Despite major skepticism surrounding its adoption, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — which offers Iran sanctions relief in exchange for limits on its nuclear program — has entered its second year of implementation, with no major hurdles. Many analysts, however, are concerned about the future of former U.S. President Barack Obama’s landmark deal with Iran. During his campaign, new President Donald Trump vowed to dismantle the nuclear deal with Iran. Nevertheless, the question remains whether this was simply a campaign slogan, or whether Trump will actually act to withdraw from the deal.
In answering this question one should keep in mind that abrogating an international accord which bears the approval of the United Nations Security Council could have negative consequences for the departing party. Below, I will study three potential scenarios concerning the future of the Iran nuclear deal in the next few years, and will argue that given the lack of better alternatives, it is in the best interest of the United States and the international community to continue to vigorously monitor and implement the provisions of the Iran nuclear deal.
Scenario One: Abrogate/Renegotiate the Deal
Given Trump’s proclivity for unorthodox politics, it’s possible that he would follow on his campaign promise to lead the United States to withdraw from, or push for the renegotiation of, the nuclear accord. A unilateral withdrawal, however, will harm U.S. interests and could even lead to an international crisis. Iranian diplomats, backed by high ranking European Union officials, have stated their commitment to the current terms of JCPOA and have rejected the possibility of renegotiating the nuclear accord. Iran has further warned about the consequences of a unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear accord. In the most recent case, the chief of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization (AEOI), Dr. Ali Akbar Salehi, stated that Iran would resume its nuclear program in a new manner if Washington decided to withdraw from the deal.
Therefore, if the Trump administration decides to unilaterally abandon the JCPOA, not only will he risk putting the EU and the United States on a collision course, but could also endanger any future cooperation on similar issues. Iran’s decision to seriously negotiate over its nuclear program came only after the Obama administration was able to create an international coalition to pressure Iran over its nuclear program. It seems unlikely however, that the Trump administration could be successful in garnering such international support. The new administration has already gotten off on the wrong foot with China and the EU, and it seems unlikely that they would support any U.S. initiative to withdraw from or renegotiate the Iranian nuclear accord. Even in the United States, many officials, including Trump’s own picks to head the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency, have not shied away from publicly expressing their concerns over the possibility of abandoning the nuclear deal. By withdrawing from JCPOA, the United States will risk taking the blame for the collapse of a deal that bears the approval of the United Nations Security Council. This could have ramifications for the image of the United States on the international scene and, more importantly, on the nonproliferation regime.
Iranian foreign policy decision makers have historically used one international power to offset the pressures of another. For example, during the Cold War, Iranian decision makers used the United States and its military and political power to counter the threat of a potential Soviet invasion of Iran. After the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Iranians negotiated with the representatives of Germany, France, and the United Kingdom (EU-3) to avoid a potential conflict with the United States. Current President Hassan Rouhani, in his book Nuclear Diplomacy and National Security, states that Iran’s strategy at the time was to negotiate a deal with the Europeans in order to create a rift between the United States and the EU over Iran’s nuclear program.
By reviewing this pattern, one can expect that if the United States decides to unilaterally withdraw from JCPOA and increase pressure on Iran, decision makers in Tehran would most likely react by moving closer to the EU and China. Iran could further respond by abandoning some of its commitments under JCPOA, which could in turn be reciprocated by U.S. punitive measures, in effect creating a slippery slope that could lead to the quick collapse of the JCPOA. Furthermore, if the Trump administration decides to abandon the nuclear deal it will give plenty of ammunition to hardliners in Iran who have been opposed to JCPOA from the beginning. That will most likely will lead to their return to power, practically repeating the scenario of Iran’s 2004 elections, when former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appeared at the forefront of Iranian politics. This in turn, would further complicate the already tumultuous U.S.-Iranian relations.
Scenario Two: Force Iran to Violate the Deal
Another potential scenario is that United States will increase the pressure on Iran, in effect forcing it to abandon the nuclear deal. This would allow Washington to blame Tehran for violating JCPOA, opening the path for additional sanctions. However, as was stated before, the collapse of JCPOA could easily turn into an international crisis, endangering the United States’ interests. Therefore, this would be a risky course of action for the U.S. to pursue.
Given the evidence, it seems unlikely that Iran under current circumstances would decide to abandon its JCPOA commitments; however, because of its peculiar cost-benefit analysis, if Iran comes under substantial pressure it may decide to “save face” and resume its previous nuclear activities. After the renewal of Iran Sanctions Act (ISA) legislation by the U.S. Congress, Iranian officials vowed a “firm” reaction. In fact, Rouhani responded by ordering the chief of Iran’s Atomic Agency to “plan” for the design and manufacturing of nuclear-propulsion systems for maritime vessels. But the wording of the decree indicates that this response is more symbolic than practical, and is mainly intended for domestic political purposes. It could also be interpreted as a message for the Trump administration that Iran is willing to respond to any potential violation of the JCPOA.
The Republicans in Congress who have opposed the nuclear accord from the beginning have already started introducing new legislation that, if passed, will broaden the sanctions on Iran. Since Iran’s Supreme Leader has announced that any new sanctions would be considered a violation of the accord, Iran’s policymakers will be in a difficult situation. If they remain committed to the JPCOA they would have directly contradicted Khamenei’s orders, and if they decide to respond, they would risk taking the blame for violating the JCPOA. I believe that if Iran decides to resume its pre-JCPOA activities, it most likely will not abrogate the deal in whole; rather, it will take incremental steps to minimize the potential costs.
Scenario Three: Continue to Implement JCPOA
Given the international support for the nuclear accord, I believe that in the most likely scenario the JCPOA will continue to be implemented, but with more scrutiny. In 2016, Iran’s heavy water reserves went slightly beyond JCPOA provisions; however, Iran acted quickly to correct the problem. The Obama administration at the time decided not to react, but the Trump administration may not demonstrate the same level of latitude toward such inadvertent mistakes. Trump may instead move swiftly to punish any minor violation.
It is also possible that the Trump administration decides to continue to implement the deal, but squeeze and limit any benefit that Iran may receive from the agreement. For example, unlike the previous administration, which actively encouraged banks to begin engaging with Iran, the Trump administration may decide not to follow suit.
We should keep in mind that states engage in diplomacy in the hopes of benefiting from the outcome; however, if their objectives are not met, they may attempt to change the status quo to minimize their losses. Iran engaged in serious negotiations in the hopes of recovering its weakening economy. If it does not see the fruits of the nuclear accord, it may decide to resume its nuclear activities to minimize its losses. In addition, Washington’s decision to move forward with proper implementation of the JCPOA could significantly affect Iran’s next presidential election, and hence, the country’s attitude toward the outside world.
Another issue in considering the future of the nuclear deal, and U.S.-Iranian relations in a broader sense, is the sharp differences of opinion among Trump’s picks for key cabinet positions, including National Security Advisor Gen. Michael Flynn and the new Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. While Flynn has been an advocate of regime change in Tehran, Tillerson has expressed his skepticism over a U.S.-led regime change policy, adding that the United States should vigorously enforce the JCPOA. Therefore, it is possible that these differences of opinion in dealing with Iran could lead to confusion and lack of a cohesive strategy from the administration. The regime change policy that the majority of “Iran hawks” in Washington advocate only strengthens the position of hardliners in Tehran, who categorically reject any cooperation and constructive engagement with the West. Therefore, it is imperative that the U.S. continues to honor its JCPOA commitments in good faith.
Diplomacy seeks to find alternative solutions that are considered a win-win outcome to all parties. Despite its complaints, Iran seems to be pleased with the outcome of the JCPOA; however, there is no question that if Iran finds itself on the losing side of the nuclear agreement it will take measures to cut its losses (most likely by resuming its previous nuclear activities). Trump has yet to take any formal action against the Iran nuclear deal; however, there are major concerns over the future of the agreement. The fate of JCPOA will greatly affect the future of any U.S.-Iranian cooperation, and thus, the future of U.S.-Iranian relations.
We should keep it in mind that abrogating the deal not only destroys the hopes of any near future cooperation between the two countries, but could also lead to an international crisis (or, even worse, to war). Given the wide international support for JCPOA, the chances of a complete collapse of the deal are low. However, given Trump’s “madman” politics, anything is possible. In this author’s opinion, both Iran and the United States should continue to honor their JCPOA commitments vigorously and in good faith, and refrain from any provocative action that could endanger the safe implementation of an international accord.
Sina Azodi is a former Research Assistant at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a graduate of Elliott School of International Affairs (B.A & MA), George Washington University. Follow him on Twitter @azodiac83