The Iran Deal Is in Critical Danger

by Derek Davison

There will be plenty of time to dissect Donald Trump’s surprising victory over Hillary Clinton in last night’s presidential election, and what a President Trump will mean for American foreign policy generally. But one thing is clear: the nuclear deal negotiated between the P5+1 (the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China) and Iran may very well be among the first casualties of the incoming Trump administration.

Trump has been critical of the deal throughout the presidential campaign. However, as with nearly every other issue, his comments about the deal and what he might do with it in office were often unclear:

A businessman-turned-politician who has never held public office, Trump called the nuclear pact a “disaster” and “the worst deal ever negotiated” during his campaign and said it could lead to a “nuclear holocaust.”

In a speech to the pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC in March, Trump declared that his “Number-One priority” would be to “dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.”

He said he would have negotiated a better deal, with longer restrictions, but somewhat paradoxically, he criticized remaining U.S. sanctions that prevent American companies from dealing with Iran.

By contrast, he has conceded it would be hard to destroy a deal enshrined in a United Nations resolution. In August 2015, he said he would not “rip up” the nuclear deal, but that he would “police that contract so tough they don’t have a chance.”

Walid Phares, one of Trump’s top foreign policy advisers and a long-time advocate of regime change in Iran, said in July that Trump will “look back at [the nuclear deal] in the institutional way. So he is not going to implement it as is, he is going to revise it after negotiating one on one with Iran or with a series of allies.” This notably puts Trump slightly outside the consensus of the Republican Party, which seems bent on simply destroying the deal. But that also means that any anti-Iran steps the Trump administration chooses to take will get virtually no pushback of any significance from a Congress in which both houses still belong to the Republicans.

Trump’s election also presumably gives his biggest financial booster, Sheldon Adelson, a direct line to the Oval Office. Adelson is not only opposed to the nuclear deal, he has actually advocated launching a nuclear strike on Iran as a negotiating tactic. His financial support has already caused Trump to rethink parts of his Middle East strategy (such as it is). Adelson’s influence over President Trump bodes poorly for the future of U.S.-Iran relations, to say the least. So, too, does the influence of Mike Flynn, Trump’s military advisor who has been nothing but hostile toward the nuclear agreement.

But whether President Trump outright tears up the deal or simply orders his administration to take punitive actions against Iran, which could well cause Tehran to tear it up, the end result may be the same: goodbye to the nuclear deal. Trump’s insistence that he can “negotiate a better deal” notwithstanding, the probable result would be an Iran with no more restraints on its nuclear program and a United States with little international capital to spend on trying to rebuild the sanctions regime that led to the negotiations. In a broader sense, for the U.S. to take steps to scuttle the deal now may also tarnish America’s reputation as a reliable partner in international negotiations.

There is, for starters, no evidence that any of the parties to the deal, which took nearly two years to negotiate, are interested in revisiting its terms. Iranian officials are already insisting that the U.S. must abide by its “commitments” under the terms of the deal or else be held “liable” for the deal’s collapse. And Europe has been spending the past few months building up its relationship with Iran to the point where it has taken preliminary steps toward the opening of an EU office in Tehran. Indeed, it’s the international inertia that’s built up around the deal over the past year that may be the deal’s best hope for survival. Trump has talked about his desire to improve U.S. relations with Russia, and Russia was part of the P5+1. It is conceivable, though this may be grasping at straws, that Moscow could use some of whatever leverage it has with Trump to persuade him not to take harsh measures that would probably wreck the deal.

To be clear, the Iran deal is working. The International Atomic Energy Agency says that Tehran has complied with all its obligations to date, and the consensus of the arms control community is that the deal effectively blocks Iran’s path toward nuclear weapons—assuming Iran ever decides to develop them, something it has long said it would not do. Taking provocative steps that risk collapsing the deal risks abandoning the deal’s restriction on Iran’s nuclear program with no way to rebuild them or to reestablish sanctions. Although opponents of the nuclear deal would like to pretend that this isn’t so, such steps would very likely set the U.S. and Iran on a path toward war.

Photo of Donald Trump by Gage Skidmore via Flickr.

Derek Davison

Derek Davison is an analyst covering U.S. foreign policy and international affairs and the writer/editor of the newsletter Foreign Exchanges. His writing has appeared at LobeLog, Jacobin, and Foreign Policy in Focus.



  1. “Although opponents of the nuclear deal would like to pretend that this isn’t so, such steps would very likely set the U.S. and Iran on a path toward war.”

    The path toward war between the US and Iran with an underlying objective of regime change (and the creation of a weak failed state that is no threat to Israel i.e. Libya or Iraq) is exactly what many of The Donald’s new advisors will be agitating for.

  2. The good part is that no one nation of the P5 +1 agreement can destroy the deal by pulling out. All the US would accomplish by such a move would be outing itself as being the lone rogue violater of the nuclear agreement.

  3. Pete Magnum: Trump can kill the deal simply by not taking steps to prevent Congress from passing punitive, anti-Iranian legislation. He’s certainly not going to do that; so Congress will likely pass a bill or two that will block financial organizations from dealing with Iran unless Iran withdraws all its troops from Syria and Iraq, for example, and destroys all its ballistic missiles.

    They’ll be called on to end their “interference” in Iraq. Like fighting ISIS.

    Of course they’re not going to do those things. But that’s what will break the deal.

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