Shredding Iran Nuclear Deal May Be Harder Than Trump Thinks
(Bloomberg) -- As a candidate, Donald Trump called the six-nation accord with Iran to halt its nuclear program “one of the dumbest deals ever” and said dismantling it would be a top priority. Now, he’s finding that ripping it up after he becomes president may not be so easy.
Walking away from the deal struck just last year might satisfy Israel and Gulf allies such as Saudi Arabia who say Iran’s theocratic leaders can’t be trusted, but analysts say it could sour Trump’s nascent relationship with European allies, China and possibly Russia. Despite their distaste for the accord, some influential Republican members of Congress -- and Trump’s nominee for Pentagon chief -- have said there is little to be gained from canceling it now.
“A number of people who have been very critical of the Iran nuclear deal are out there saying tearing it up is not the answer,” said Stephen Hadley, a national security adviser under President George W. Bush who has been mentioned for a possible position in the Trump administration.
Marathon negotiations last year concluded with the U.S. and five other world powers agreeing to lift sanctions targeting the Islamic Republic’s banking and energy sector in exchange for Iran curtailing its nuclear program. Proponents of the deal argue that while it may be imperfect, it has postponed Iran’s ability to develop a nuclear weapon for at least a decade. They say that a collapse would mean Iran could quickly restart that work.
Walking away also would leave the U.S. with few options outside a military strike to curtail Iran’s nuclear ambitions because European powers probably wouldn’t agree to return to the crippling sanctions regime that Tehran previously faced. They also would be unlikely to tolerate the secondary sanctions that the U.S. imposed on banks and energy companies for doing business there.
“Undoing the agreement would mean a direct and immediate confrontation with countries -- no matter what the foreign policies a Trump administration would want to pursue -- you would want to work with in one form or another,” said Ivo Daalder, president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a former U.S. ambassador to NATO. “It’s the kind of confrontational policy I’m not sure one would want to pursue come Jan. 21.”
Central Intelligence Agency Director John Brennan told the British Broadcasting Corp. last month that it would be “the height of folly if the next administration were to tear up that agreement.”
Republican Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on CNN last month that he doesn’t think Trump should abandon the deal and that Iran “over time will likely hang themselves.” Corker, who had opposed the Iran deal after it was crafted, is among those who have met with the president-elect and has been mentioned as a potential nominee for secretary of state.
Backing away from a complete dismantling of the deal risks alienating some of Trump’s supporters. The Republican’s criticism of the Iran deal was a staple of his campaign speeches and featured prominently in his discussions of foreign policy.
“One of the dumbest deals ever made, whether it’s countries or any kind of a deal you can think of, one of the dumbest deals ever made,” Trump said during a campaign rally in October. He had gone further in March, telling the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, “My No. 1 priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.”
On Thursday, the Senate voted 99-0 for final passage of a bill, H.R. 6297, extending for 10 years the Iran Sanctions Act, which authorizes a president to prevent investment in Iran’s energy sector and other sensitive industries. While President Barack Obama has waived those sanctions as part of the nuclear accord, congressional leaders said keeping them in reserve provides valuable leverage against Iran.
When they made the deal with Iran, Obama administration officials pledged that sanctions would “snap back” in place if the Islamic Republic violated the requirements to curb its nuclear program.
The Obama administration will “take a look” at the bill extending sanctions authority, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Thursday, stopping short of threatening a veto of it. The administration says the bill isn’t needed because the president already has the power to sanction Iran if needed.
A frustration of the deal’s critics has been Iran’s continued financial support for terrorism and the development of ballistic missiles. The U.S. says Iran remains in compliance with the nuclear deal despite its work on ballistic missiles that could carry such weapons, though State Department spokesman John Kirby said in July that the U.S. still has “very valid concerns” about those programs.
Iranian officials have had their own complaints about the accord, saying it hasn’t led to the flood of investment that they had sought, especially from European companies and banks that are wary they will run afoul of remaining U.S. restrictions on Iran related to its support for terrorism and its human-rights record.
In recent weeks, Trump’s own team has issued more nuanced statements about their plans. Incoming Chief of Staff Reince Priebus said the nuclear deal was a “total train wreck” but acknowledged parts of it will be difficult to get out of.
“We are going to take a fresh look at it, put fresh eyes on that deal, and I can assure you if anyone can renegotiate that deal or do something about it to make it better for the American people and not start a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, it is going to be President-elect Trump,” Priebus said on Fox News on Nov. 23.
Trump’s nominee for defense secretary, James Mattis, is deeply suspicious of Iran, calling it the biggest threat to stability in the Middle East. Still, while he believes the Iran deal is imperfect, he said in a speech in April he believed the U.S. would isolate itself if it gave up on the deal.
For now, the focus among Republicans is on leaving the accord intact but seeking new steps to punish Iran as a violator of human rights and a key supporter of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The Obama administration so far has shied away from other action for fear that it would antagonize Iran and push it away from adhering to the nuclear deal.
“The current administration is holding American policy writ large towards Iran hostage to the deal -- we don’t push back on Iran in a whole bunch of other places,” former CIA Director Michael Hayden said on ABC’s “This Week” on Nov. 20. “So my first step, if you’re asking me for recommendations, is stop doing that. Push back on the Iranians in Iraq. Push back on them in Syria. Push back on them in the Gulf.”
In the new year and under a new president, Congress is likely to renew debate on imposing fresh sanctions against Iran, according to Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, who has helped lawmakers write previous sanctions legislation on Iran.
“My sense is a desire to move a comprehensive Iran sanctions bill, but I think the design of most of those bills, and design of any comprehensive bill, is going to focus on Iran’s non-nuclear activities,” Dubowitz said.