In a speech last week at the American Enterprise Institute, a neoconservative think tank in Washington, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said President Donald Trump “has grounds” to decertify the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, if he so chooses. In a speech laying out the Trump administration’s objections to the agreement, Haley said that the Islamic Republic of Iran had been “born in an act of international lawbreaking” and suggested the very nature of the Iranian government itself made any deal undesirable. Haley added: “It is unwillingness to challenge Iranian behavior, for fear of damaging the nuclear agreement, that gets to the heart of the threat the deal poses to our national security.”
The timing of Haley’s remarks is significant. Next month, Trump must decide whether to re-certify to Congress that the Iranians are complying with the terms of the deal, as per a law passed by Congress that requires the president to affirm compliance every 90 days. Trump has already signaled his own desire to kill the deal, saying last month, “I think they’ll be noncompliant.”
Despite Trump’s statements, a report last week by the International Atomic Energy Agency declared that Iran actually has been adhering to the agreement. European Union countries have also indicated their continued support for the deal, stating publicly that Iran has been abiding by its commitments. If Trump nonetheless goes against the expert consensus and the views of American allies to declare Iran as non-compliant, it would open the door for an eager Congress to reimpose economic sanctions that likely mean the unraveling of the deal.
Experts on U.S.-Iran relations and nuclear non-proliferation say that a unilateral American attempt to destroy the deal would be a potential disaster. Not only would it undermine long-held U.S. interests in preventing non-proliferation, it would also open the door to a major conflict with Iran that former President Barack Obama had been credited with averting.
“This deal works. It has rolled back and frozen Iran’s nuclear program, and it is going to last for at least 15 years and even longer if we negotiate a follow-on agreement,” said Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, a non-proliferation group that supported efforts to negotiate the agreement. “There is no compelling national security rationale for pulling out of this agreement. Even the Saudis and Israeli military and intelligence officials are saying that we should keep it — it’s only blind ideology behind the push to end it.”
Like Trump’s recent move to kill the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, the final decision on the Iran deal may become the prerogative of Congress, which has historically taken a hard-line position on U.S.-Iran relations. If the president declares Iran non-compliant, Congress could choose to reimpose nuclear-related sanctions or could decide to impose new sanctions for non-nuclear-related activity as a means of punishing alleged Iranian intransigence. Either course of action would be likely to trigger a response by the Iranians, whose main incentive for making the deal was the potential for reintegration into the global economy.
“There is a rather deceptive argument being made by those asking Trump not to certify Iranian compliance; they are trying to deny Iran the benefits of trade and commerce that were offered during the deal, but don’t want to take responsibility for pulling out of the nuclear deal itself,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association. “Failure to certify Iranian compliance opens the door to those in Congress, who, for political reasons or because they have donors pushing them to do so, would like to reimpose nuclear-related sanctions on Iran.”
An attempt to blow up the nuclear accord without clear evidence of Iranian violations could potentially break apart the coalition of countries that helped impose the sanctions that led to the deal in the first place. Many of these players came together as the P5+1, which include China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, to negotiate the agreement. The united front was in and of itself an achievement of U.S. diplomats who sought to isolate Iran over its nuclear program.
If the U.S. is perceived as acting in bad faith to destroy the agreement, winning back support from the other P5+1 countries to re-impose extraterritorial sanctions — U.S. sanctions on other countries for doing business with Iran — would be unlikely. In addition to the EU, both Russia and China continue to express support for the deal, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recently stating, “It’s a pity that such a successful treaty is now somewhat being cast into doubt.”
Backtracking on the deal for purely political reasons would also send other messages to the international community. Other countries might find that the U.S. is institutionally incapable of implementing difficult diplomatic agreements, at precisely a time when its relationships with allies have already become strained. Such a perception would also make it harder to conduct sensitive diplomacy in other crisis areas, including in the ongoing standoff with North Korea.
“It would be a mess in terms of diplomatic relations if the deal was terminated,” said John Tirman, executive director at the MIT Center for International Studies and an expert on U.S.-Iran relations. “There is so much that could possibly happen, including major reputational costs for the United States or economic costs globally if trade with Iran is disrupted or banned.”
In addition to how it would affect the U.S. and aggravate its relations with its allies and Iran, there is also the question of how attacking the deal might affect Iran’s internal politics. Since many sanctions were lifted, some Western companies have begun investing in Iran again, including major deals signed with French companies, such as Renault and Total, as well as U.S. aircraft manufacturer Boeing.
Although the resumption of investment has been slow, with investors remaining wary of political instability, such deals have partly delivered on promises made by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to reintegrate Iran into the global economy — though public dissatisfaction with the pace of economic recovery remains high. Securing an agreement was a significant accomplishment for Rouhani, who was elected with a mandate to help defuse tensions with the U.S. Reached for comment, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said that, in the event of the U.S. reneging on the deal, Iran would “chose the most appropriate option that preserves our rights and promotes our national interests.”
Farideh Farhi, an expert on Iranian politics at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, said that even if the Trump administration tries to terminate the deal, Iran is likely to respond in a measured way. If the U.S. attempts to pull out of the agreement unilaterally, Iran will focus on exploiting the gap between the U.S. and other countries, such as the EU, Russia, and China, that continue to express support for the deal.
“The Iranians understand American politics quite well and recognize that Mr. Trump is trying to undo all of Obama’s achievements, without much thinking about the long-term consequences of these decisions,” Farhi said. “They understand this situation and are unlikely to react in an overaggressive manner to everything that goes on in the United States. If the United States does pull out at this particular moment, it will be isolating itself from its own partners rather than isolating Iran, because of the political dynamic that was unleashed as a result of” negotiations.
“Trump is trying to undo all of Obama’s achievements, without much thinking about the long-term consequences of these decisions.”
In Haley’s AEI speech, she identified a long list of grievances that the U.S. had with Iran, some of which predated the nuclear deal by decades, and few of which were related to the strictures of the deal itself. Many opponents of negotiations with Iran have likewise highlighted alleged Iranian malfeasance on other issues as a reason to undermine the nuclear deal, despite the fact that Iran continues to adhere to the negotiated terms. In this attempt to expand the debate over the deal, many see a deliberate strategy to destroy the agreement by retroactively moving the goalposts. These critics pretend the deal was supposed to be something more than what it was intended to be: an agreement to restrict Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for economic benefits.
“The practice of arms control has always been divorced from analysis of other types of behavior of states,” said Tirman. “Looking back at previous agreements during the Cold War, general Soviet misbehavior or American misbehavior was never included in the enormously complex negotiations made to control nuclear weapons, because you would simply never get anywhere while trying to do that.”
Haley’s speech highlighted U.S. objections to Iranian policies in Syria, historical acts of terrorism conducted by Iranian-aligned groups, like Hezbollah, and domestic human rights in Iran as reasons for attacking the nuclear deal. But expanding the agreement to focus on issues that go well beyond nuclear non-proliferation would paradoxically make conflict more likely, by making it impossible for the U.S. and Iran to sustain even limited agreements to defuse crises like the nuclear issue.
“Any attempt to include other factors like Iranian policy in Syria or domestic human rights in the discussion is a strategy to destroy the arms deal that is on the table,” Tirman said. “When the neocons start talking like that, you know that it’s a strategy to destroy the diplomatic efforts to stop nuclear proliferation.”