Iran Nuclear Deal: Future Tense

The future of the Iran nuclear deal—a multilateral agreement that cuts off the Islamic Republic’s path to a nuclear weapon—appears uncertain with US President Donald Trump in the White House.

On the campaign trail, Trump pledged to rip up the deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). His top cabinet picks did, however, contradict this position in their recent confirmation hearings. Defense Secretary James Mattis said that the United States should abide by the deal, despite its flaws. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recommended a review of the deal, but not its rejection.

It is unclear to what extent these cabinet members can influence the president’s outlook. On Trump’s recent executive order that bans refugees from around the world and citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States, for example, top cabinet members and nominees were not kept in the decision-making loop. Iran, which is one of the countries blacklisted by Trump, has retaliated with its own ban on all US travelers.

Meanwhile, Trump and his National Security Advisor Michael Flynn have said that the new US administration is “officially putting Iran on notice” in response to the Islamic Republic’s ballistic missile test and an attack by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels on a Saudi navy ship off the coast of Yemen.

This recent history adds to the uncertainty surrounding the future of the nuclear deal.

Iran has not said whether it would walk away from the deal if Washington were to renege, but it has threatened to respond should the United States impose fresh sanctions. The deal, which was reached between Iran and the P5+1 countries—the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, China, France, and Germany—in 2015 went into force in January of 2016.

“[T]he fate of the nuclear agreement will be a key determinant of US-Iran relations going forward, and will have a broader impact on the Middle East and on nonproliferation more broadly,” Fred Kempe, president and chief executive officer of the Atlantic Council, said on January 30.

Kempe delivered opening remarks at an event hosted by the Atlantic Council’s Future of Iran Initiative, Iran Symposium: Does the Iran Deal Help or Harm US Interests in the Middle East.

Caroline Vicini, deputy head of the delegation of the European Union to the United States, called on all those invested in the deal “to give the Trump administration the benefit of the doubt.”

Ambiguity regarding the future of the nuclear deal can be traced to different assumptions of Iran’s aims in the negotiating period and the lack of a concrete decision as to whether or not Tehran intended to build a nuclear bomb, said Ellen Laipson, senior fellow and president emeritus of the Stimson Center. From the outset “there were divergent expectations about what the agreement was expected to do,” she said.

Ultimately, said Laipson, the JCPOA “creates a new context in which American and Iranian officials can actually talk to each other,” creating a new baseline for US-Iran relations. She said “it gives us something concrete and measurable” to assess compliance, however, “all other aspects of US-Iran relations are in the subjective domain.”

“The agreement is a concrete achievement which sets a new baseline to solve other problems. It does not solve the big Iran problem,” said Laipson.

Laipson and Vicini joined Mark Dubowitz, executive direction of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies; and Jim Walsh, senior research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Security Studies Program, to discuss the future of the nuclear agreement under the new US administration, and assess the effectiveness of the deal at the conclusion of its first year. Barbara Slavin, acting director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, moderated the discussion.

Walsh said the Trump administration must focus on how to maintain and strengthen the current path of the deal so as to ensure that in ten to fifteen years—when many of the restrictions on Iran will be lifted—Iran will not be inclined to build a nuclear weapon. In order to achieve this, “all sides have to come to a conclusion that [the deal] is in everyone’s interests to pursue,” he said.

However, Dubowitz contended that the deal is dangerous for US national security because, regardless of intent, Iran is “clearly in the business of building a [nuclear] capability.” He warned that the deal “means that they will be days if not hours away from a nuclear-weapons breakdown,” when the restrictions expire.

Ultimately, Iran’s decision regarding the pursuit of nuclear capabilities will be a political, rather than a technical one, said Walsh. Therefore, “the idea that we’re going to solve this with technical limits on their process is just not true.”

From a European perspective, the deal is a good one, according to Vicini. Taking stock of the JCPOA a year after its implementation, she said that though there have been minor infringements and disagreements, these have been simply and swiftly resolved.

If the United States were to walk away from the deal, the European Union (EU) would attempt to keep the provisions of the agreement in place, “if this is at all possible,” said Vicini. “We believe this is the right way to avoid Iran’s development of nuclear weapons… therefore we are going to do everything we can to maintain it.”

However, Vicini said that should the Trump administration seek to renegotiate the terms of the deal, the EU would be ready to help “because we think this [deal] is worth defending.”

Dubowitz contended that the minor issues Vicini referred to constitute Iran testing the deal’s strictures, as well as gauging the US response. On February 1, Iran confirmed that it had recently tested a new missile, but contended that this did not breach the terms of the nuclear deal.

While Dubowitz does not think Iran will abrogate the deal, he did not see the Trump administration giving Iran “a clean bill of health.” He said: “I think they’ll have a zero-tolerance policy in response to Iranian violations.” He described the administration’s intent to pass non-nuclear sanctions related to Iran’s malign activities in the region, such as human rights violations, while also offering Tehran time to return to the table for a follow-on agreement to the JCPOA.

Walsh said it is important to distinguish Iran’s nuclear activity from other issues. “This is a nuclear agreement and it should be judged first and foremost by the nuclear components of the agreement,” he said, adding that sanctions on Iran’s military will not induce nuclear restraint. “We shouldn’t confuse follow-on agreements and renegotiation,” he added.

Ultimately, “there is a profound lack of trust” regarding Iran’s activity, and “the problem seems to be getting worse, not better,” said Laipson.

The future of the JCPOA is uncertain not only with regard to the US-Iran relationship, but also in terms of geopolitical relationships in the Middle East, according to a second panel focused on regional implications of and solutions for Iranian activity.

Though Arab Gulf leaders believe that Iran will become a more influential player in light of the deal, they would see reneging on the deal as a “huge mistake,” according to Marcelle Wahba, president of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington and former US ambassador to the United Arab Emirates. By contrast, said Daniel Kurtzer, S. Daniel Abraham professor of Middle East policy studies at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and a former US ambassador to Israel and Egypt, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is one of the most adamant opponents to the deal, and seeks cooperation with the Trump administration.

Wahba said “the agreement for the region, in many ways, has empowered Iran further.” Zalmay Khalilzad, a former US ambassador to the United Nations, Iraq, and Afghanistan, said that Iran has only continued and intensified belligerent activities since the agreement was reached.

In a regional security context, “Iran is not a single problem; it is a multiple, complex problem,” said Kurtzer. Though different countries in the region have divergent attitudes to the deal, Iran’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s embattled regime; Tehran’s relationship with Moscow; and its backing of Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah have brought regional players to understand the importance of responding to Iran, said Wahba. She said that the situation in Syria, in combination with Trump’s election, has forced countries in the region to realize the importance of dialogue.

“The way to get the United States to pay more attention to Iranian behavior that is not included in the agreement… is not to fight the United States government, but to try to work with the United States government,” said Kurtzer.

Rachel Ansley is an editorial assistant at the Atlantic Council. 

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Image: (from left) Barbara Slavin, acting director of the Atlantic Council's Future of Iran Initiative, moderates a discussion with Caroline Vicini, deputy head of the delegation of the European Union to the United States; Mark Dubowitz, executive direction of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies; Jim Walsh, senior research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Security Studies Program; and Ellen Laipson, senior fellow and president emeritus of the Stimson Center. (Atlantic Council/Victoria Langton)