During his vitriolic campaign for president, Donald Trump threatened to build a “huge” wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and make Mexico pay for it. Now that he won, Trump — in typical vague, vacillating fashion — concedes that “certain” parts of his widely hyped 2,000-mile barrier might not actually be an imposing wall, but a mere fence.
Likewise, Trump advocated deporting all 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. But with his inauguration less than two months away, now he says he’ll target only those with criminal records (the same strategy President Obama has employed for years).
And in a similar vein, the same man who promised to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act on his first day in office has since backed off — indicating he’ll keep several of Obamacare’s most popular features.
It makes one wonder what fate has in store for Obama’s biggest foreign policy achievement of all: a nuclear agreement with Iran that Trump scorned as “disastrous” and “the worst deal ever negotiated in the history of the United States.”
The accord, finalized in July 2015, relaxes U.S. and European sanctions against Iran in exchange for reductions in Iran’s nuclear arsenal along with verifiable pledges that its nuclear activities are for peaceful purposes only. Among other things, the highly technical Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) freed up hundreds of millions of dollars in frozen Iranian assets, allowed Iran to resume selling its oil on the global market and lifted banking sanctions. In return, Tehran had to relinquish 98 percent of its nuclear material, dismantle thousands of centrifuges, deactivate a major plutonium reactor and allow international inspections of its nuclear facilities.
While Iran has largely complied with the terms of the deal, detractors in Washington complain that the regime continues to step up its ballistic missile testing and military support for Hezbollah and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Meanwhile, critics in Tehran say the U.S. has been slow to lift sanctions and the agreement hasn’t produced tangible economic gains. Supporters of the landmark agreement, however, point out that it was never going to be a magic bullet for Iran’s economic woes, nor would it cover all areas of disagreement between Iran and the West. They say JCPOA has largely done what it set out to do: significantly prolong the time it would take Iran to build a nuclear weapon.
Speaking at a Nov. 14 news conference, Obama expressed hope that Trump would stay the course and not fix something that essentially ain’t broke.
“My suspicion is that when the president-elect comes into office, he will look at the facts,” Obama told reporters, noting that abandoning the deal now would unleash Iran’s nuclear capabilities while forcing Washington to sanction European allies that continue honoring the accord. “When you are not responsible for it, you can call it a terrible deal. When you are responsible … you are more likely to look at the facts.”
With expert opinions not held in high regard as of late — especially after an election outcome that almost no pollster predicted — The Washington Diplomat consulted several foreign policy experts anyway to try to gauge where this particular battle is headed.
“It’s really hard to have a detailed discussion about this,” said one such scholar, Aaron David Miller. “The idea of coming to grips months before Mr. Trump’s inauguration based on a series of campaign statements about what he intends to do or not do in the Middle East is at best a very fraught enterprise.”
Miller, vice president of new initiatives at the Wilson Center, spent 24 years at the State Department and served six secretaries of state as an advisor on Arab-Israeli peace talks. He suggests that nothing earth-shattering is likely to happen on Jan. 20, 2017.
“As much as Trump has called it a disaster and criticized Obama, [Secretary of State John] Kerry and anyone else who seems foolish enough to have embraced this approach, there is no reliable indicator that he intends to fundamentally and dramatically alter the U.S.-Iranian relationship, or the accord itself,” Miller told us in a phone interview.
On Nov. 16, barely a week after Trump’s shocking victory over Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) issued a report, “Maximizing the Opening with Iran: How President Trump Can Secure American Interests in the Middle East.”
The NIAC study — endorsed by 75 national security experts — offers policy recommendations on Iran policy, including the fight against the Islamic State, the bilateral relationship with Iran, the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the stabilization of Iraq and Afghanistan, supporting human rights in Iran and ensuring effective sanctions relief.
NIAC President Trita Parsi says the agreement, painstakingly negotiated by the Obama administration along with the United Kingdom, France, China, Russia and Germany in an arrangement known as P5+1, is now under severe threat.
“The Iran deal was already on fragile ground, and frankly, even a Hillary Clinton victory would have increased its vulnerability,” Parsi wrote Nov. 11 in Foreign Policy. “But with Trump, its fate is arguably more complicated than it would have been with a victory by Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz — two Republican senators who, unlike Trump, promised to tear the deal apart on their first day on the job.”
The incoming 45th president has “only” promised to renegotiate the deal — which Parsi calls “a completely unrealistic option.” Yet even if he intends to sabotage it, according to the NIAC chief, his options to do so directly are limited because of the involvement of the other four countries who continue to praise the accord and Iran’s compliance with it.
More specifically, he says, Washington cannot unilaterally void or amend the agreement without violating international law. Even if it could, he argues, any effort to kill or even renegotiate the accord would isolate not Iran but the United States itself.
“Trump’s far more likely path to unravel the deal would be to add political risk to any Western companies contemplating entry into the Iranian market,” he said — a market that businesses already hesitate to deal with.
“By instilling doubt about the durability of the deal, businesses will tend to avoid entering Iran in order to evade the cost and embarrassment of having their deals sabotaged by new potential sanctions,” Parsi wrote. “In such a scenario, Iran would not be able to reap any economic benefits from a nuclear deal that was technically still in effect. Disappointment in the agreement is already quite extensive in Iran, as many Iranians expected economic conditions to improve quicker after it went into effect.”
Wendy Sherman, former undersecretary of state for political affairs, led the U.S. delegation in talks that resulted in the Iran nuclear agreement. Asked about its viability, she said Trump’s victory isn’t the only wild card here; Iran also has presidential elections coming up in 2017.
“The truth is, agreements are only sustainable if they are in the national security interests of the countries that have negotiated them and are going to implement them. It isn’t a sure bet for anyone,” said Sherman, speaking at the Meridian International Center’s recent 2016 Global Leadership Summit.
“If a president wanted to rip it up on day one, there are certainly things he could do, but it would be hard because we have partners in this endeavor,” she explained. “Likewise, if [Iranian President Hassan] Rouhani loses and the ‘hard hardliners’ get control of Iran, they may choose to back away from the agreement as well. So nothing is forever.”
Critics of the accord — and there are many in Congress on both sides of the aisle — complain that Kerry and his team could have been far more aggressive with Iran, particularly with regard to its financing of violent extremist groups ranging from Lebanon’s Hezbollah to the Houthis in Yemen. These critics say the sudden influx of cash unleashed by the deal amounted to a $150 billion windfall, which may have been used to finance terror attacks around the world.
Administration officials aren’t buying that argument. For one thing, no one has disclosed how much of Iran’s frozen assets has actually been released (experts say it may be far lower than the $150 billion tally). For another thing, fixing everything that’s broken in the dysfunctional U.S.-Iran relationship was never on the table.
“We have seen that this agreement has done what we said it was going to do, which is limit Iran from obtaining a nuclear [weapon],” State Department spokesman Mark Toner told the Los Angeles Times. “It wasn’t focused on changing Iran’s behavior at large. It was focused on preventing it from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”
And in that regard the deal is largely succeeding, Miller told us, because it has pre-empted Iran’s breakout capacity and delayed its nuclear ambitions.
“I don’t think Israel will pressure the U.S. to scrap the accord,” he ventured. “The deal doesn’t eliminate the problem and Iran has to be carefully monitored, but they don’t want the accord scrapped — even though it may not be politically correct to admit it.”
Barbara Slavin, acting director of the Atlantic Council’s Future of Iran Initiative, says the president-elect frightens her — as does a GOP-controlled Congress — when it comes to the nuclear deal.
“Those of us who fought very hard to get this agreement through Congress last year will fight very hard to persuade Trump and Congress that the nuclear deal is working, and that it should not be jeopardized. This agreement will stave off the prospect of Iran having a nuclear weapon for at least 15 years.”
Another advantage, according to Slavin: The deal not only bolsters those in Iran who advocate reform, but also provides “tens of thousands of high-paying jobs to Americans” through the sale of commercial jet aircraft by Boeing and Airbus. (The loss of that lucrative deal may be a bitter pill to swallow for Trump, a billionaire business tycoon.)
“If Trump tries to get rid of the agreement, those jobs will be at stake,” she pointed out. “He’d be directly hurting American businesses — which is exactly the opposite of what he says he wants to do.”
Slavin agrees with Miller that pressure to kill the deal isn’t coming from the Jewish state or its prime minister, Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, even though Israel vociferously opposed any kind of rapprochement with Iran for years. Rather, the pressure is coming from “right-wingers on Capitol Hill” who were against the deal to begin with.
“I hope the Israelis will talk some sense to Trump,” she said. “Bibi did his best to stop it, but he carried on the way he did to put pressure on the United States and the EU to negotiate a really good deal. But once it went into effect, Bibi shut up.”
Slavin said Trump could begin preparing to negotiate a follow-up deal that would extend the current agreement beyond 10 or 15 years — offering more sanctions relief in return for further restraints on Iran’s missile program.
In any case, it would make no sense to kill an agreement after the United States has already footed the bill for its implementation.
“Trump complained that Iran had gotten $150 billion, but this was Iran’s own money frozen in foreign banks. These funds are now available to them,” she said. “How dumb would it be to rip up a deal that’s in our interests and that we’ve already paid for?”
About the Author
Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.