by Navid Hassibi
Although it is unclear what will happen to the Iran nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) once President-elect Donald Trump assumes office, President Barack Obama still has a few weeks left to try to reinforce his signature foreign policy achievement by sending Secretary of State John Kerry to the capital of one of the signatory members–Tehran. While it is unlikely that the Iranian government would welcome Kerry in what would be a historic bilateral visit, due to political complexities and ramifications at home (particularly as the Rouhani administration prepares for reelection in a few months), it may be possible to pull off a last-minute Kerry visit within the confines of a JCPOA ministerial visit in Tehran. Kerry’s attendance at such a meeting would represent the first visit to Iran by a senior U.S. official in decades. It would monumentally reconfirm the P5+1 and Iran’s commitment to the nuclear deal and possibly make it more difficult for the incoming Trump administration to either tear it up or to go along with new sanctions that would put it at risk.
To be sure, Trump has repeatedly called the nuclear deal a disaster–most recently on Wednesday this week. As president-elect, he has surrounded himself with Iran hawks who have publicly expressed their disdain for the deal. His choice for CIA director, Rep. Mike Pompeo, tweeted that he looked forward to rolling back the deal just hours before his nomination. Trump’s pick for National Security Advisor, Gen. Michael Flynn, and his nominee for Secretary of Defense, Gen. James “Mad Dog” Mattis, are both hyper-critical of Iran and the nuclear deal, as is John Bolton, a potential nominee for the number two spot at the State Department and a veteran proponent of war with Iran.
Defending the Agreement
To counter the threat that the agreement might be undone, Iran deal supporters have been highlighting its merits, pointedly noting, among other things, that Tehran has fully complied with its obligations to date and that the deal has effectively pushed back any possible nuclear “break-out” by the Islamic Republic from only about two months to at least a full year–thus, for now, peacefully resolving a major international security concern without firing a single shot. As President Obama said after the election: “We now have over a year of evidence that they [Iran] have abided by the agreement.” In other words, the deal is working. Indeed, under the agreement, Iran has dismantled and limited key aspects of its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.
In an effort to solidify the Iran deal, the Obama administration has reportedly been issuing more licenses to U.S. companies to do business with Iran and waiving additional sanctions before leaving office. Iran has already signed a $16 billion deal with Boeing, which will support tens of thousands of U.S. jobs, a business reality that the Trump administration cannot easily ignore. The Obama White House should go even further to protect the deal by probing, via the Kerry-Mohammad Javad Zarif channel, whether a ministerial gathering of the P5+1 and Iran within the next few weeks in Tehran would be welcomed by the government. While bold, such a meeting would send a powerful message in support of diplomacy and the nuclear deal.
Meeting within the “business as usual” framework of the JCPOA could provide sufficient cover against any political backlash facing both the Rouhani government and, to a lesser extent, the outgoing Obama administration. Limiting Kerry’s presence in Tehran solely to attending the meeting would further limit adverse political consequences for both parties and could in fact bolster the Iranian president’s stature in advance of the May election. The meeting would also enable the P5+1 and Iran to touch base on the deal’s progress to-date, as well as new and anticipated challenges to its implementation, such as the extension of the Iran Sanctions Act. More importantly, it could help reassure the international community, including the parties themselves, about Washington’s commitment. A high-profile–albeit potentially controversial–meeting this close to Inauguration Day is hardly unprecedented, as Kerry will be attending the French-led Israeli-Palestinian Peace Summit on January 15.
Limiting the Damage Trump Can Do
Not only has the nuclear deal removed any near-term threat of Iran’s nuclear “break-out,” it has also established official channels between U.S. and Iranian officials. These channels have been leveraged for non-nuclear matters such as last year’s prisoner swap, the release of U.S. naval detainees by Iran, the settlement of a longstanding financial dispute, and some limited cooperation through the International Syria Support Group. Sabotaging the nuclear deal would remove any ability the United States has to pursue and defend its interests directly with Iran, particularly at a time when Iranian hardliners are arbitrarily detaining dual nationals.
What is certain is that the Trump administration’s unraveling of the agreement would severely undermine U.S. credibility in the world. It would significantly impact the United States’ relations with its key European allies, especially the EU3–France, Germany and the United Kingdom–which are already worried about Trump’s position on NATO. It would further complicate the relationship with China, which Trump recently angered due to his stance on Taiwan and his threats to impose tariffs against Chinese exports. It would also throw a wrench into the incoming administration’s desire to rehabilitate relations with Russia.
Sending Kerry to Tehran within the framework of a JCPOA ministerial meeting would be a public show of commitment to the deal and could make it harder for the Trump administration to unravel what has been hailed as Obama’s greatest foreign-policy achievement. It could also help to ensure that the U.S.-Iran relationship does not deteriorate to pre-2013 levels, which were marked by regular displays of brinkmanship and threats of military action. Obama is still in office until January 20. He can still make sure that diplomacy speaks louder than what he once described as the “loose talk of war.”
Navid Hassibi is with the Council on International Policy. He tweets @navidhassibi. The opinions here represent his own.