The U.S. Reviews Its Stance on Iran

7 MINS READApr 25, 2017 | 09:02 GMT
Will Trump abandon the Iran nuclear deal?
(ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)
Sanctions have proved an effective tool against Iran, and their suspension, likewise, has been an effective incentive to keep the country's nuclear ambitions in check.
Forecast Highlights

  • Iran will focus on trying to ensure the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action's survival.
  • Despite its efforts to differentiate itself from the previous administration in countering Iran, U.S. President Donald Trump's administration will likely preserve the deal for now.
  • Washington, however, may consider other options, such as sanctions on sectors outside Iran's energy sector, to pressure Tehran on foreign policy and human rights issues.

U.S. President Donald Trump's administration is running out of time to formalize its policy on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The United States struck the deal with Iran and five other countries in July 2015 to keep the Islamic republic from pursuing its nuclear ambitions. In exchange for dozens of concessions on Iran's nuclear program, Washington agreed to suspend sanctions against Tehran, including measures restricting its vital oil industry. But the presidential waivers that Barack Obama issued, and then extended during his final week in office, will begin expiring in mid-May. If Trump declines to renew the waivers, sanctions on foreign companies facilitating the purchase of Iranian oil by foreign countries will snap back into effect around the same time Iranian voters head to the polls to elect their next president. On the other hand, if he opts to continue the waivers, Trump must first determine that doing so is in the best interests of the United States' national security. To that end, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced April 19 that National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster would launch and oversee an interagency review of the deal.

News of the review put the Iranian government on edge. At the quarterly meeting of the JCPOA's signatories April 25 in Vienna, Tehran will try to ensure that, notwithstanding Washington's actions, the United States' European allies in the framework will stand behind the agreement. The evaluation doesn't necessarily portend a change in course for the White House, however, much less a unilateral withdrawal from the deal. Instead, the administration will likely preserve the deal for now and use other means — each carefully devised not to violate the JCPOA —  to ramp up the pressure on Tehran.

The Nuclear Option

McMaster, along with the administration's national security and foreign policy teams, will have to consider several difficult questions during the review. First and foremost is whether the JCPOA is effective, relative to other options the United States could try to deter Iran from developing a nuclear bomb. Trump lambasted the deal throughout his campaign for the presidency, and Tillerson, too, recently criticized it as the "same failed approach of the past that brought us to the current imminent threat we face from North Korea." Unlike North Korea, however, Iran has been holding up its end of the bargain, as the secretary of state acknowledged when he notified Congress of the impending review. Sanctions proved an effective tool against Iran, thanks to its dependence on oil exports and foreign trade to generate revenue and appease its vocal merchant class. The country's efforts at building a "resistance economy" flopped, sinking the rial's value and roiling voters ahead of the 2013 elections. The measures' suspension likewise has proved an effective incentive to keep Tehran's nuclear aspirations in check.

Keeping sanctions at bay is still a priority for Iran, and one the impending elections will not threaten. The current electoral process has so far proved to be as carefully managed and orchestrated as ever. Iran's Guardian Council made sure during the vetting process that the vote would be free of surprises, sidelining the entire populist faction by disqualifying former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and weeding out candidates who would challenge the establishment's authority. As a result, much of Iran's foreign and security policy will remain in place no matter who wins the upcoming vote. And for now, the country's leaders are more invested in shoring up the domestic economy than in building a nuclear bomb.

Iran Nuclear Deal Timeline

Still, should Washington decide to reinstate its sanctions against Iran or pull out of the JCPOA altogether, the country may, in turn, resume its nuclear pursuits. When it entered negotiations, after all, it kept much of its infrastructure and research intact in the event that the deal fell through. The prospect of dealing with a nuclear crisis, let alone two at once, is likely enough to keep the United States in the JCPOA, so long as Iran continues to adhere to its terms. Furthermore, its withdrawal from the Iranian deal would undermine the United States' efforts to draw other aspiring nuclear powers, namely North Korea, to the negotiating table.

The Right Tools for the Job

But the nuclear program isn't the only issue at stake. The Obama administration pursued negotiations over the JCPOA having determined that Iran's nuclear development, of all its activities, was the greatest threat to regional and U.S. national security. Because of the negotiations' strict focus, sanctions became the penalty only for actions related to nuclear development; Washington tacitly promised Tehran that it would not reinstate the measures for other offenses, such as human rights violations or aggressive foreign policy. That doesn't mean the Obama administration gave up its prerogative to respond to these kinds of provocations, but rather that it responded to them differently. The Trump administration, by contrast, has made clear that it intends to take Iran to task on issues such as its ballistic missile program, its human rights record and, in particular, its involvement in regional conflicts. Considering that support for its proxy militias and the pursuit of a ballistic missile program are two cornerstones of its foreign policy, however, Iran isn't likely to give them up anytime soon. So as the Trump administration considers the possible repercussions of reinstating sanctions on Iran, it must also weigh the strategic benefits that using its strongest lever against Tehran could yield.

Short of reinstating sanctions, the United States has several other options at its disposal for countering Iran. Washington could, for example, impose new sanctions on sectors outside Iran's energy industry or redouble its support for its regional allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). In fact, Secretary of Defense James Mattis' recent tour of the Middle East was intended to do just that. The United States has also taken a more proactive role in promoting further alliances and cooperation among its partners in the region. Trump has been encouraging Saudi Arabia, where he is reportedly considering making a visit next month, to improve its ties with Egypt and Iraq. So far, the effort seems to be gaining traction, especially in Egypt. At the same time, the United States, along with Israel, will continue to conduct covert operations against Iran.

The JCPOA, of course, is not a bilateral deal. If Washington lacks the support of its other co-signers, particularly the United Kingdom, France and Germany, pulling out of the framework could jeopardize its relationships with its European allies. And so long as Iran keeps adhering to the JCPOA, the agreement's European signatory countries will keep supporting it; Iran will try to use the quarterly review meeting as an opportunity to make sure of that. The biggest advocates of maintaining the pact may not be in Europe, however, but in the GCC, where the security ramifications of its failure are the most serious. With that (and other things) in mind, Iran has tried to establish a dialogue with its neighbors across the Persian Gulf to improve bilateral relations, which reached a low point over the past two years.

Despite the Trump administration's efforts to project a stronger image to Iran than its predecessor did, the JCPOA will probably remain intact for now. Nevertheless, the United States may use its review of the deal as an opportunity to increase the pressure on Iran through other means. Washington may well unveil a new round of punitive measures when it announces its intention to extend the waivers on Iran's oil sanctions. The new administration's harsher tone with Iran, moreover, may signal that the Trump administration will respond swiftly and decisively to a violation of the agreement, perhaps even by pulling out of it. The extent of the response will depend on the type of breach.

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