President-Elect Trump and the Iran Nuclear Deal

During the American presidential campaign, Iranian state media had taken to airing American programming relevant to the political process, including the fictional political drama House of Cards and the last two debate between Donald Trump and his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton. Khamenei also spoke out to the Iranian public in response to those debates, describing them as evidence of the low moral character of the American leadership. Furthermore, Rouhani responded to questions about the US election by expressing no preference for either candidate. Instead, he described the election as a choice between “bad and worse.” 

On the other hand, the day before the election, some Iranian informed sources suggested that the Iranian establishment, particularly the avowedly hardline faction, harbored an unstated preference for Trump. The reasons given for this conclusion included the lack of an established relationship between Trump and Iran’s regional enemies, Saudi Arabia and Israel. In fact, the campaign between Trump and Clinton had extensively highlighted apparent connections between Trump and Russia, which has been growing increasingly close to Iran, especially against the backdrop of the Syrian Civil War, in which Iran and Russia both support President Bashar al-Assad. 

These alleged ties to one of Iran’s key allies may bolstered another factor, the notion that the Republican presidential candidate might turn out to be more willing to open up back-channel discussions with the Iranians, as had Republican President Ronald Reagan at the time of the Iran-Contra affair. 

Such back-channel talks would be made even more likely by comparative disinterest in issues like Iran’s human rights abuses. Some analysts suggested that this sort of disinterest might be more likely from the Republican candidate than from the Democrat, although it bears noting that human rights organizations had widely criticized the outgoing Obama administration for focusing too narrowly on the Iran nuclear deal, at the expense of human rights. 

Still, there is no sign that Trump would be an improvement in this regard. While he has aggressively criticized the nuclear deal, even to the point of suggesting it is the worst deal in recent history, these criticisms have focused on how the US might have more greatly benefited from the deal. Contrary to some other critics, Trump has not emphasized Iran’s objectionable domestic behaviors in the context of the deal. Meanwhile, his positions on human rights have been called into question by his political opponents in the US because of specific remarks made on the campaign trail, including promises to reinstitute waterboarding and other forms of torture as military interrogation techniques. 

But even if Trump’s criticisms of Iran turn out to be limited in scope, they can be expected to be of much greater intensity than anything that has been seen under the presidency of Barack Obama, whom opponents fiercely criticized for permissive policies and even “appeasement.” Insofar as those critics view the nuclear agreement itself as an example of such policies, they are sure to encourage President-elect Trump to follow through on his campaign promises to “tear up” the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. 

However, those promises were inconsistent and we contradicted by other statements suggesting only that he would somehow renegotiate the agreement, finalized in July 2015 between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany. In the immediate aftermath of Tuesday’s election, the Trump team appeared to have come down on the side of the less extreme threat. According to CNN, Trump foreign policy advisor Walid Phares has declared that the Trump White House will review the JCPOA and demand changes, but will not tear it up altogether. 

By some accounts, the more extreme threat is unrealistic, in large part because of the multilateral nature of the agreement. Bloomberg reported on Wednesday that President Rouhani had responded to Trump’s election within hours by telling his cabinet that the incoming US president will simply not be able to tear up the nuclear agreement. Rouhani’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif said much the same thing, enjoining Trump to “fully understand the realities of today’s world.” But according to Reuters, Zarif also said that Iran has “other options” in the event that the US takes steps to undermine the deal. 

Zarif made this comment specifically in response to questions from the international press regarding Iran’s nuclear enrichment program. In this way, his statements seem to reflect previous statements from more recognizably hardline Iranian figures who insist that the country is prepared to ramp up enrichment and expand it well beyond prior levels, in response to the merest provocation. 

And depending upon the measures President Trump decides to take, that provocation may in fact turn out to be quite substantial. Although many Western analysts technically agree with Rouhani and Zarif that Trump will not be able to singlehandedly tear up the agreement, the Wall Street Journal pointed out on Thursday that there are definite steps he could take to overturn parts of the agreement, and that this could effectively undermine the whole thing. Those steps include ending American participation in the deal’s implementation and using the power of the executive order to revoke the relief from US sanctions that was granted to Iran under the deal. 

While it is clear that the Iranians do not wish to lose that relief, what is not clear is whether they will be willing to do what is necessary to preserve it during the next US presidential administration. Although Rouhani’s comments following Trump’s election praised a recent Iranian strategy of outreach to the world, Foreign Minister Zarif struck a tone much closer to that of the Supreme Leader and other Iranian hardliners when he told reporters that he did not feel the need to develop a relationship with the next US Secretary of State, as he had with current Secretary of State Kerry. 

“We had a long nuclear negotiation between Iran and the United States. I do not expect another negotiation, certainly not on the nuclear issue, but nor on any other subjects,” Zarif said, according to Reuters. In the immediate aftermath of the nuclear agreement, Supreme Leader Khamenei ordered his subordinates to avoid discussions with the West over issues unrelated to that agreement. He subsequently took a leading role in accusing the US of violating the “spirit” of the JCPOA by doing too little to help Iran in its economic recovery. 

This accusations and the generally non-cooperative sentiment may give the incoming American president continuous incentive to either pressure Iran toward higher levels of compliance, or else to effectively cancel the deal. Incentive, however, does not necessarily equate to justification. But that justification may well exist in the form of perceived violations or actual, nominal violations of the JCPOA on the Iranian side. 

On Thursday, Business Insider was among the outlets to report that the International Atomic Energy Agency had found Iran to have exceeded the quantities of heavy water it is permitted to possess under the terms of the nuclear agreement. The recorded violation was only slight, as Iran acquired 0.1 metric ton more of the plutonium-enrichment byproduct than that 130 metric tons that are permitted. However, this violation, which was revealed within hours of Trump’s victory, was the second of its kind, and thus may be presented as part of a pattern of Iranian non-compliance, whether willful or negligent. 

The first heavy water violation passed without serious criticism from the countries involved in the nuclear agreement. In fact, the Obama administration made arrangements to purchase the substance from the Iranians, in a move that was strongly derided by his Republican opponents, who went on to attach a provision to the congressional energy bill, barring the president from making similar purchases in the future. 

Trump’s past statements lead to the conclusion that Congress, which will have an even stronger Republican majority when he is sworn in in January, will not have to impose such constraints on the new president’s actions toward Iran. And if faced with more violations like the one just revealed by the IAEA, Trump will likely be much less forgiving, perhaps even to the point of threatening the life of the JCPOA. 

Yet, despite his antipathy for that deal, some suggest that it is too well-established and too popular among other signatories for Trump to be able to pull out without risking serious political consequences. One CNN analysis speculated that those consequences would come in roughly equal measure from the three European members of the P5+1 group and from China and Russia. This is not to say that Trump would refuse to take such a step anyway, but there are other measures he could employ that would still be in keeping with his pre-election attitudes toward Iran and the nuclear deal. 

One of those possibilities, the CNN piece goes on to say, would be to leave US policy on the JCPOA to the Republican Congress, which could put the survival of the agreement at risk while leaving the new US president with some degree of political cover. 

Congress has already been making various efforts to undermine the agreement, but these have been obstructed by President Obama and his allies among congressional Democrats. This situation is poised to change dramatically in January, both because of Trump’s Republican administration and because of the diminished power of Democrats in both houses of Congress. 

There is some question about the degree of cooperation that can be expected between Trump and that Congress, given that some high-ranking legislative Republicans refused to support his candidacy. But the Iran nuclear deal seems unaffected by this factor. In fact, the Washington Post reports that an initiative to increase sanctions on the Islamic Republic of Iran is the very first item on the agenda of the “Never Trump” faction when it comes to working with the new president. 

Republican Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain are planning to reintroduce the Iran Ballistic Missile Sanctions Act on the first day that Congress is back in session. By thus compensating for some of the relief from nuclear-related sanctions, Republicans hope to put additional pressure on Iran, apparently with an eye toward encouraging Trump’s renegotiation of the JCPOA. 

The Washington Post also points out that there is support for such measures among some Democrats, including New York Senator Charles Schumer, who will be taking on the position of minority leader. It remains to be seen whether their support for expanded sanctions will translate into other legislative measures that will widely diverge from the policies put in place by President Obama. 

But while we wait to see what role both Democrats and the Trump administration will play in the future activities of the Republican majority, that majority continues to pursue a raft of measures aimed at undermining the perceived permissiveness of the outgoing administration. First among these measures as of Thursday was a piece of legislation seeking to block the US government from financing a pending deal between Iran and Seattle-based Boeing for the sale of over 100 commercial jet aircraft.  

According to the USA Today, the House Rules Committee is planning to convene on Monday to set terms for how the bill will be debated. Once debate has concluded, the bill is likely to pass the House, though its fate is less certain in the Senate. And even if it does pass the upper house of Congress, the bill would presumably face a presidential veto. However, any similar legislation that reaches the president’s desk after January will be certain to meet with a much different fate.