Donald Trump’s foreign policy platform may have been incoherent on most issues during the election campaign, but he was clear on the nuclear deal with Iran, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). According to him it was “disastrous”, “lopsided” and a “disgrace”. What he intends to do about it is not so clear. He promised to tear it up in a speech for AIPAC. However, Walid Phares, one of his foreign policy advisors, suggested he would merely try to renegotiate the terms. Alternatively, he could simply leave the deal in place, and then play hard-ball with Iran as it is implemented. Trump is already backing-off on some of his more controversial promises, so this may all be campaign fodder. However, if he does try to meddle with JCPOA, no good will come of it.
Trump’s ability to either renegotiate or annul the deal will depend on his ability to reapply sanctions and/or use military force. Political conditions are not favourable for either. One of the main motivations for negotiating the deal in the first place was the fear that counter-proliferation strikes against Iran would be destabilising in the region and could possibly escalate out of control. The situation in the Middle East is now even more fragile and unpredictable than before. The campaigns in Mosul and Raqqa are progressing, but the Syrian civil war is far from over and Daesh will likely persist as a terrorist organisation even without a territorial base. Even when the fighting is over, Iran has a vital role to play in Syria’s post-conflict political reconstruction, as it did when the Karzai government was established in Afghanistan. Washington will need to maintain a working relationship with Tehran if it has any hope of getting this situation under control. Counter-proliferation strikes would make it impossible.
Reapplying sanctions would be no less problematic. While the JCPOA was being negotiated, its critics claimed that it would be impossible to snap-back sanctions if the deal broke down after it was signed. They were wrong then, but right now. The pre-deal sanctions on Iran were powerful because of the degree to which they were multilateral. China, Russia, the EU and Japan joined the US in isolating the Islamic Republic. Economically, there was almost nowhere for Tehran to turn. If Iran had broken its promises concerning the JCPOA, then Washington would have had the moral high ground, and would have been in a fairly good position to reconstitute that coalition and put the pressure back on Iran. However, if the deal is broken unilaterally by Donald Trump, the US will look like the villain. He would have a hard time convincing allies that he dismissed as free-riders to give up lucrative new contracts with Tehran and fall back in line.
If Trump cannot convincingly threaten Iran with military force or multi-lateral sanctions, there would be little to constrain Iran’s nuclear programme if the JCPOA was torn up. Indeed, given Trump’s rhetoric, if Trump annulled the agreement, Tehran would have extra motivation to weaponise. Even if he just wanted to renegotiate, he would have very little leverage. Most worrying, he could miscalculate. If he reopened the deal and Iran did not make concessions, Trump could resort to bluster and bullying and talk himself into a situation where he had to use military force or admit defeat.
It is impossible to predict what a Trump administration would do, but the points above suggest the hard-ball option is the most likely choice. In addition to ramping up the rhetoric, Washington could look for ways outside the JCPOA framework to increase pressure. It could impose sanctions punishing Iran for its ballistic programme or its involvement in Yemen. Similarly, it could insist on the JCPOA being interpreted and implemented in strict and narrow terms. In April, for instance, Washington offered to purchase the excess heavy water Iran produced to allow Tehran to meet its obligations under the JCPOA. Instead, the Trump administration could turn any such event into an excuse to delay implementing its own obligations, such as allowing Iran access to western banks.
Ironically, limited hard-ball tactics may play well in Tehran. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei always seemed in two minds on the JCPOA. On one hand, the agreement was necessary for Iran in order to end its diplomatic and economic isolation. On the other, improving relations with the US contradicted the narrative of the revolution and threatened the regime’s identity. So far, Khamenei has tried to have it both ways. He supported the negotiating team during the talks but all the while maintained a steady barrage of anti-American rhetoric. Trump’s posturing may therefore make it easier for him to preserve the “Iran versus the Great Satan” motif in the regime’s official discourse. However, if Trump goes beyond talking tough, he could undermine the deal all together. Iran’s moderate President, Hassan Rouhani, is already under pressure from conservative opponents who, like their American counterparts, believed the JCPOA was a capitulation. He does not have the political capital to make further concessions. Moreover, if the hard-ball tactics actually began to hurt Iran’s economic recovery, Khamenei may conclude that the benefits of the JCPOA no longer outweigh the costs. If so, Trump will not have to tear up the agreement, Khamenei will do it for him.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.