The volatile and mostly hostile relationship between the United States and Iran is heading into new and unpredictable waters as the Trump administration and the US Congress increase pressure on the Islamic Republic.

That was the conclusion of Suzanne Maloney, deputy director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, Amir Handjani, an Atlantic Council board member and senior fellow with the Council’s South Asia Center, and Reza Marashi, research director at the National Iranian American Council. The three spoke at an event at the Atlantic Council on June 13 on the current status of US-Iran relations and ways to bolster the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the landmark nuclear deal reached with Iran in 2015. The panel was moderated by Ladane Nasseri, senior Iran correspondent for Bloomberg News.

Prior to the discussion, Stuart Eizenstat, a former deputy Treasury Secretary and ambassador to the European Union who headed an Iran Task Force at the Atlantic Council that endorsed the JCPOA, noted the importance of bolstering the newly re-elected government of Hassan Rouhani “against those in Iran who never liked the JCPOA and are looking for a way to back out of it.” He praised the release of eight papers on strengthening the nuclear agreement and said he hoped they would contribute to an ongoing Trump administration review of Iran policy.

Maloney described the emerging Trump administration policy toward Iran as “a full-fledged shift toward confrontation.” Handjani warned of the possibility of an escalatory spiral to actual conflict and urged the US and Iran to look “for ways to deescalate and possibly [find] things that [the United States and Iran] can work together on,” adding: “That was what happened with the JCPOA.” Marashi warned that without a more full-fledged commitment to the nuclear deal, it risked breaking down like “a car engine breaks down if you don’t change the oil.”

The second and third panels of the day focused on ways of shoring up the JCPOA and using aspects of the agreement to deal with other non-proliferation concerns. Laura Holgate, the former US representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency, said the JCPOA might have relevance in potential negotiations to de-nuclearize the Korean peninsula, limit Iran’s ballistic missile program and halt Syria’s use of chlorine as a chemical weapon. Kelsey Davenport, director of the nonproliferation program at the Arms Control Association, said dialogue on nuclear safety could form the basis for Iranian talks with its Arab rivals across the Persian Gulf and further enmesh Iran in nuclear security conventions and norms. Thomas Pickering, the former undersecretary of State for political affairs, suggested that the JCPOA be regarded as the “gold standard” for future non-proliferation agreements and that Iran be asked to accept permanent limits on its nuclear program in return for more sanctions relief. Barbara Slavin, acting director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, moderated the panel.

The third panel dealt with economic aspects of the nuclear agreement. Elizabeth Rosenberg predicted more non-nuclear sanctions on Iran, but said they must “nimble, updated and internationally coordinated” to be successful in altering Iranian policies. Matthew Calabria and Shavonnia Corbin-Johnson of George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs argued that instead of implementing new sanctions, the Trump administration should approve Iranian accession to the World Trade Organization and restore the “u-turn” for dollar-denominated transactions as ways of demonstrating the concrete benefits of the JCPOA to the Iranian people. Christopher Kojm, a professor of international affairs at the Elliott School and former chairman of the National Intelligence Council, moderated the panel.

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