his positive words on future talks, imperiled the possibility of a diplomatic settlement of the nuclear issue by undermining U.S. credibility in diplomacy. The end result will be a weak sanctions regime, an Iran that over time violates its nuclear commitments, and a Middle East that becomes even more unstable than it already is.
Even by the Trump administration’s admission, Iran has been faithfully implementing the nuclear deal. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will almost certainly confirm this fact by the end of May, when it issues its next quarterly report on Iran. Thus, the nuclear crisis to come will not be Iran’s fault, but rather that of the Trump administration and those who prodded it to renounce the one mechanism in the past 35 years that has reliably constrained Iran’s nuclear program.
There is still a chance that president will revise his misguided decision. After all, he is entertaining similar reversals, whether on the Paris climate agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or aluminum tariffs. Moreover, the president’s own comments suggest that he is prepared to listen to new proposals from Europe, Congress, and even Iran. Taken in combination with the long lead times attached to sanctions implementation (even with 90- and 180-day windows for implementation), and it is possible that in the coming weeks we will hear of a change of heart in the White House and even a reconsideration of the decision.
But this rosy scenario is unlikely. The agreement centered on a crucial bargain: U.S. sanctions relief for Iranian nuclear concessions. Without the United States’ active support, the deal faltered over the past year. With the United States actively opposed, it will likely collapse, and soon.
There are three interconnected issues to watch as we enter the post-Iran deal environment: the implementation of sanctions, the Iranian nuclear program, and the regional dimension.
A weak and fractured sanctions regime
Though many of Trump’s cheerleaders believe that the United States can enforce its will on the rest of the planet through brute sanctions pressure, the United States will find it extremely difficult to repeat the success of the 2006 to 2013 sanctions campaigns that brought Iran to the table if it is opposed by most of the international community. The sanctions campaign of that era was based on three interrelated concepts: that sanctions pressure could shift Iranian strategic calculus, that multilateral sanctions pressure would be more effective than unilateral sanctions pressure, and that willing, cooperative, and multilateral pressure would be even better.
This reflected U.S. learning from the late 1990s, when the country sought to push the rest of the world to impose sanctions pressure on Cuba, Libya, and Iran through brute economic force, threatening access to the United States unless countries joined it in isolating those three nations. Those efforts failed, resulting in an acrimonious dispute between the United States and Europe, and instead the United States turned to a multilateral sanctions strategy, starting at the United Nations in 2006 and, in time, incorporating additional resolutions and a coordinated national measures campaign.
The United States helped to galvanize the international community through its own sanctions legislation that incorporated the threat of exclusion from U.S. markets. U.S. financial sanctions, in particular, were built to bypass governments that might otherwise be recalcitrant. But, importantly, the United States used sanctions to cajole and coerce cooperation as one element of a strategy that emphasized diplomacy. Sanctions pressure had a purpose, harnessed to the dual-track strategy that both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama adopted. And sanctions were assembled on the back of Iranian noncompliance with not only the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, but also multiple U.N. Security Council and IAEA Board of Governors resolutions.
Today, that clarity does not exist, and there is no stated justification for sanctions reimposition outside of a stated desire on Trump’s part to get a better deal. The Trump administration has offered scant details as to what would constitute such a deal, outside of the absence of any nuclear fuel cycle activities in Iran, for which Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton believes only bombing would work.
Getting a “better deal” would require international unity to apply more pressure. But the Trump administration has already poisoned the well, as every key international partner in Europe and Asia opposes walking away from the agreement. And without international support, the United States will be left to the brute economic force strategy that failed in the 1990s.
This will certainly have negative economic impacts on Iran, given the relative benefits of doing business in the United States versus business in Iran. But without active participation and cooperation by the rest of the world, the United States will face a monumental enforcement and implementation burden with scant support. Smuggling and evasion will be a reality of the new sanctions landscape, and though the United States can sanction those who engage in such business practices, it will find the burdens of doing so are far more complicated in the absence of partners willing to shut down such networks on their own.
The loss of international enthusiasm will slow the buildup of pressure on Iran. One illustration makes this point starkly: In 2012, the European Union reduced purchases of Iranian oil from around 700,000 barrels per day to zero barrels per day in six months. This was not the result of U.S. sanctions, but rather an independent European decision, underway before related U.S. sanctions passed Congress. Had European companies instead waited for U.S. sanctions to hit, they would have only followed the pattern of others in Asia, reducing their purchases by 20 percent every 180 days. Taken over time, the work of six months in 2012 would have taken six years to accomplish. The bottom line is that without political support, the U.S. sanctions regime will be a fraction of what it was in 2012.
A slow restart for Iran’s nuclear program
Paradoxically, the weakened sanctions regime will do just enough to push Iran out of the nuclear agreement, without exerting the type of crippling pressure that can result in meaningful concessions. As companies leave Iran and trade significantly decreases, supporters of the nuclear agreement will face increasing pressure from hard-liners to respond and will over time likely begin violating the deal.
Europe has pledged to do its part to avoid this outcome. In anticipation of Trump’s announcement, European leaders have stressed their intention to stick to the agreement. There has been talk of effectively continuing on with the Iran deal, absent the United States. But Europe will not be able to deliver the kind of economic benefits to Iran that the United States brought under the deal, and in the likely event that this attempt begins to fail, then the question will become: How long until Iran restarts its nuclear program?
Iran will likely wait at least some time to pick back up major, provocative aspects of the program. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif will argue in favor of using this moment as an opportunity to split the international coalition arrayed against Iran. “Blame Trump” will have an attractive ring to it, considering his international unpopularity, and this will contribute to at least some consideration of continuing to play victim rather than responding with violations of the Iran deal.
But regime hard-liners will argue that Rouhani and Zarif have led Iran into a sucker’s agreement. These figures will call for an Iranian response that restores pride and fulfills the Rouhani administration’s commitment to restart the program “within hours.”
Depending on who wins this argument in front of the supreme leader, Iran’s nuclear restart will either begin immediately or after the EU and other countries doing business with Iran demonstrate that they are unable to prevent their companies from abandoning Iran. But eventually the nuclear program is likely to restart.
What Iran will choose to do is a matter of considerable opacity, but based on its past behavior we can be confident that it will neither sit on its hands in the face of a major U.S. provocation nor go full bore to a nuclear weapon, thus uniting the international community against it. At the lowest end, it could restart some discrete activities that do not meaningfully push its nuclear program forward (such as production of extra heavy water or research and development centered on uranium centrifuges), intending to avoid provocation while providing hard-liners with something positive to tout. It could go one step further and restart one or two activities (such as the installation of hundreds of older generation uranium centrifuges or enrichment of more than 660 pounds of enriched uranium) or somewhat reduce its cooperation with the IAEA without fully kicking out inspectors. Or it could pursue a more extreme response and reject all of the deal’s restrictions and commitments, arguing that the United States has so badly breached the agreement that there is no point in maintaining even a portion of it.
But most likely, Iran’s ability to break out in pursuit of nuclear weapons will improve, with the delay imposed by the agreement of approximately one year shrinking to months, and possibly weeks. Meanwhile, the IAEA’s access to the program will diminish, and confidence that the United States can prevent Iran from secretly pursuing a covert weapons program will drop. We will find ourselves back in the days of the first decade of the 2000s, with Iran slowly creeping to a nuclear weapon.
A more unstable Middle East
As for the region, the situation will not get better. U.S. allies in Jerusalem and Riyadh will cheer the U.S. decision to walk away from the Iran deal. But they will soon find themselves deeply disappointed. With the nuclear crisis back on the table, the international community’s focus will pivot entirely to the nuclear question and away from Iran’s regional behavior, just as it did for the 15 years prior to the deal. Meanwhile, Trump has talked tough about countering Iran’s behavior in the region, but when it comes to action it is clear that he has little stomach to get involved in a a major regional confrontation with Iran or any coherent strategy for how to push back on Iranian inroads in the region.
Syria is a case in point. The Israelis are increasingly worried about Iran’s establishment of a permanent military presence in the country and have begun taking things into their own hands with increasingly brazen airstrikes that have killed Iranian fighters. Right now, both sides are testing each other’s limits in Syria as Iran has not directly responded to Israeli strikes but has continued to push for an Assad regime offensive in southwest Syria that would bring Shiite militia fighters to Israel’s border.
But rather then use the Syrian theater as an opportunity to push back on Iran, Trump has done precisely the opposite. He has cut off all support for an Obama-era program that supported Syrian opposition fighters near Israel’s border and kept Iran out of the southwest. He has halted $200 million in assistance, much of which was meant to stabilize the areas on Israel and Jordan’s border and keep Iran out. And he has started talking about withdrawing the roughly 2,000 U.S. troops in northeast Syria that helped the United States’ Kurdish allies dramatically roll back the Islamic State. As long as U.S. forces remain in that territory, they dramatically complicate Iran’s ability to move Shiite militia forces between Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. But if the United States leaves, the field is open to Iran.
In Iraq, the pullout from the Iran deal could not come at a worse time. On May 12, Iraq has national elections. A prolonged period of coalition negotiations, which tend to last months as the various political parties struggle to form a new government, will likely follow. In the past two elections, in 2010 and 2014, a coalition was only able to form when the two most influential outside players, the United States and Iran, quietly acquiesced to a deal, and this will need to happen again. But in the aftermath of the collapse of the agreement, will such an arrangement be possible? Or will both Iran and the United States pursue absolutist positions that lead to prolonged stalemate and instability in Iraq?
As for other theaters in the region, such as Lebanon and Yemen, the Trump administration’s approach to date has been to follow Saudi Arabia’s lead, giving it a green light to pursue an aggressive anti-Iran strategy. This has led to one bungled failure after another, ranging from the U.S. doubling down in support for the disastrous war in Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s clumsy effort to replace the Lebanese prime minster, and a new major rift between Qatar and the rest of the Gulf that shows no signs of receding. If this remains the centerpiece of U.S. anti-Iran policy in the Middle East, it is bound to fail.
Trump’s announcement on Tuesday does fulfill a campaign promise and the ultimatum he made in January. But it comes at a price to the deeper promise of the United States’ willingness to resolve conflicts diplomatically and to stick to agreements it has already reached. The United States is far weaker as a result of this decision, even if the country’s technical freedom of action to use sanctions and to oppose Iran has grown. Now, the fundamental question is whether leaving the Iran deal will result in resolutions to the various problems Trump has argued justify his actions.
Richard Nephew is a fellow at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. He was formerly part of the U.S. negotiating team with Iran and advisor on Iran at the White House.