During his successful run for the presidency, Donald Trump stuck to one simple message: Americans were getting raw deals both domestically and abroad, and he’d be able to craft better ones.
High on his list of purportedly bungled agreements? The landmark deal that the Obama administration and its allies struck with Iran in 2015 that called for lifting punishing Western economic sanctions in exchange for Tehran curbing its nuclear program. Trump has derided the agreement as “the stupidest deal of all time,” one that will “give Iran, absolutely, nuclear weapons.” Trump has alternately called for scrapping the entire thing or renegotiating its terms.
You might expect his election to make the people who opposed the Iran deal very excited by the prospect of the US pulling out of it. But that’s not what’s happening. Despite the fact that the Saudi Arabian government lobbied against the deal, a senior Saudi prince has cautioned against scrapping it. Foreign policy advocates in the US who thought the deal didn’t do enough to derail Iran’s nuclear ambitions have said it’s better to stick with it. And prominent Republican lawmakers have backed away from the idea of discarding it.
Their argument? Tehran has already received tens of billions of dollars in sanctions relief in exchange for shipping out a large chunk of its enriched uranium and taking thousands of centrifuges offline. If Washington pulled out of the deal, Tehran could theoretically restart those centrifuges and renew its push for nuclear weapons — while keeping the money.
For the deal to be a success in American eyes, Iran would have to abide by limits on its nuclear program that are designed to last for as long as 15 years. But abandoning or trying to redo the agreement would free Iran from those restrictions. The US, in other words, arguably needs the deal more than Iran does.
“We gave up ... all of our leverage on the front end when we gave away the moneys that were stashed in various countries around the world and so now the leverage is with them," Republican Sen. Bob Corker, who opposed the deal as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Politico.
Corker’s right. Because of the way the deal is structured, tearing it up would be a win for Iran.
The benefits of this arrangement are front-loaded for Iran. International sanctions have been lifted, and the country has increased its oil sales. According to some estimates, up to $100 billion of its frozen assets have already been thawed. Multinational corporations are racing to ink deals with a country with the second-largest economy in the Middle East: Earlier this month, for instance, Iran signed a $4.8 billion gas deal with the French company Total.
The US Treasury Department has given the go-ahead to Airbus and Boeing to sell scores of airplanes to Iran, a deal that could be worth tens of billions of dollars. (The House passed legislation Thursday designed to block the sale, but Obama would veto it if the bill made it through the Senate.) Washington has also started to pay Tehran $1.7 billion owed for a refund for US weapons that Iran purchased but that America never delivered.
Iran didn’t get all that for nothing. It’s generally complying with the deal’s restrictions on nuclear activity and has agreed to an intrusive surveillance and monitoring regime. Even if it didn’t, though, it would be hard for Trump to reimpose the sanctions that brought Tehran to the negotiating table in the first place.
Put simply, Tehran already has what it wants, and Washington doesn’t.
If the US acts alone, it could backfire
The key issue here is that the deal isn’t just something between the US and Iran. It’s a multilateral agreement that also involved the UK, France, Russia, Germany China, and the European Union. If the US decides it wants to fully reinstate the harsh sanctions on Iran, it has to convince its allies to do so as well. But given the momentum the agreement already has and the desire many countries have to do business with Tehran, that would be extremely difficult.
“If the US pulls out of the deal, there’s no guarantee that our European allies and Russia and China would walk away from the deal,” Kelsey Davenport, the director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association, told me. “In fact, they’ve indicated just the opposite.”
That means there’s a good chance the US would end up going it alone. Washington could, for example, attempt to reestablish sanctions directed at foreign firms buying oil from Iran. Washington could also step up its enforcement of rules barring US financial institutions from processing Iranian business transactions that use dollars, still the main currency for international trade.
That would hurt Iran, but it doesn’t pack close to the same kind of punch that comes with the rest of the world’s major powers economies isolating it at the same time. It would also create a rift between the US and its allies.
“We’d be creating diplomatic fractures that don’t currently exist,” said Juan Zarate, a former senior White House and Treasury Department official who shaped sanction policy against Iran in the 2000s. “We lose the potential cohesion we have with our negotiating partners.”
All the while, Iran would reap a win by being able to paint the US as a bully willing to buck agreements unilaterally. More importantly, it could decide to renew its push for nuclear weapons free of the Western sanctions that had slowed its progress for years.
So to sum it up, if the US decides to withdraw from the deal, it will likely end up doing it alone, losing legitimacy in the eyes of its allies and the international community and giving Iran license to pursue nuclear weapons with significantly more economic power and less stigma than it’s had in many years.
Improving the deal would be better than scrapping it
If Trump decides that he simply can’t accept the current state of affairs with Iran, the best chance he would have is to take measures to make the deal more stringent. Because it’s an executive agreement and not a treaty, he would be able to do this without Congress.
The US could pressure Iran by simply trying to enforce the already-established terms of the agreement extremely aggressively. So let’s say at some point the Iranians are particularly slow in allowing inspectors access to a certain site. A more relaxed posture in keeping with the Obama administration might possibly let something like that slide, as part of the give and take of the diplomatic process. Trump could treat that infraction as a major violation, and subsequently use that to build a case for exiting the deal if Iran doesn’t show better compliance.
“That’s not [eliminating] the deal — it’s a stricter application of the terms of the deal at every turn,” according to Zarate.
It’s worth noting that Iran has made it clear that it would not be willing to revisit the agreement. In a speech in Stockholm this past June, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif took direct aim at then-candidate Trump’s campaign rhetoric about the agreement and said the deal "is not an Iran-U.S. agreement for the Republican front-runner or anybody else to renegotiate. It's an international understanding annexed to a Security Council resolution."
Trump could also ramp up sanctions against Iran that are still in place but unrelated to Iran’s nuclear activity. That means increasing the intensity of the penalties for Tehran’s human rights violations, ballistic missile tests, support for terrorist networks, assistance to the Assad regime and so on.
In the US, this would be likely be an effective maneuver for Trump, who often uses things that aren’t part of the deal to say the deal itself isn’t working. He would be able to keep the agreement intact while accurately arguing that he was being tougher on Iran than his predecessor.
It wouldn’t be risk-free, however: Iran would perceive it as violating the spirit of the nuclear deal, if not the letter of it. That would escalate tensions, and could result in Iran pulling out of the deal entirely and devoting new energy to its nuclear program. It would also harm Washington’s image in the international community because Tehran could say the US undermined an agreement that took more than a decade of grueling diplomatic work to put together.
Analysts who have faith in the deal as it is currently designed recommend more modesty in attempting to build upon it. Davenport thinks that if the US wants to revisit the agreement, it’s going to have to be “under the understanding that all sides remain committed to implementing and enforcing the original agreement.” In this scenario, Washington should look to extend restrictions rather than seek new ones, such as the ones limiting Iran’s ability to expand its uranium enrichment with advanced centrifuges, which end in 2027 — just 11 years from the time the deal was implemented.
It’s impossible to know whether Trump will actually try to follow through on his most extreme rhetoric on the campaign trail about the nuclear deal. He’ll feel pressure to do something, but renegotiating the pact will be extremely difficult and could quickly imperil the progress that’s been made in US-Iranian relations in the past couple of years. Ripping up the agreement would be even worse.