Stack up the op-eds and essays on the disasters that await the world once Donald Trump moves into the White House and you’ll have a long list of dismaying scenarios.
One that makes the lineups of most pundits involves a crisis with Iran. So imagine this. Trump struts to the podium for his first presidential press conference, the trademark jutting jaw prominent. He’s spent the previous several days using Twitter to trash the nuclear agreement with Iran, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Unlike former President Barack Obama, Trump loves drama. But the JCPOA runs 159 pages, so he can’t literally tear it up on live television as part of his performance. (And no, it’s not the small hands problem.) Instead, he announces that the nuclear deal is a dead letter, effective immediately.
Could he really do that? Pretty much — through an executive order stating that the United States will no longer abide by the accord and reinstituting the American sanctions that were lifted once the International Atomic Energy Commission (IAEA) certified Iran’s compliance with the agreement and it survived a vote in Congress.
There’s a reason Trump might choose to quash the Iran nuclear deal in this manner. As the State Department put it in November 2015, responding to a clarification request from Congressman Mike Pompeo, a sworn enemy of the agreement and Trump’s pick to head the Central Intelligence Agency, the JCPOA “is not a treaty or an executive agreement, and is not a signed document . . . [It] reflects political commitments between Iran, the P5+1 (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, China) and the European Union. As you know the United States has a long-standing practice of addressing sensitive problems that culminate in political commitments.” Assuming that Trump would bother providing a nuanced defense of his decision, he could simply claim that the Obama administration had cut a global political deal that lacked legal standing and that, as he’d said repeatedly during the campaign, was also a terrible deal.
There’s not much Congress would be able to do. Indeed, Trump might not even face significant resistance from its members because the agreement never had deep support there. In May 2015, even before the negotiators had signed the JCPOA, Congress passed the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA), asserting its right to scrutinize the terms of the accord within 60 days of its conclusion and vote to approve or disapprove it. That bill passed 98-1 in the Senate. The lone dissenter was Arkansas Republican Tom Cotton, who demanded that “a nuclear arms agreement with an adversary, especially the terrorist-sponsoring Islamist regime,” be submitted to the chamber as a treaty, in which case approval would have required a two-thirds majority. The vote in the House for INARA, 400-25, showed a similar lack of enthusiasm.
Pending Congressional review, the INARA barred the Obama administration from lifting or easing the nuclear-related sanctions on Iran. And it imposed short deadlines for submitting the agreement to Congress and for a report on verification: five days for each task. On top of that, the Act mandated a semi-annual report on matters outside the scope of the agreement, including money laundering by Iran and its planning of, or support for, terrorism “against the United States or a United States person anywhere in the world.”
The nuclear agreement was signed on July 14, 2015, and that Sept. 11, the House voted against it, 269 (including 25 Democrats) to 162. Barely a week later, Senate Democrats managed to muster 58 votes to prevent a resolution of disapproval from moving forward. So yes, the Obama administration prevailed — the vote tally in the House was insufficient to override a veto — but the results showed yet again that support for the Iran deal was barely knee deep, which means that President Trump won’t face much of a problem with legislators if he decides to scrap it.
Why the nuclear deal is worth the bother
And that possibility can’t be ruled out. Not only does Trump routinely act on impulse, he has attacked the JCPOA, during and after the campaign, as (among other things) “stupid,” a “lopsided disgrace” and, in a classic Trumpism, the “worst deal ever negotiated.”
“My number-one priority,” he proclaimed in March while addressing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which did its best to sink the agreement, “is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.” He called it “catastrophic for America, for Israel, and for the whole of the Middle East.” Iran, he added, got $150 billion in sanctions relief (mainly from the unfreezing of assets it held overseas) “but we received absolutely nothing in return.” As recently as December in a “stay strong” tweet to Israel following the Security Council’s condemnation of that country’s settlements on the West Bank (which the Obama administration refused to veto), Trump referred again to the “horrible Iran deal.”
Trump’s inner circle has also demonized the agreement. In a July 2015 interview, retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, the incoming national security adviser, warned that, by enabling the lifting of nuclear sanctions, the JCPOA had given Iran extra money for strengthening its military and promoting terrorism, while offering the United States “nothing but grief” in return. The verification measures, he added, were mere “promises,” and the agreement’s text “read like a high school paper.” Speaking to supporters in Raleigh, N.C., in October, Vice President-elect Mike Pence pledged that Trump would “rip up” the agreement once in office. As for Mike Pompeo, amid reports in November that he would be the new CIA director, the congressman said, “I look forward to rolling back this disastrous deal with the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism.”
While Trump has yet to pick his Deputy Secretary of State, among the top contenders appears to be John Bolton, a former ambassador to the United Nations beloved by his fellow neoconservatives. Bolton, unsurprisingly, also abhors the Iran deal. While the talks were still underway, he labeled them “an unprecedented act of surrender,” adding that he couldn’t imagine any worthwhile agreement with Iran because its leaders were hell-bent on building nuclear weapons. The best way to deal with that country in his view was to promote regime change there. Nor did he alter his position once the agreement took effect. In a November op-ed, he advised Trump “to abrogate the Iran nuclear deal in his first days in office.”
Given the right wing’s barrage against that deal and the looming Trump presidency, it’s worth bearing in mind that the Iran nuclear deal is anything but the catastrophe its critics claim it to be. It’s an achievement worth defending, but to understand just why, you have to put on your policy-wonk hat for a few moments and do exactly the sort of thing that Donald Trump seems to like least: Plunge into the sometimes abstruse details of that small-print, 159-page report. So fair warning, here goes.
The agreement, in fact, blocks the two paths Iran could take to build nuclear weapons, one based on uranium, the other on plutonium. Recall that Iran went from 164 centrifuges in 2003 to 19,000 by the time the negotiations on what would become the JCPOA started in 2013. (Centrifuges spin uranium hexafluoride, UF-6, at high velocity to achieve the 90-percent concentration of the Uranium-235 isotope needed to make nuclear weapons.) Under the agreement, Iran can retain a maximum of 5,060 centrifuges at its Natanz and Fordow sites, and they must be the older 1R-1 models. The surplus stock of those as well as all the more advanced IR-4, 5, 6 and 8 models must be placed in continuously monitored storage. Together, Fordow and Natanz could house more than 50,000 centrifuges of various types; so quantitatively and qualitatively, the ceilings set by the JCPOA are very significant.
The agreement also bars Iran from enriching uranium beyond 3.167 percent — nowhere near the concentration required for building a nuclear bomb. Enrichment can occur only at the Natanz plant; the two centrifuge cascades permitted at the Fordow facility can’t be used for this purpose. Moreover, Iran can retain no more than 300 kilograms of uranium enriched even to this level for research use and medical purposes, which means that its stock of low-enriched uranium (LEU) will be cut by 98 percent. Iran is also prohibited from building additional plants for uranium enrichment.
Nuclear weapons can be built with plutonium as well, specifically Plutonium-239 (PU-239), but the JCPOA blocks that path, too. It requires that Iran’s (unfinished) heavy water reactor at Arak be redesigned so that it can be fueled only with LEU. In the meantime, the reactor has been disabled and concrete poured into its core. In the future, Iran is banned from reprocessing plutonium produced by the reactor or building reprocessing facilities and must export the reactor’s spent fuel. Its stocks of heavy water, used as a coolant in reactors, cannot exceed 130 metric tons; any excess must be exported.
Such an agreement, of course, can be no better than the provisions that verify its implementation. To build nuclear weapons, Iran would have to breach several of the JCPOA’s provisions and persist with various prohibited activities. Given the multiple means of verification at hand, that’s virtually impossible. As International Atomic Energy Agency documents detail, Iranian nuclear installations will be under constant surveillance involving electronic seals and online monitoring (which relay information on uranium enrichment), as well as on-site inspections.
The last of these mechanisms is especially significant because the agreement also requires that Iran accept the terms of the 1997 Additional Protocol that strengthened the monitoring agreements the IAEA has reached with signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). States that implement the Protocol must permit on-site inspections by the IAEA’s technical teams, sometimes on short notice. As it now happens, Iran is committed to implementing the Protocol not just for the 15-year lifespan of the agreement, but for as long as it remains party to the NPT.
Finally there’s the procedure for resolving disputes about verification. I’ll skip the details on this and just cut to the chase: Iran can’t stretch out the process or sanctions will resume under a “snapback” provision, and while a Security Council resolution could theoretically lift those sanctions, the United States could veto it.
Turning up the heat on Iran: Trump’s plan
In other words, the Iran deal couldn’t be more worth saving if your urge in life is not to have Iran join the “nuclear club.” It essentially ensures that reality and, according to a December 2016 poll, more than 60 percent of Americans are pleased that it exists. But don’t assume that public support, stringent verification processes and a dispute resolution procedure stacked against Iran will necessarily immunize the agreement from Trump, who is not exactly a details guy. Nor does he spend much time listening to experts because, well, he’s so smart that he knows all the answers. (Besides, if he needs additional information, he can always turn to “the shows,” his apparent go-to source for crucial military information.) As for the members of his entourage, they’ve made it plain en masse that they have no use for the agreement.
Still, don’t consider it a foregone conclusion that Donald Trump will scrap the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action peremptorily and permanently either, even though he’s repeatedly denounced the deal. After all, he’s also said that he’d consider renegotiating its terms to ensure that it meets his (unspecified) standards. As usual, he’s been all over the map.
Consider this: In September 2015, during an appearance on "Morning Joe," he told The Washington Post’s David Ignatius that the United States had signed “a disastrous deal in so many ways . . . We have a horrible contract.” But then, in effect invoking the sanctity of contracts, he added, “I’d love to tell you I’m gonna rip up this contract, I’m going to be the toughest guy in the world. But you know what? Life doesn’t work that way.” His solution back then: Make sure Iran fulfills its part of the bargain.
And among the various positions he took on the agreement over those months, he wasn’t alone in taking that one. Once the nuclear deal became a reality, others who had doggedly opposed it began to call for monitoring Iran’s compliance rather than scrapping it. In November, Walid Phares, one of Trump’s top advisers on the Middle East, hedged in this fashion: Trump, he insisted, would “take the agreement, send it to Congress, demand from the Iranians to restore a few issues or change a few issues, and there will be a discussion.”
In an April speech to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, retired General James Mattis, Trump’s choice for secretary of defense, called Iran “the single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East.” That said, however, he then cautioned that the United States “would be alone” if it tore up the Iran deal and that “unilateral sanctions would not have anywhere near the impact of an allied approach to this.” Senator Bob Corker, a Republican from Tennessee and a fervent critic of the agreement, as well as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and a one-time contender to be Trump’s secretary of state, made exactly the same point once it took effect.
And the same can be said not just about the various Iranophobes soon to populate the Trump administration but about whole countries. Israel and Saudi Arabia both lobbied feverishly against the agreement. Now that it’s in effect, however, neither seems to be pushing the president-elect to abandon it.
And even if he were to do so, Europe, China and Russia wouldn’t follow suit, which would mean that their companies, not American ones, would reap the benefits of doing business with Iran. Some 29 European and Asian companies have already concluded energy agreements with Iran or are on course to do so. Given its continuing economic difficulties, the European Union would have no reason to take a hit by disavowing an agreement in which it had invested so much time and that will benefit so many of its businesses like Airbus (which in December signed a contract to sell Iran 100 planes). In November, the European Union’s foreign ministers reaffirmed their support for the Iran deal, increasing the likelihood that Trump would risk a rupture with them if he withdrew from it.
In addition, doing so unilaterally would essentially be senseless. American companies like Boeing, which signed a deal worth nearly $17 billion with Iran in December, would forfeit such opportunities. Would Trump, who presents himself as the ultimate dealmaker and vows to create millions of jobs in the United States, really like to take credit for that? Again, it’s hard to tell given the consistency of his inconsistency. After all, he initially criticized the Boeing deal, only later to complain that Iran might buy from Europe, not America. We’ll know where he stands, should those in Congress who have tried to block the Boeing aircraft sale persist.
Even if Trump doesn’t withdraw from the nuclear deal, don’t for a second assume that he won’t turn up the heat on Iran, which remains subject to various American non-nuclear sanctions aimed at its ballistic missile program, human rights record and support for Hezbollah and Hamas. Bear in mind that, in December, Congress extended — with only one dissenting vote in the House and unanimity in the Senate — the Iran Sanctions Act for another decade. And Trump could, in fact, expand these penalties, as several conservatives have urged him to do. Vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council Ilan Berman, for example, recommends extending the 2016 Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act to Iran on the grounds that Trump could then use “visa bans, asset freezes and commercial blacklists” to punish any of its officials engaged in corruption or human rights violations.
The new president could go even further by following the recommendation of Council on Foreign Relations Iran expert Ray Takeyh. In December, Takeyh argued that Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, “is presiding over a state with immense vulnerabilities, and the task of U.S. policy is to exploit all of them.” Takeyh’s ultimate aim is regime change, and he believes that “the United States has a real capacity to shrink Iran’s economy and bring it to the brink of collapse.”
So despite Donald Trump’s bluster, there’s at least a reasonable likelihood that he won’t summon the press to announce the Iran nuclear deal’s strangulation at his hands. But instead of being a rare dose of good news, that could well come as cold comfort. Under Trump, the Iranian-American relationship is essentially guaranteed to get a whole lot worse, whatever happens to the treaty itself. Even if Trump does adhere to the agreement, he could easily attempt to show both his contempt for the Iranians and his resolve by getting tough in a host of other ways.
There are plenty of potential collision points, including in Iran’s coastal waters along that crucial oil route, the Persian Gulf, as well as in Lebanon, in Syria (where Iranian forces and advisers are fighting for autocrat Bashar al-Assad) and in Yemen (where Houthi insurgents aligned with Iran are being bombarded by Saudi warplanes, with devastating consequences for civilians). Israel and Saudi Arabia may no longer be fixated on torpedoing the nuclear agreement itself, but once the Obama administration is history they may also feel freed of any restraints from Washington when it comes to Iran. Certainly, key Republicans (and not a few Democrats) will back the Israelis in any kind of confrontation with that country. Both the Israelis and the Saudis have made no secret of the fact that they considered Obama soft on Iran, and they are likely to be emboldened once Trump enters the White House.
Should either of them clash with Iran, the stage will be set for a potentially direct military confrontation between Tehran and Washington. In other words, there may not be a potentially more combustible spot on the planet. So we may be missing the point by speculating on what Trump will do to the Iran deal. The real question is what he’ll do to Iran — and just how disastrous the consequences of that may be.
Rajan Menon is the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Professor of International Relations at the Powell School, City College of New York, and Senior Research Fellow at Columbia University’s Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies. He is the author, most recently, of "The Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention."