In February, President Donald Trump said that the Obama administration’s nuclear agreement with Iran was “one of the worst deals I’ve ever seen.” His comments were a direct echo of candidate Trump’s rhetoric: In one 2016 speech, he said, “My number one priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.”
While Trump refused to commit to tearing it up on day one, he repeatedly suggested that the deal was a “disaster” and that his administration would enforce it more harshly or perhaps seek to renegotiate its terms and make it a “totally different deal.”
Tuesday night, the Trump administration quietly took a very different line.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sent a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan that “certifies” Iran is complying with the terms of the deal, including the terms that place strict limits on its ability to develop a nuclear weapon. The deal, Tillerson said, was working.
Tillerson was careful to note that Tehran was “a leading state sponsor of terror,” and announced that Trump was initiating a review that will “evaluate whether suspension of sanctions related to Iran pursuant to the [Iran deal] is vital to the national security interests of the United States.”
But that kind of high-level review of major policy initiatives is actually quite normal for new administrations. According to experts across the political spectrum, the clear upshot of this letter is that the Iran deal is here to stay for the foreseeable future.
“My sense is the deal will be left largely intact,” Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow in the Brookings Center for Middle East Policy says. “[Tearing it up] is more trouble than it’s worth.”
That’s not to say that the US and Iran will be on good terms. The Trump administration is likely to take a more confrontational line on Iran when it comes to other issues, like Tehran’s support for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and the Iranian ballistic missile program.
But it does mean that US-Iran relations, which focused on the nuclear standoff for years, won't be changing as much under Trump as the president’s own words had suggested.
Harsh rhetoric is masking a major policy reversal on the deal
Reversing course on the Iran deal was always a tougher proposition than Trump made it sound like.
The deal, struck in July 2015, was at its core a trade: The US and its allies would relax economic sanctions on Iran if Tehran agreed to dismantle a huge portion of its nuclear program and allow international inspectors to ensure compliance. The deal kicked in six months after it was signed, on January 16, 2016.
On that day, things changed dramatically. Iran received sanctions relief basically immediately, which meant access to up to $100 billion in previously frozen assets as well as the right to sell oil on the international market. This made it hard for the Trump administration to just walk away from the deal. The US sanctions alone didn’t hurt Iran; the real bite came from international sanctions in Europe and elsewhere.
To convince those countries to put sanctions back in place, the US would have needed to show that Iran wasn’t abiding by the terms of the deal — failing to dismantle nuclear centrifuges, for example, or denying inspectors access to nuclear facilities.
But Iran has abided by the terms, as both the International Atomic Energy Agency and now the Trump administration have certified. While Iran has pushed the boundaries of its obligations in other areas — a ballistic missile test in the fall of 2015 clearly violated a UN Security Council resolution, for example — it has broadly adhered to the terms of the nuclear agreement.
“[The deal] has delivered so far on its narrow objective: effectively and verifiably blocking all potential pathways for Iran to race toward nuclear weapons, while opening the door to the country’s international rehabilitation and economic recovery,” the International Crisis Group concluded in a January 2017 statement.
So when Trump took office in late January, he was in a tough spot. He had trashed the Iran deal in no uncertain terms, but it was hard to see what he could do about it. There was zero international interest in renegotiating the deal’s terms, and an outright withdrawal would be catastrophic.
So the early Trump administration was vague on the deal itself, but took a hard rhetorical line on Iran in general. After another ballistic missile test in February, then-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn announced that “we are officially putting Iran on notice,” adding that Obama’s policy had been “weak and ineffective” and that “nothing is off the table.” Flynn had previously advocated for a campaign of regime change against Iran, so this might have been a serious threat.
Yet by mid-February, Flynn was gone. As the months rolled on and no meaningful action was taken on the nuclear issue, it became clear that the Trump administration wasn’t going to pull out of the agreement or attempt to change it in a way that would cause it to collapse.
“The Iranians would get off effectively scot-free,” Maloney says. “The administration, I think rightly, views that an American decision to divide us from our allies would undercut our other efforts to put pressure on Iran and wouldn’t actually accomplish anything in terms of penalizing Iran.”
Tuesday’s letter from Tillerson essentially confirmed that the deal would remain in place as is. While initiating a policy review of the Iran deal might sound threatening, people with experience in government didn’t see it as abnormal.
“In a start of a new administration you do policy reviews on most big key issues,” says Ilan Goldenberg, a former Obama official who worked on Iran and current director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.
The fact that Tillerson certified Iran’s compliance with the deal’s terms, Goldenberg believes, is a clear sign that the administration doesn’t intend to pull out anytime soon.
“I think they are going to keep the [deal],” he wrote in a note. “They are just posturing with this tough language because politically it's awkward.”
Jonathan Schanzer, an expert on sanctions at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and notable Iran deal critic, sees things similarly.
“This announcement underscores the commitment of the Trump administration to abide by the terms of the nuclear deal … for now,” he tells me.
Nuclear weapons aren't Washington’s only concern about Iran
The best way to think about this announcement, in a big-picture sort of way, is it means the fundamental shift in US-Iran relations that began during the Obama years will continue during the Trump ones.
For the past several years, US policy debates over Iran have centered on the nuclear standoff. The success of the Iran deal, and the practical difficulty in undoing it, has effectively taken that issue off the table — as the Tillerson announcement has proven.
But that doesn’t mean the US and Iran are entering some new era of harmony. The Trump administration is full of Iran hawks, like Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who believe that Iran’s funding of proxy militias and direct military intervention in places like Syria are destabilizing the Middle East. It looks like the Trump administration is going to downplay the nuclear issue while escalating financial and diplomatic pressure on Tehran when it comes to other issues.
“[The Tillerson letter] does not in any way undermine the administration’s strategy of increasing pressure on the regime in Tehran through the use of non-nuclear sanction,” Schanzer tells me. “This includes punishing Iran for its ongoing support to terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, its backing of the Assad’s regime slaughter in Syria, its support for the Houthis in Yemen, mass human rights violations at home, and even cyber activity.”
In theory, political tensions on these issues could end up bouncing back and affecting the Iran deal. Many American Iran hawks see the ballistic missile issue as evidence that Iran still has interest in acquiring nuclear weapons (though the deal does not prohibit missile testing). US-Iran tensions over missiles, Syria, or something else could theoretically lead to the nuclear deal’s collapse.
“All of this could cause the deal to die over the next few years,” Goldenberg writes.
But the key word there is “could.” For the deal to collapse outright, Iran would probably have to cheat — to violate some of the deal’s restrictions on banned nuclear activity — or pull out entirely. Doing so would risk renewed international sanctions, which Iran struck the deal in the first place to avoid. This would be a clear own goal — a point of which Tehran is well aware, which means the Iranians are likely to avoid sparking a confrontation on the nuclear crisis.
“My guess is that the Iranians — and we’ve seen senior Iranian officials say this — recognize that there’s a trap being laid,” Maloney says. “The United States at this stage is not terribly fond of the deal but has no interest in pulling out, and so may goad the Iranians to doing something [counterproductive].”
You add this all together, and it points to one thing: The nuclear crisis is no longer the central issue in US-Iranian relations. Trump could, as he suggested on the campaign trail, attempt to enforce the deal more strictly — watching closely for anything that might constitute an Iranian violation, and seeking to use such violations as a means of putting diplomatic pressure on Tehran. But nuclear deal watching will be part of an overall policy focusing on non-nuclear issues, not the main event.
“This administration is making Iran a major priority. It’s simply that the deal isn’t going to be the centerpiece of its approach,” Maloney says. “The deal is going to be part of a broader puzzle.”