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Commentary | 25 August 2017

The Danger of Trump’s Shifting Strategy on the Iran Nuclear Deal

Image of Kelsey Davenport

Kelsey Davenport |Director for Nonproliferation Policy, Arms Control Association

Iran JCPOA Nuclear Arms Control United States Global Security

By every metric, Iran is meeting its commitments under the multilateral nuclear deal Tehran reached with the EU3+3 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) in July 2015.

Yet discourse in Washington surrounding the nuclear agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) does not reflect its successes in blocking Iran’s pathways to nuclear weapons. Rather, there is a growing condemnation of the JCPOA because it has failed to accomplish goals it was never intended to address – namely reigning in Iran’s regional activities – that risks the future of the deal.

This standard for judging the JCPOA outside of its parameters is leading the Trump administration to escalate pressure on Iran through additional sanctions and harsh rhetoric, without regard for the sustainability of the deal. Indeed, recent statements and actions from the Trump administration now point toward scuttling the JCPOA as an intended consequence of Washington’s approach toward Iran.

This is a shift from the initial strategy, namely that the Trump administration would meet U.S. obligations, but refuse to hold additional pressure on Iran “hostage” to the JCPOA until the Iran policy review was completed. For the first six months, the administration largely followed this course of taking actions required to maintain the deal paired with additional pressure.

The U.S. Congress gave its tacit support for this approach as well, passing additional sanctions on Iran in July that U.S. President Trump signed into law Aug. 2. While these measures, which targeted areas like support for terrorism and ballistic missile activities, did not violate the deal, the legislation was passed devoid of any statement reiterating support for the JCPOA. This contrasts sharply with the Obama administration, which used sanctions authorities to designate Iranian entities while simultaneously distinguishing the measures as separate from the JCPOA and reiterating support for the deal.

Despite not having announced the results of the policy review, Trump seems to have shifted toward a more hardline approach toward Iran, irrespective of the consequences to the JCPOA. At the G20 in early July, Trump urged states not to do business with Iran because of its support for terrorism, a move that may have violated the U.S. commitment in the JCPOA not to take steps to prevent the normalization of trade with Iran. Trump also questioned Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA without evidence and labeled actions outside the scope of the deal such as ballistic missile activities, as violations of the ‘spirit’ of the accord. These are indications that Trump no longer feels obliged to meet U.S. commitments or to pressure Iran only outside the corners of the deal.

The looming question, however, is how far Trump will take the so-called ‘spirit’ violations or if his administration will manufacture a compliance concern that places the blame on Iran. Trump’s own comment in a July 25 Wall Street Journal interview that he would be “surprised” if Iran is found compliant at the next deadline in October points to this scenario as a real concern. Under the 2015 Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, the president must certify to Congress every 90 days that Iran is meeting the terms of the JCPOA. The certification also requires Trump to determine if the JCPOA is still in U.S. national security interest and Iran’s sanctions relief is proportional to the limits it undertook in the JCPOA.

Essentially, the Trump administration could withhold the certification of Iran’s compliance, despite Iran meeting all of its commitments under the deal, and pave the way for Congress to reimpose nuclear sanctions on an expedited basis. Reimposing sanctions, particularly secondary sanctions, would risk slowing business with Iran, give fodder to hardliners in that country, and seriously threaten the success of the deal. The text of the agreement itself says that Iran would view any reimposition of sanctions as a reason to stop performing its own commitments.

It is difficult to determine if Trump will follow through on his threats to withhold certification. Cabinet members such as Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, reportedly support maintaining the deal and believed Iran was compliant at the last certification deadline in July. Trump, however, has demonstrated a willingness to act against the advice of his cabinet and a willingness to pull out of international deals that enjoy wide-spread support, such as the Paris climate accord.

That does not mean, however, that the JCPOA is doomed. In the short term, it will be crucial for Congress to hear assessments from other EU3+3 members on Iran’s implementation of its nuclear commitments and the security benefits of the JCPOA. European voices are particularly resonant, given the close ties between the United States and Europe. In particular, in the event of an accusation of noncompliance by Trump, assessments from outside the United States will provide a critical counterpoint as Congress considers whether to reimpose sanctions. It is also important to emphasize the JCPOA has a built-in dispute resolution mechanism, the Joint Commission, which has demonstrated its utility and functionality. Before Congress takes any action to reintroduce nuclear sanctions, the Joint Commission should be given the opportunity to address and resolve any alleged noncompliance.

Additionally, some members of Congress, while opposing the deal, acknowledge that the United States cannot be the architect of the JCPOA’s demise. European governments should play to that recognition and emphasize publicly and privately that they will be unwilling to cooperate with nuclear sanctions that are reimposed prematurely and without cause. That could include an EU regulation prohibiting European companies from complying with U.S. extraterritorial sanctions, for which there is precedent. That would neutralize the effect of U.S. measures and protect business ties with Iran.

Another critical part of the message is that the EU and its members will not support renegotiation of the JCPOA if unilateral U.S. actions cause the deal’s demise. Washington cannot be allowed to think that a ‘better deal’ is possible if enough pressure is applied. This will also demonstrate to Iran that there is a benefit for continuing to comply with the JCPOA, even if the United States is not.

Beyond pushing back against the possibility of cherry-picked intelligence pointing to an allegation of Iranian noncompliance, members of the EU3+3 must continue to demonstrate that the continued implementation of the deal benefits international security. Given that Trump can withhold certification on national security grounds, Washington must be reminded that the deal blocks Iran’s pathways to nuclear weapons and its collapse would be destabilizing to the region.

Additionally, highlighting the nuclear safety work that the EU and other European countries are undertaking under the recommendations in the JCPOA also demonstrates another critical benefit – namely that Iran’s civil nuclear activities are safe and protected against from sabotage. Any nuclear incident, accidental or intentional, would have regional consequences, but the critical work being done under the auspices of the JCPOA on nuclear safety and security gets scant recognition in Washington.

Without question, the JCPOA resolved the longstanding nuclear crisis with Iran. Its continued success, however, is not guaranteed. The Trump administration cannot be allowed to sabotage the agreement for political reasons unrelated to Iran’s performance. Fending off this outcome will require international support, particularly from Europe.


The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.