In Stratfor's 2018 Annual Forecast, we wrote that the United States' continued hard-line policy toward Iran would jeopardize the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action but that the nuclear deal would survive the year. U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to approve the deal, while also promising not to renew it again and pursuing further sanctions against Iran, confirms that forecast.
The nuclear deal is hanging on by its fingernails. On a Jan. 12 deadline, U.S. President Donald Trump chose to continue exempting Iran from a package of tough economic sanctions under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), better known as the Iran nuclear deal. Trump has harshly criticized the JCPOA, saying he does not believe the United States receives enough in exchange for withholding its strongest form of pressure on Iran: the sanctions he extended. Despite harsh criticism from both Iran and the United States, the deal has managed to remain in place.
However, Trump has promised not to recertify the deal again in its current form. This means that the European Union, the United States and Iran have just 120 days to strengthen the deal with follow-up agreements, or the sanctions lifted under the nuclear deal will snap back into place. Trump and his administration will be looking to ensure that any follow-up agreement pressures Iran for other non-nuclear related activities, such as its support for regional proxies such as Hezbollah, its ballistic missile program and its human rights abuses. Trump will also be looking to remove sunset clauses from the deal, which cause provisions of the deal to begin to expire in 2025 and which, critics argue, give Iran a path toward acquiring nuclear weapons. Though the 120-day deadline seems dauntingly tight, Trump does not want to face two nuclear crises — North Korea and Iran — at the same time and will work to meet it.
But even as the Trump administration extends the deal and is careful not to violate its terms, it is determined to crack down on Iran in other ways for its role in the Middle East. The administration, for example, has been escalating its pressure against Hezbollah, which has strong ties to Iran. Similarly, shortly after it was announced that Trump would extend the deal, the U.S. Treasury Department announced sanctions on 14 individuals — including the head of Iran's judiciary, Sadeq Larijani — and entities thought to be either tied to Hezbollah, implicated in human rights abuses or guilty of censorship during the country's recent protests. Trump also called for an amendment to U.S. law to officially recognize Iran's ballistic missile program as inseparable from the country's nuclear program.
The nuclear deal was not written to contain all of Iran's adverse activities, but expanding it to include issues that will score Trump political points from his base will require cooperation from more than just the United States. Because of this, Trump has tried to get European allies on board with his strategy. During a call between Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron on Jan. 11, Macron signaled a willingness to begin new talks on ballistic missiles but insisted that the existing deal remain intact. Also on Jan. 11, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson publicly urged the United States not to abandon the deal, arguing that it makes the world safer.
Trump will need to be careful not to step too hard on the toes of U.S. allies, even as he goes against their wishes to push against the nuclear deal. To avoid the blowback simply walking away from the deal would cause, Trump will instead look for ways to pressure Iran enough to mold the deal into something more to his liking, weakening it in the process.