During the election campaign, Donald Trump affirmed that immediately upon entering the White House he would “renegotiate the “disastrous” and “horrible” nuclear agreement with Iran. (Vice President-elect Mike Pence called for “ripping up the Iran deal” during the election campaign.) Since the elections Mr. Trump has not addressed the issue, and many believe he may change his stance – to paraphrase Israeli leaders, “What you see in power is different from what you see in campaigns.”
The president-elect actually has three options:
- Not to touch the agreement, but to intensify efforts to verify that Iran is upholding it (more intelligence, greater resolve in the face of Iranian tests of American mettle). Among those supporting this option are, on the one hand, those who think the agreement is the best that could have been achieved (some of whom also genuinely believe that it will prevent Iran from producing nuclear weapons over time). From this camp’s perspective, by reopening the agreement, the United States would puncture the international unity that made it possible, particularly at a time when the Europeans, Russians, and Chinese are deepening their economic ties with Iran. On the other hand, the supporters also include those who maintain that enhanced supervision would probably expose Iranian breaches of the agreement. That, in turn, would justify renewing the sanctions, without the United States having to be the first to renounce the deal.
- Not to touch the agreement, but to add sanctions on non-nuclear issues. Here the objectives would be to hamper Iran’s efforts to develop long-range missiles and to limit its ability to exploit the Obama administration’s promotion of the agreement so as to expand its own influence in the region (some advocate additional sanctions aimed at Iran’s support for terror and human rights violations). According to this scenario, the Iranians would have to rein in their problematic activities. The chances would increase that they would react angrily and indeed violate the nuclear agreement, enabling the United States, in turn, to renounce it without bearing the responsibility for its collapse.
- To demand of Iran that the agreement be reopened for discussion. Legally there is no problem here because the U.S. commitment to the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) was based on a presidential decree. From the U.S. standpoint, the plan did not become an international treaty (incidentally, none of the sides signed it). The new president could announce that if Iran refuses to reopen it for discussion, Washington will renounce it and reapply the secondary sanctions (some of which were never canceled in the first place but only suspended, with Congress recently voting to extend them for 10 years). That means the United States would freeze economic ties with any entities doing business with Iran; European companies and banks would react by putting an end to such commerce. This approach views the agreement as so dangerous to international security that the previous proposals entail a very high, unacceptable risk that Iran would in fact strictly adhere to the plan despite the pressures since it promises Iran the ability to produce a large nuclear-weapons arsenal in another 9-14 years. Such a step could prompt a dispute with the Europeans and with Russia and China, and stoke tensions and even an escalation toward Iran, which may renounce the agreement and even try to break out toward nuclear weapons. A firm stance by the new administration, however, would certainly deter the Iranians. At present their point of departure for a nuclear breakout is clearly less favorable than it was before the agreement was reached (on that point the agreement’s supporters and opponents agree).
The Worse Deal the United States Ever Negotiated
What will Trump do? Seemingly the best option from his standpoint is to demand a renegotiation of the agreement, which he called – in my opinion, with much justification – “the worst deal ever negotiated” which could lead “to a nuclear holocaust.” Such a choice would probably dovetail with other aspects of his approach to foreign policy in general and to the Middle East in particular. Obama, for his part, in the negotiations with Iran, did not translate U.S. power into leverage. Instead, he treated realistic Islamic extremists as favored partners. In that category are Rouhani and his camp in the Shiite world and the Muslim Brotherhood among the Sunnis. These actors do not seek a direct conflict with the West at this stage. They aspire, instead, to change the world order once it becomes possible for them to do so (for example, after they have nuclear weapons); for the time being they want to avoid a confrontation at any price.
Trump, in contrast to Obama, is looking to strengthen ties with the United States’ natural allies, namely, Israel and the pragmatic Arab states – particularly Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. He indeed wants to avoid unnecessary frictions with Russia. He is prepared, however, to defend vital U.S. interests (preventing Iran’s nuclearization and constraining its actions in the region) and thereby demonstrate that the United States is, in fact, a superpower (which is what the slogan “make America great again” means in this context). His appointments so far to key posts in his administration bolster the impression that he will choose the third option, and certainly not the first one.
The talks between the new administration and Israel, highlighted by the expected meeting between Trump and Netanyahu in February, will focus on analyzing these options and clarifying the Israeli position. Trump’s decision will, however, be made on the basis of American, not Israeli, interests.
Meanwhile, Iran has been working hard to make the most of the last days of Obama’s tenure. It is quickly closing international deals aimed at rehabilitating its oil industry. It is also boosting its aid for the takeover of Aleppo by Assad’s supporters and, apparently, stepping up arms shipments to Hizbullah, meaning Israel must act to thwart them.