During his successful run for the presidency, Donald Trump stuck to one simple message: Americans were getting raw deals both domestically and abroad, and he’d be able to craft better ones.
High on his list of purportedly bungled agreements? The landmark deal that the Obama administration and its allies struck with Iran in 2015 that called for lifting punishing Western economic sanctions in exchange for Tehran curbing its nuclear program. Trump has derided the agreement as “the stupidest deal of all time,” one that will “give Iran, absolutely, nuclear weapons.” Trump has alternately called for scrapping the entire thing or renegotiating its terms.
You might expect his election to make the people who opposed the Iran deal very excited by the prospect of the US pulling out of it. But that’s not what’s happening. Despite the fact that the Saudi Arabian government lobbied against the deal, a senior Saudi prince has cautioned against scrapping it. Foreign policy advocates in the US who thought the deal didn’t do enough to derail Iran’s nuclear ambitions have said it’s better to stick with it. And prominent Republican lawmakers have backed away from the idea of discarding it.
Their argument? Tehran has already received tens of billions of dollars in sanctions relief in exchange for shipping out a large chunk of its enriched uranium and taking thousands of centrifuges offline. If Washington pulled out of the deal, Tehran could theoretically restart those centrifuges and renew its push for nuclear weapons — while keeping the money.
“We gave up … all of our leverage on the front end when we gave away the moneys that were stashed in various countries around the world and so now the leverage is with them,” Republican Sen. Bob Corker, who opposed the deal as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Politico.
Corker’s right. Because of the way the deal is structured, tearing it up would be a win for Iran.
The US Treasury Department has given the go-ahead to Airbus and Boeing to sell scores of airplanes to Iran, a deal that could be worth tens of billions of dollars. (The House passed legislation Thursday designed to block the sale, but Obama would veto it if the bill made it through the Senate.) Washington has also started to pay Tehran $1.7 billion owed for a refund for US weapons that Iran purchased but that America never delivered.
Iran didn’t get all that for nothing. It’s generally complying with the deal’s restrictions on nuclear activity and has agreed to an intrusive surveillance and monitoring regime. Even if it didn’t, though, it would be hard for Trump to reimpose the sanctions that brought Tehran to the negotiating table in the first place.
Put simply, Tehran already has what it wants, and Washington doesn’t.
The key issue here is that the deal isn’t just something between the US and Iran. It’s a multilateral agreement that also involved the UK, France, Russia, Germany China, and the European Union. If the US decides it wants to fully reinstate the harsh sanctions on Iran, it has to convince its allies to do so as well. But given the momentum the agreement already has and the desire many countries have to do business with Tehran, that would be extremely difficult.
“If the US pulls out of the deal, there’s no guarantee that our European allies and Russia and China would walk away from the deal,” Kelsey Davenport, the director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association, told me. “In fact, they’ve indicated just the opposite.”
That means there’s a good chance the US would end up going it alone. Washington could, for example, attempt to reestablish sanctions directed at foreign firms buying oil from Iran. Washington could also step up its enforcement of rules barring US financial institutions from processing Iranian business transactions that use dollars, still the main currency for international trade.
That would hurt Iran, but it doesn’t pack close to the same kind of punch that comes with the rest of the world’s major powers economies isolating it at the same time. It would also create a rift between the US and its allies.
“We’d be creating diplomatic fractures that don’t currently exist,” said Juan Zarate, a former senior White House and Treasury Department official who shaped sanction policy against Iran in the 2000s. “We lose the potential cohesion we have with our negotiating partners.”
All the while, Iran would reap a win by being able to paint the US as a bully willing to buck agreements unilaterally. More importantly, it could decide to renew its push for nuclear weapons free of the Western sanctions that had slowed its progress for years.
So to sum it up, if the US decides to withdraw from the deal, it will likely end up doing it alone, losing legitimacy in the eyes of its allies and the international community and giving Iran license to pursue nuclear weapons with significantly more economic power and less stigma than it’s had in many years.
Photo: Jubilant Iranians singing and waving Iranian flags during street celebrations in Tehran after a landmark nuclear deal in July 2015 (AP)