What is the future of the Iran Deal?

By Kimberley Anne Nazareth

United States President Donald Trump announced on May 8, that the US would withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) most commonly known as the Iran Deal.   President Trump is well into his second year in office and is making decisive moves that could be described as a ‘roll back’ of the previous administration. These decisive moves are bound to have both a positive and negative impact on the US as well as its international standing.

During his campaign, Trump discussed his policy regarding Iran, including various options available such as tearing up or dismantling the deal, renegotiating and even keeping the deal. In his speech, the president briefly discussed his willingness to attain a new deal along with the US allies. However, despite his promises, the withdrawal announcement did not come as a shock to many as Trump had been regularly criticizing the deal since his bid for office, including the exclusion of a zero-enrichment policy, the ballistic missile program and Iran’s ‘state sponsor of terrorist groups’.

Obama and Netanyahu

During the Obama administration and the negotiation of the deal, the primary focus was getting a deal on the table, rather than the needs and perspectives of regional allies, due to which Trump’s move was applauded by the Gulf allies as well as Israel, who had reluctantly supported Obama’s negotiation with Iran. These allies were never truly happy with the deal they believed was forced upon them, and they have been welcoming of the change in policy and strategy of the US. In fact, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu adversely criticized Obama and the Democrats for their support of a nuclear Iran. Relations between the two leaders had reached an all time low during the end of Obama’s presidency due to his policy towards Iran.

With Trump and the Republicans firmly in control, Netanyahu had hoped to restore the relationship between the two leaders, which has a direct impact on the state to state relationship between the countries. Trump’s plan and the subsequent shift of the US Embassy to Jerusalem was applauded  by Netanyahu but has angered many of the Gulf allies. So far, it seems Trump’s policy is to contain Iran, such as the re-imposition of sanctions which in retrospect has done little to put an end to the ballast missile program. However, it is also clear that containing Iran’s nuclear capability is not the only driving force of Trump’s strategy.

All politics is local

The Republicans had fiercely opposed the deal and have shown a great deal of support for Trump’s decision. The Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have come out in favor of the President’s decision. On the other hand, the Democrats including former President Obama, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi as well as Senate Minority Leader have all criticized the decision.

Surprisingly, there have also been several Republicans who have disapproved of Trump’s policy, who believe pulling out of the deal without having a Plan B in place could be disastrous. Mike Turner senior member of the House Committee on Intelligence opposed the President’s decision as he said there has been no proof of a violation of the deal. Jeff Flake (AZ-R) a fierce critic of the president, has also opposed the move against the deal. Bob Corker though disappointed is optimistic that the President would work out a deal.

Despite the opposition against Trump’s decision, there is nothing that can be done against the same, as the JCPOA is not a treaty or an Executive Order, it is a a political agreement ordained by the United Nations and international order. Obama was unable to make the JCPOA a binding treaty which would have required two-thirds of the Republican-controlled Congress to vote in favor. The deal would have failed to pass as a treaty which is why President Obama chose to implement it as a political agreement. On paper, the President Trump is well within his right to undertake his current course of action.

Is there a Plan B?

There has been much debate about what Trump’s future course of action will be regarding Iran. Speculations have included renegotiating the deal or imposing sanctions to force Iran to come to the table.

Trump’s announcement has signaled the idea of a new deal, which could mean building on the current one or scrapping the existing deal entirely. However, it seems that the United States policy is pushing towards the latter. This could signal the inclusion of a zero enrichment policy, ballistic missile program and Iran’s regional escapades. However, renegotiating the deal would be an incredible feat as it would require the support of all European allies as well as Iran. In the initial stages of negotiating with Iran, the Obama team had pushed a ‘zero enrichment’ strategy but weren’t able to make any headway. The question now is whether the current President will be successful?

Additionally, even if Trump is able to garner support and renegotiate a deal, there is still a trust deficit in the international community. With the President’s decision to walk away from the deal can the international powers as well as Iran count on the US to uphold a ‘new deal’? The new deal would have to be binding, one that would not allow the next administration to walk away from. When Obama became President, he spent a great deal of time assuring US allies of their agreements as well as garner their faith in the multilateral process. The current administration has left allies scratching their heads as they are unsure to what extent the US is willing to uphold their multilateral agreements. Thus, Trump will have to spend a great deal of time in reassuring allies of his intention to withhold the new deal.

Rather than pulling out of the deal Trump had the option of striking another deal pertaining to Iran’s ballistic missile program as well as their ‘other activities’. This would have meant respecting the deal but at the same time negotiating an entirely new deal with Iran from scratch. Coaxing Iran to negotiate on such a deal would have been difficult but it would not have interfered with the JCPOA and the international community’s faith in the US commitment to its multilateral agreements would have been untarnished.

There is a great deal of uncertainty about the future of the US and the JCPOA. Renegotiating the deal is a great task riddled with difficulties, and European support for the same would be very hard to garner. Prior to the president’s announcement the European allies made it clear they would stick by the deal, but now that the decision has been made they could be more willing to negotiate.  The chartered course for the future of US-Iran relations is filled with uncertainty and unpredictability and is bound to continue until the President releases a plan for Iran.

Kimberley Anne Nazareth is a Fulbright Scholar at American University Washington D.C She is also doctoral candidate at Jawaharlal Nehru University New Delhi