March 16, 2018
From the campaign trail to the Oval Office, US President Donald J. Trump has made no secret of his opposition to the Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and has more recently called for legislation and a new agreement with key European allies to supplement the deal. With the May 12 deadline for the president to renew critical sanctions waivers to continue implementing the JCPOA looming, US diplomats and their European counterparts have a tough task ahead to reach an agreement that can satisfy the president’s demands, lest he withdraw the United States from the deal altogether.

That task may have just gotten harder. On March 5, President Trump reportedly told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that changes proposed by European partners to the Iran nuclear deal were unsatisfactory. The president told Netanyahu that the European parties to the JCPOA have proposed only “cosmetic” changes. He instead had demanded “significant changes” in the deal itself, rather than the addition of a supplemental agreement between the United States and Europe. The president’s statement coincided with an active week of lobbying in Washington against the JCPOA in its current form. During his visit, Prime Minister Netanyahu made his case to President Trump and Congress that the United States should “fix or nix” the Iran nuclear deal. Vice President Mike Pence and Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley strongly supported those arguments in speeches at the annual AIPAC meeting, also on March 5.

While the president’s opposition to the deal has not changed, his approach toward modifying it has. When the president renewed the sanctions waivers in January and delivered a speech outlining strong objections to the deal, he announced the administration was engaging with key European allies in seeking to secure a new supplemental agreement that would impose new multilateral sanctions if Iran develops or tests long-range missiles, thwarts inspections, or makes progress toward a nuclear weapon. Since then, US officials from the Departments of State and Treasury have engaged counterparts from the European Union (EU), France, Germany, and the United Kingdom to develop the outlines for a deal ahead of the May 12 waiver renewal deadline. President Trump’s comments indicate he is unsatisfied with the European proposals thus far, and may insist the JCPOA is somehow reopened for renegotiation.

Nonetheless, a “supplemental deal” like the president proposed in January, and reportedly renounced just months later in March, is the realistic option for meeting his demands, getting Europe on board, and avoiding scuttling the JCPOA. The Obama Administration agreed that Iran needed to be held separately accountable for its ballistic missile program and other nefarious activities in the region, and few would argue the United States should not work with Europe toward strong measures against Iran’s support for Hezbollah and the conflict in Yemen, for example.

However, any changes to the JCPOA itself, including “significant” changes as President Trump suggested this month, would require the agreement of Russia, China, and of course Iran—an unlikely outcome. Russia and China have clearly signaled their displeasure with the effort to revisit the JCPOA, while Iran has little incentive to do so.  Indeed, if given the excuse to claim US withdrawal of the JCPOA, Iran might even perceive Trump’s recent decision to meet with Kim Jung Un without any commitments from North Korea as a reason to advance the nuclear program and obtain engagement from the United States without making any concessions.

Given these realities, a supplemental agreement to address these activities which threatens stiff new sanctions from the United States and EU governments, separate and apart from the JCPOA’s treatment of Iran’s nuclear program, is the most pragmatic option.

A successful agreement with Europe that could satisfy the president and address some of the outstanding issues with Iran could include a number of key concepts:

1. an agreement to match US targeted sanctions on Iranian institutions supporting its ballistic missile program;

2. a concerted effort to collectively push Russia and China for stronger United Nations Security Council language, which currently only “calls upon” Iran to halt its ballistic missile activity; and

3. a commitment to develop a framework for future sanctions if Iran resumes uranium-enrichment and plutonium reprocessing in pursuit of a nuclear weapons program after the limits on those activities expire ten to fifteen years into the JCPOA.

An agreement with the Europeans could also counter Iran’s support to Hezbollah by expanding the EU’s currently limited sanctions on the terrorist group. However, it would be naïve to expect an ad hoc agreement with Europe to resolve the numerous problems with Iran’s actions in the region, including in Yemen and Syria. The best bet for real progress is sustained engagement with Iran through the channels opened by the Obama Administration and unrelenting engagement with US allies to hold Iran to account.

Of course, the greatest wildcard heading into May is Trump himself.

Having changed his position on his demands on a new deal just since January and now surrounded by JCPOA-skeptics, Trump may embrace an aggressive posture toward the deal at the expense of real progress on the issues he proclaims are of concern. Indeed, the replacement of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with Mike Pompeo and, if rumors are to be believed, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster with John Bolton, suggest Trump is surrounding himself with an echo chamber to support his most recalcitrant instincts on the Iran deal. Europe is unlikely to make substantive concessions or even engage seriously with their American counterparts if the president seems determined to reject any new deal, as well as the JCPOA, regardless. Instead, President Trump’s best path to success may be to get out of the way and let the diplomats and other professionals bring him the “win” on Iran he craves.


David Mortlock is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center. You can follow him on Twitter @yotus44