In Stratfor's 2017 Fourth-Quarter Forecast, we said that the current U.S. administration would make its distaste for Iranian military and political activities known, as well as attempt to counter Iran through sanctions. In U.S. President Donald Trump's most recent speech, he outlined his plans to achieve precisely that.
U.S. President Donald Trump stood behind his campaign trail promises when announcing his plans for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), better known as the Iran nuclear deal. On Oct. 13, Trump announced that he would not recertify the deal to Congress when it comes up for review in two days. Rather, he announced that he would push Congress to amend current legislation on the deal and outlined a new U.S. policy to contain Iran's regional ambitions.
The United States' new plan is focused on four key objectives: to curtail Iran's ballistic missile program, to counter Iranian activities in the Middle East, to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, and to limit Iran's ability to finance its regional actions through sanctions. Additionally, Trump said the United States would further sanction the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its affiliates by listing it as a terrorist organization.
Trump declined to immediately snap back sanctions frozen under the JCPOA but announced plans to work with Congress and U.S. allies to pressure Iran and amend the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA). Among other changes, the Trump administration wants to amend the INARA so that sanctions on Iran snap back automatically, without a vote from Congress, if the country's nuclear program is found to be in violation of the deal. The administration would also like to include automatic responses for certain Iranian activity, such as ballistic missile testing. Unless Trump can convince Congress to amend the legislation, he says he will terminate the JCPOA. Although the United States can't decide unilaterally to terminate the JCPOA, a U.S. exodus would likely be the beginning of the deal's end.
The biggest risk ahead lies in the details of the amendments. Trump wants the United States to respond with sanctions if Iran takes certain actions, but the question is whether those actions will include activities Iran did not agree to refrain from under the JCPOA. It is also unclear whether Trump's proposed sanctions are different, or different enough, from those the United States promised to lift under the JCPOA. Unless the United States is careful, it could put sanctions in place that put the country in breach of the nuclear deal and that push Iran to spitefully restart its nuclear weapons program.
Congress has already carefully constructed one bill of sanctions on Iran that ensured the United States did not violate its international commitments under the JCPOA. In the drafting of further sanctions, Congress could construct the language carefully enough to maintain order and secure enough senate votes to pass it, even if that bill is not in line with Trump's speech. To modify the INARA, the Senate will need to burst through a filibuster. But that means getting at least eight Democrats on boards, which is a tall order.
The Trump administration has a tough hill to climb in not only getting Congress on board, but in convincing its allies as well. Shortly after Trump's announcement, France, Germany and the United Kingdom — the three European countries that signed the JCPOA along with the European Union — issued a joint statement saying that preserving the deal was in their shared national interests. Trump did not announce a deadline for enacting his plans. Because of this, he can use threats to terminate the deal to push Congress and U.S. allies into closer alignment with his goals. Over the next year, the JCPOA will become increasingly fragile.