Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States has cast a worrisome pall over the future prospects of the Iranian nuclear agreement. On the campaign trail, Donald Trump (in his usual hyperbolic manner) called it “the worst deal ever negotiated.” Yet his campaign platform reveals a contradictory message, sometimes threatening to dismantle the deal and at other times vowing to merely renegotiate it. If Trump held a consistent policy position at all, it’s that he could coax a better deal out of Iran — despite the fact that many arms control and nuclear non-proliferation experts agree that the current deal already imposes strong limitations on Iran’s nuclear weapons capabilities. Walid Phares, one of Donald Trump’s foreign policy advisers, clarified on BBC Radio last Thursday that the president-elect would demand changes to the agreement.
“Ripping up is maybe a too strong of word, he’s gonna take that agreement, it’s been done before in international context, and then review it,” Phares said. “He will take the agreement, review it, send it to Congress, demand from the Iranians to restore few issues or change few issues, and there will be a discussion. It could be a tense discussion but the agreement as is right now — $750 billion to the Iranian regime without receiving much in return and increasing intervention in four countries — that is not going to be accepted by a Trump administration.”
There are three reasons to be skeptical about Trump’s grandiose pronouncements. First off, as the author Trita Parsi writes in Foreign Policy magazine, the Iran agreement is a bilateral deal that was codified in a U.N. Security Council resolution. The United States “cannot unilaterally void or amend the agreement without violating international law.”
Furthermore, if Trump attempts to revive the previous Obama tactic of diplomatically and economically isolating Iran from the outside world, his administration would need to build a strong international coalition once again — a task for which he is uniquely inexperienced and perhaps unqualified. The prospect of re-imposing sanctions over Iran with the cooperation of China and Russia, when tension is already running high in Ukraine, Syria, and the South China Sea, seems unlikely.
Third, even if Trump has no qualms about violating international law, and could find the diplomatic resolve to build another sanctions regime against Iran among the world’s major powers, his attempts to impose a stronger, more stringent nuclear agreement might still be thwarted by Iran’s hardliners, who fear that any detente with the United States may imperil their own economic and political power.
Back in August 2015, Trump vowed that, although he might not completely rip up the deal, he would at least police it “so tough they don’t have a chance.” But Trump’s bellicosity, instead of bringing Iran back to the negotiating table, is almost destined to fail. If Iran balks at Trump’s demands, they could walk away from the deal and (rightly) blame it on the United States. That would almost certainly empower Iran’s hardliners who were opposed to the deal from the start, arguing that President Hassan Rouhani had sacrificed too much of the country’s nuclear infrastructure for too little gain. It would also free up Iran to further defy the United States instead of cooperating with it.
Still, as Trita Parsi points out, we know too little about Trump’s intentions to be able to determine the priority he would give to Iran or the nuclear deal. There is a chance that “the Trump administration will not be nearly so dire for U.S.-Iranian relations” as some have predicted. Of course, the elevation of so many old Republican hands to Trump’s cabinet and administration could also signal a return to George W. Bush’s tougher approach to the Iranian regime.