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Commentary | 3 November 2017

The Grim Gamble of the Trump Administration on Iran

EU Iran JCPOA United States Global Security

The JCPOA, negotiated from 2013 to 2015, was conceived as a two-legged instrument. It introduced objective and stringent verification measures to ensure that Iran would fulfill its obligations, stated in the agreement in technical terms. However, much more fundamentally, this deal relied on a political gamble. The idea was that Iran would be ready to renounce its military nuclear program as long as it could be convinced of the benefits of doing so. In 2015, Iranian leaders felt that domestic economic and social development needs, which required integration in the global economy, made the deal preferable to becoming a nuclear weapon possessor.

All signatories of the deal were aware of that implicit deal, and made it very explicit when they committed themselves to promote foreign investment in Iran. The Western countries even tried to persuade private sector actors to return to the Iranian market. This policy was aimed at preventing the Iranian people from being disappointed with the limited benefit of the deal, which could made them conclude that the economic stagnation was caused by the Western powers’ bad faith. This could lead the Iranians to withdraw support for the more progressive leaders and support the hardliners who would potentially decide to relaunch the nuclear program.

The decertification of the JCPOA, announced by President Trump on 13 October 2017, proves that the United States is no longer willing to take that political gamble. On the contrary, the President has explained that he believes the deal provides Iran with additional resources to make mischief in the region. Therefore, the United States must do everything in its power to prevent Iran from benefiting from the deal.

At this stage, the Administration is leaving it to Congress to take the next step. Congress may decide to re-impose sanctions in a simplified process during a 60-day timeframe; take another legislative action to put pressure on Iran; or do nothing. In that case, the next development to follow would be President Trump’s decision on renewing the waiver on existing sanctions on 12 and 13 January 2018. A failure to do so would mean the exit, by Washington, from the JCPOA.

The decertification can appear to many as a political whim by a President who is known for making decisions despite the best advice of the international community, the majority of experts and even key members of his cabinet. This step satisfied President Trump’s ambition to make a political gesture towards his electoral base and to erase the legacy of his predecessor without having any real consequences at this stage since the responsibility to formally break the deal, or to renegotiate a better one, is passed on to Congress.

But this symbolic gesture is also to some extent consistent with the new (and unrealistic) Iranian strategy, which was released on 13 October by the White House. This strategy “focuses on neutralizing the Government of Iran’s destabilizing influence and constraining its aggression, particularly its support for terrorism and militants”. As part of this new approach to Tehran, the idea is to threaten to leave the deal to put pressure on its partners, especially the EU, to open up to the JCPOA for a renegotiation, or at least to take additional measures against Tehran’s missile program and behaviour in the region. Congress is left to try to shore up what is perceived as the main loopholes of the JCPOA, in particular the expiration of the main provisions after 15-25 years.

Of course, the White House could more cynically try to scupper the deal without an open violation to provoke retaliatory measures from Iran and thus placing the blame of the JCPOA’s failure on Tehran. This would fit with the administration’s rationale, also adopted by many in Congress, that the Ayatollahs’ regime cannot be trusted and that its very nature is what is preventing any agreement or rapprochement with the West. It is noteworthy that the idea of regime change is now once again openly discussed among influential figures in Washington.

In any case, it is hard to predict how Congress will react. Many of its members publicly opposed the deal at one point or another. Even if some have changed their mind and spoken recently in favour of preserving it, they are nonetheless responsible for inserting into legislation the obligation that the President certifies that Iran is fulfilling its commitments and that the deal is in the US national security interest, which led to the current situation. They have also been regularly pressing for additional sanctions against Iran, the latest round signed into law on 2 August 2017, with the goal of continuing to pressure the Iranian economy. The current predicament of many within the legislative but also executive branch – who would like to uphold the JCPOA but also gain domestic political benefits from their toughness on Iran – show the irresponsibility of playing politics with matters of strategic importance for the whole world.

Whether or not the decertification is the well-thought out first step of a strategy, or the latest tantrum of an erratic President, the United States policy is now to obstruct the development of the Islamic Republic at all cost. Leaders in the White House and on Capitol Hill do not believe that the current regime in Tehran can be convinced to make the political choice of renouncing a nuclear military program or changing its foreign policy in the region.

If they consider the original gamble worth upholding, the other signatories of the JCPOA will have to maintain their efforts to oppose what they believe is negative Iranian behavior, but at the same time to keep investing in the recovery of Iran’s economy. This endeavor will be more challenging without the American leadership, but feasible – especially if the EU is united on this issue.

In particular, efforts should be made to reassure the EU investors that they will not be penalized if they do business in Iran. EU partners should keep their business community informed about the business opportunities and bring assistance if they meet technical hindrances. Of course, potential investors should also be informed about the risks and limitations, including existing restrictions on trade in strategic goods, weapons or with members of groups such as the IRGC. The EU should also continue its outreach towards Congress to make sure that if new sanctions are adopted in the United States, they do not target the EU stakeholders.

European partners should be open to Washington’s demand for a tougher policy, but also make clear that they will not try to hurt the Iranian economy as it would be counterproductive at this stage. Incidentally, this approach was suggested by France last summer, with proposals to reinforce the deal by integrating limitations on ballistic missile systems and focusing on the operation on the JCPOA in the post-2025 period, while strictly enforcing the 2015 agreement.


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.