US Policy Towards Iran: Uncertainty Under Trump

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(Photo by Kobi Gideon/GPO via Getty Images)

by Kimberley Anne Nazareth

Nov 21, 2017

The future of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) most commonly known as the Iran Deal has been called into question as a result of the Trump’s policy towards Iran. The President seems to be making good on his campaign promises with respect to Iran. He has stated a change in US policy after months of threats pertaining to the JCPOA. However, there are several factors to consider as well as a great deal of uncertainty in his policy
From Something Old…To Something New…To Something Uncertain.

It was during the Cold War and more specifically during the reign of the Shah that Iran was seen as the ‘pillar’ of US foreign policy in the region. Those days are far behind now. In the post-revolutionary years, the US and Iran have attempted at rapprochement this was especially true during the second term of the Clinton administration especially with the change in leadership in Iran with Mohammad Khatami. There was a reversal during the leadership of Ahmadinejad though the Bush administration had begun negotiating a deal with international actors to curb its nuclear apatite. During the Obama years, negotiations with the international community and Iran were by most accounts considered successful, as it culminated in the JCPOA. The agreement aimed at stalling Iran’s ability to enrich uranium. It is noteworthy to state that engagement with Iran, in all honesty, reached its pinnacle during the Obama administration culminating in the Iran deal. Obama’s perseverance in getting a deal with Iran was ultimately successful. This also meant a great deal of bargaining and compromise. On the other hand, there were certain circles within and outside the US that disagreed with Obama’s rapprochement with Iran; the Republicans and US Middle East allies. These factions pointed the flaws in deal time and again. In spite of anti-dealers, the administration was able to see the deal through its ‘implementation day.’ Now it has fallen to the current administration to continue to enact and uphold the deal, which it did reluctantly but is slowly and surely attempting to change its policy.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, the then candidate-Trump discussed various options about the Iran deal these included the dismantling the deal, renegotiating the deal or keeping the deal. The recent developments in the US-Iran quagmire; includes the ballistic missile tests, the imposition of additional non-nuclear related sanctions and the waving of sanctions as per the JCPOA seemed as though the administration was willing to keep the deal. Given the recent speech, it seems as though the administration is looking for a change.

In his speech, the President touched on certain exigencies committed by the Iranian regime. This included aiding terrorist organizations, destabilizing the region, impinging on their democratic process and most importantly Iran’s pursuit for a nuclear weapon. He called the deal the worst deal ever made, a one-sided transaction, which freed the regime from financial restraint. Nevertheless, he did mention that Iran had in some measure defaulted on its promises this pertains to the water reactors, intimidating international inspectors, etc.

As a result of Trump’s policy towards Iran, the US and Iran could very well be on a collision course. In confronting Iran, the US could find it difficult given the P5 nations though see the deal as imperfect, are still willing to stand by the deal. The regional allies on the other see this differently. In getting the regional allies involved could be a long drawn out procedure given the regional complexities.

There is a great deal of uncertainty surrounding Trump’s policy towards Iran. This was evident during the campaign as well as during the UN speech and now the current speech. The administration through its various actions has signaled a further implementation of the deal. This has included the waiving of sanctions on the banking and oil industries in accordance with the JCPOA. At the same time, it has continued to enforce non-nuclear sanctions on 11 entities linked to the Iran’s ‘illicit’ programs. These entities included companies based in Ukraine and others related to the IRGC and Iran ballistic missile program as well as the cyber program. The administration has been sending conflicting signals for instance, on the one hand, the State Department (September 14th, 2017) announced that it had waived some sanctions on Iran as per the requirements stipulated under the JCPOA, on the other hand, the administration has refused to certify the Iran deal thus throwing the ball in the Congress’s court as per the requirement provided under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA).
Enablers and Constraints

The Trump administration in its dealings with North Korea and other issues has always flexed its muscles which have not always worked. It seems to be doing the same thing with Iran, to what extent will be successful is questionable. On the other hand, there are reasons for the steps taken by the President; there are internal and external enabling and constraining factors that have led to the Presidential decision to decertify Iran.
Decertifying the Iran Deal has more to do with domestic law than it does with the JCPOA. Nevertheless, it could have international ramifications. In accordance with INARA, it is up to the President to report to Congress whether Iran is complying with the tenants of the deal. As Trump has decertified the deal, it has started the 60-day clock on Congress to review the deal. INARA, drawn up by Senators Bob Corker and Ben Cardin in 2015 was an attempt by Congress to reassert its role in managing the deal, which the Obama administration had not negotiated as a treaty requiring congressional approval. So far, Iran seems to be complying with the deal as even the Trump administration itself grudgingly acknowledges. However, INARA also calls for the president to certify that the suspension of sanctions on Iran is still appropriate and vital to US national security interests. The case made by the US though weak, is walking away from the deal is implicitly encouraging Iran to resume its nuclear activities in the future. This would give the US a greater bargaining chip.

The Trump administration has signaled a ‘new’ rather ‘hardnosed’ policy towards Iran. This policy is up to Congress, as it is up to Congress to review the deal. The current domestic environment is tense, to say the least with the President having to wear multiple hats. In this tense environment especially with other issues overpowering his agenda, the President has to appease his allies as well as his adversaries. In upholding the deal and further alleviating sanctions, he appeased those who favor the deal. On the other hand, by his continuous anti-deal rhetoric, he has continued to retain support from the anti-dealers within the US. There is another possibility of continuing with the waivers; the administration is buying time to plan their next move. They have signaled a shift, however, there seems to be uncertainty and hesitancy for them to act which is understandable.
Internationally speaking, the administration has to deal with the P5 allies, Iran and the non-signatory allies – that Israel and the Gulf allies. The P5 allies continue to stand by the deal while the regional allies have called the deal and Iran’s regional posturing into question. They, in fact, have welcomed Trump’s review of the deal. The P5 allies, on the other hand, have signed multi-billion dollar deals with Iran – this includes China Russia and others. Thus, they have benefitted from the deal. Iran, for the time being, has upheld its end of the deal. Therefore, the Trump administration had no viable reason to stall sanction wavier however the administration and Congress are still trying to make the case to certify Iran. In fact, had the US refused to do so, it would have been seen as not complying with the deal. However, the P5nations have called the review of the deal into question. It would also give Iran and the international community an opportunity to criticize the US for not following through. When it comes to Israel and Gulf allies, Trump’s rhetoric of signaling a ‘shift’ in US policy and harsher sanctions on Iran’s non-nuclear activities is welcomed. However, they want more. Israel’s very existence has been threatened by Iran and Saudi is a rivaling power in the middle east that has set eye on dominating the region. Iran’s nuclear as well as non-nuclear activities threaten both these US allies.

A New Policy?

The Iran deal with Obama’s policy of ‘strategic patience’ was able to achieve what no other US administration since 1979 was able to do. On the other hand, Trump’s policy of strategic impatience could unravel the deal.
Trump’s new stance towards Iran lies with Congress. It is here where partisan rancor will play an important role. The Republicans though have fiercely opposed the Iran deal, are reluctant to act on reviewing the deal. It is even questionable whether Republicans will want to take on the responsibility of ‘pulling the US out.’ That is, they could easily create a situation wherein the US could find itself rendering the JCPOA null and void. The reason behind Trump’s actions is for Congress to harden the noose around Iran to include missile tests and sponsorship for terrorist organizations. If Iran fails to pass the test, Trump will have a ‘legitimate’ reason to pull US support from the JCPOA. This could create further problems in continuing to legitimize the Iran Deal. A lack of US support would leave the US alone as the international community will continue to uphold the deal. Trump will find it difficult to garner international support for such a policy.

Is the question to pull out of the deal be profitable to the US? Domestically the deal lacks popularity among certain circles of US society. It is these factions of voters that Trump seems to be trying to please that strengthening his domestic base for the upcoming midterm elections and possibly his second term. He seems to literally try to meet his campaign promises on Iran, by asking Congress to review the deal, he has effectively washed his hands off the deal and tied the hands of Congress. At the international level, if the US were to pull out from the deal, it could wreck havoc for US leadership and trust abroad. No doubt allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel will be pleased, but a nuclear Iran would be worse for them.

On a different note, does there need to be a link between the JCPOA and the ballistic missile program? The US together with the UN continues to impose crippling sanctions on Iran’s ballistic missiles programme. There seems to be no need to link the two and jeopardize the JCPOA which would allow Iran to begin enrichment. There have also been questions raised as to whether these sanctions could by default or by proxy unravel the nuclear deal. The Trump administration by its continuous barrage of anti-Iranian rhetoric as well as non-nuclear sanctions could in some way create problems for the nuclear deal.
The Trump administration’s confusing rhetoric and policy change could create a problem for the further implementation of the deal. It would be in the US’s best interest to tread wisely given the sleuth of other international crisis’s it has to deal with.

In the final analysis, US policy towards Iran is more of a ‘wait and see’ approach. That is Congress has not yet completed its review of the deal which means the deal is still in place for the time being. If the Trump administration alters the tenants of the deal, they would have to in all seriousness do a cost-benefit analysis weighing the pros and cons of such a move which would have serious ramifications for the US. The bigger question now is, to what extent is Congress willing to act?