The Slatest

What Happens if Trump Blows Up the Iran Deal?


Photo illustration by Derreck Johnson. Images via Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images; gabriel__bostan/iStock.

This is the first in a series of posts looking at how Donald Trump’s presidency could impact countries and regions around the world.

Trump called the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran “the worst deal ever negotiated.” He said that dismantling it would be his “No. 1 priority” as president. So now that he’s been elected, is the deal toast?

Well, maybe. Trump’s advisers are putting out signals that rather than simply scrapping the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the deal is officially known, his administration will try to renegotiate it to get more favorable terms. That’s not going to be easy. Iranian leaders are already suggesting that they will “not accept any changes under any conditions.” Moreover, even if the U.S. did reopen talks, it would be doing so without any of the leverage it had before: namely the multilateral sanctions that brought Iran to the table in the first place. China and Russia are very unlikely to agree to re-impose sanctions on Iran, and EU governments this week reaffirmed their commitment to continue with the deal.

Trump’s intentions may not be fully clear—as Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, which supports diplomatic engagement between the two countries, told me, “All we’re basing our analysis on is a bunch of tweets.” But it’s worth gaming out how Trump would kill the deal if that’s really what he plans to do and what the implications of that would be for Iran and the wider region. (Trump’s transition team did not respond to requests for comment.)

One option would be for the Republican-controlled U.S. Congress to continually pass sanctions on Iran until it withdraws from the treaty. The House is already passing bills doing just that this week. Another possibility would be for the U.S. to trigger the “snapback” mechanism contained in the treaty, which allows any of the countries that negotiated the deal to cancel it within 30 days, without a vote by the United Nations Security Council, if they flag a violation. (An ongoing dispute between the International Atomic Energy Agency and Iran over stockpiles of heavy water could be used as a pretext.) This would result in the U.N. sanctions that were in place prior to the deal to be legally re-imposed, though it’s unlikely that China and Russia would actually enforce them. This would almost certainly cause Iran to pull out of the deal entirely, this time with a lot more sympathy from the international community.

If the unity of the countries that negotiated the deal falls apart, “all of the safeguards that the IAEA has put in place under the deal will go away,” says Jeffrey Lewis, an expert on nuclear nonproliferation at Middlebury College and founder of the Arms Control Wonk blog. “The IAEA access will drop, and they will say that they are no longer in a position to verify the peaceful nature of Iran’s program. They just won’t have the access. You could end up with a situation in which there are no sanctions, and we have no idea whether they’re building a bomb or not. And by the time we figure it out, it might be too late.”

Beyond just the deal, Trump’s election could upend domestic politics in Iran. The country has its own presidential election coming up next year, and Trump could attempt to bolster hardline opponents of President Hassan Rouhani. “For Rouhani, Trump’s victory is calamitous,” says Karim Sadjadpour, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The entirety of his presidency was invested in securing the nuclear deal, which is now in peril.”

Iranian elections are neither free nor fair, but as the 2013 election of Rouhani’s more moderate government showed, the regime does respond to public opinion. Trump’s arrival on the scene, with his disdain for the nuclear deal, his Islamophobic rhetoric, and generally erratic behavior, is a propaganda coup for hard-line critics of engagement with the West. Sadjadpour points to a headline in the hard-line Kayhan newspaper this week, which reads, “Another Achievement of Liberal Democracy: The Victory of a Mad Man Over a Liar.” State-run television networks also made the unprecedented decision to broadcast the debates between Trump and Hillary Clinton live: They likely didn’t intend it as a civics lesson. The most important of these hard-liners, of course, is Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who only grudgingly gave his blessing to the nuclear deal. “The supreme leader in three decades has never had a positive word about any American president, but he defended Trump, saying he was revealing fundamental truths about the U.S. system,” says Sadjadpour.

All this is bad news for Iran’s struggling democratic opposition movement, Sadjadpour says. “For Iranian civil society, Trump is the worst of both worlds. He provides hard-liners pretext to be even more repressive in the name of national security, but in contrast to many Republican politicians, like John McCain and Lindsey Graham, Trump has expressed no interest in supporting human rights and democracy. America is no longer going to be a champion for their cause.” If Rouhani’s relative moderates are pushed out, Iran’s nuclear enrichment programs could resume and the American critics’ warnings that Tehran would never abide by the deal will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

One potential hitch in Trump’s “plan” to dismantle the Iran deal: the contradiction between two of his main campaign pledges. Trump put an enormous emphasis on defeating ISIS, even saying he’d be willing to cooperate with Russia and Bashar al-Assad’s regime to do so. But when it comes to Syria, Assad and Putin are on the same side as Iran and its proxy Hezbollah, something Trump chose not to address in his campaign rhetoric. As a candidate, he faulted the Obama administration for empowering Iran by pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq, but teaming up with Assad to tackle ISIS would be a bigger prize for Tehran. And like it or not, building a coalition to defeat the Islamic State could require keeping Iran onside. “He’s gong to have to make up his mind of what he thinks is important. He can defeat the JCPOA, or he can defeat ISIS,” says Parsi. “He can’t defeat both.”

But the names that have been floated as potential secretary of State suggest that he will try to do both. John Bolton is a consistent advocate of airstrikes against Iran’s nuclear program. Rudy Giuliani has lobbied on behalf of the Mujahedin-e-Khalq, a cultish anti-government Iranian militia once listed as a terrorist group by the Untied States. These are not figures likely to propose a grand alliance with Tehran to fight terrorism.

“The likelihood of military conflict with Iran, whether that’s an American attack or an Israeli attack, goes up significantly with a Trump presidency,” says Sadjadpour. Once that happens, the scenarios become much more dangerous and much harder to predict.