by Derek Davison
The Iran nuclear deal—Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA—is facing multiple threats, and whatever hope there may once have been that it could serve as a basis for improving U.S.-Iran ties is probably gone. Between the Trump administration’s emerging focus on Iranian regime change and recent instability in the Persian Gulf, simply maintaining the deal itself is proving to be a serious challenge.
That was the consensus at a June 13 panel discussion hosted by the Atlantic Council as part of its day-long “Preserving and Building on the Iran Nuclear Deal” event. Panelists—the Atlantic Council’s Amir Handjani, the Brookings Institution’s Suzanne Maloney, and the National Iranian American Council’s Reza Marashi—agreed that Washington’s shift in attitude toward Iran and recent tensions related to Qatar and the June 7 terrorist attacks in Tehran have made this a critical time for the JCPOA’s survival—even for avoiding another war in the Persian Gulf.
Flirtation With Regime Change
The Trump administration increasingly represents a break not just with the Obama administration, which itself broke with over three decades of Washington consensus on Iran to adopt a policy of engagement after the 2013 election of relatively moderate President Hassan Rouhani, but with the previous consensus as well. U.S. policy toward Iran has occasionally hinted at or even offered limited support to the idea of regime change in Tehran, but for the most part it has focused on containing Iran’s regional ambitions. According to Maloney, who acknowledged that a Hillary Clinton administration would also have been more confrontational toward Iran than the Obama administration was, it’s still too early to really say what Trump’s Iran policy will eventually look like. Still, there’s something different about the Trump administration’s approach:
This administration has a certain commonality in terms of Iran policy, which is a fairly hardline stance across all relevant cabinet officials and at the sub-cabinet level. So to the extent that there was going to be a shift toward confrontation, there’s really no counterbalance to that perspective within the administration that I’ve been able to discern at this stage. At this stage there is a determination to turn up the heat on Iran on a variety of fronts—with respect to [the administration’s JCPOA] review, which is very serious and intended to look for ways to improve upon the deal and to police its terms better, and with respect to the regional tempo of activities, in terms of American military presence, support for regional allies, and efforts to interdict Iran’s support for its proxies.
The corollary to this is that I think there is a fundamental perception, shared at high levels within the administration, that we can’t fix the problem of Iran simply by virtue of the “carrot and stick” approach that’s been used since November 1979—that what we need is no longer just a constructive change in some areas of behavior, but that we need a fundamental change in the regime. And that’s led to some in the administration dabbling in the notion of regime change. I don’t think it’s a serious policy yet, but I don’t think it’s wholly off the table either.
The administration may only be “dabbling” in regime change now, but as Maloney says its highest-ranking foreign policy figures are all strong supporters of a heavily confrontational approach toward Tehran, without much in the way of an alternative viewpoint among them. So it may not take much for regime change to take on greater importance as Trump’s Iran policy coalesces. And an administration interested in regime change in Tehran isn’t likely to worry about the niceties of upholding a single nuclear agreement, whether it’s working as intended or not.
Since Trump’s election, supporters of the JCPOA have often pointed to its multilateral nature as one of its strengths. The government in Washington might not support the deal, but there were five other countries who were party to its negotiation in addition to the U.S. and Iran. Those other countries, particularly the “European 3” (France, Germany, and the U.K.), will ensure it remains in place. Marashi argued that Europe can be expected to defend the deal to a point, but that it’s unlikely to diverge too far from whatever the U.S. does:
I give [E.U. foreign policy chief] Federica Mogherini a lot of credit for repeatedly coming out, even earlier today, and saying that [the E.U. is] very much in favor of making sure that this deal remains in place and are willing to—to some degree—go our own way if the Trump administration doesn’t want to adhere to its JCPOA commitments. I’m a bit skeptical as to how far the E.U. is willing to go in terms of policy divergence with Washington. We don’t have a lot of precedent for it. I do think we’re going to test the veracity of transatlantic relations as it pertains to Iran, but if past is prologue I think there’s going to be a way to work out these kinds of issues before they cause policy divergence.
Fallout from the Tehran Attacks
JCPOA supporters saw Rouhani’s May 19 reelection as a hopeful sign for the deal’s chances of survival and for the possibility that it might serve as the starting point for an overall thaw in relations between Iran and the West. But Handjani believes that the twin terrorist attacks in Tehran on June 7, which were claimed by the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) but which Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has already tried to pin on Saudi Arabia, are likely to strengthen hardline forces in Iran that are opposed to improving relations with the U.S. in particular.
The attacks and the IRGC’s response, Handjani said, put
Rouhani in a bind. During the Iranian election, none of the other candidates said they would undermine or withdraw from the nuclear agreement. They recognized that it was an agreement signed not with the Rouhani administration, but with Iran. However, their philosophy on how to approach the world, and the United States, after the nuclear deal was quite different. Many in the hardline camp wanted to confront the U.S. both regionally and internationally, whereas President Rouhani and the moderate camp wanted to continue opening up the path of dialogue and looking for areas of cooperation. I think with what happened in Tehran last week, and with the Trump administration’s very hardline stance on Iran, possibly even regime change—those in the hardline camp in Iran absolutely see it that way—[hardliners’] voices are going to get louder, and they’re going to have a following among some Rouhani voters, who want moderation but may say “hold on, we’re now having terrorist attacks by Sunni groups in Iran, let’s think through this a little bit, let’s take a step back.”
Maloney added the historical context within which the Iranian establishment views terrorism, and concluded that the attacks likely have drastically limited Rouhani’s ability to engage diplomatically with Western nations:
The Iranian political establishment has been concerned about terrorism since the inception of the revolution—terrorism as a tool to undermine the stability and simple functioning of the Iranian government. This is what happened in 1979-1981, [when Iran suffered] a spate of terrorist incidents that were seen as foreign-directed. This all feeds into a sort of complex that has been articulated consistently and repeatedly by [Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei and the rest of the political establishment, about the threat of ISIS and its relationship to an American determination to unsettle the Islamic [community] more broadly and to specifically destabilize the Islamic Republic.
I was not confident that Rouhani came out of his reelection with a clear mandate from the system to embark on a more ambitious policy for opening toward the West. He certainly has a public mandate for that, but I didn’t see an endorsement for that from the system. But even if it existed, what happened last week is going to undercut any maneuverability, simply because it reinforces that deeply set paranoia.
Handjani also suggested that the expected rally-around-the-flag effect stemming from the attacks will deepen public support for Iran’s regional military activities, perhaps the biggest source of discord between Washington and Tehran:
One thing the Islamic Republic has always stood on is that it provides security, and when you threaten that, it destabilizes things and [it] means that narrative of stability and security can be attacked. You’re already seeing that in Tehran, where there is a massive rally-around-the-flag effect, but also [people are] buying into the narrative that it’s the people outside Iran, it’s Iran’s neighbors and the U.S. who have allowed these things to happen. For the government and the deep state, this is the biggest priority, and I think people really believe that if the IRGC is not in Syria, if they’re not in Iraq fighting ISIS, that those forces are going to be in Iran.
What It All Means for the JCPOA
When asked how regional developments might impact the JCPOA’s survival, Maloney sounded a somewhat pessimistic note. She focused on the unpredictability of the region and the potential for U.S.-Iran tensions to escalate:
Fundamentally, U.S. policy is no longer JCPOA-centric with respect to Iran. The regional dynamic is now the primary vector through which the United States is going to be contesting Iran’s destabilizing activity in the region. That’s not to say that the deal is going to be set aside, but these regional policies, and the corresponding economic penalties that are under consideration [in Congress] that have broad bipartisan support, I think are going to be the most dramatic aspects of U.S. policy toward the region. In terms of how that plays out, there’s a real range of scenarios and the most important aspect of that is that it’s incredibly unpredictable. As we’ve seen over the past two weeks, with the eruption of this crisis between Qatar and its neighbors and the terrorist attack in Tehran, this is going to move very quickly, there are going to be developments that we don’t anticipate, and the prospects for moving quickly up an escalatory ladder between the U.S. and Iran are very high.
Handjani agreed, arguing that the Washington consensus may be overestimating how much punishment the Iranians are prepared to take before they decide to be more confrontational in their approach to U.S. policy in the Middle East:
I think we have a tendency [in Washington] to think that we can ratchet things up and ratchet things up, put Iran in the penalty box and make it cower, without thinking through what the Iranian reaction is going to be. If Iran feels that the United States is going to step out of the JCPOA in practice, if not in name, they have a lot of cards to play in the region—in Iraq, in the Persian Gulf, and in Syria. The Iranians have had 40 years of confronting the United States in the Middle East, so they can quickly revert to that game. And that could lead to a very combustible situation. It could lead to a third war in the Middle East. So that’s something the Trump administration will really have to think through.
I think the more prudent course is to look for ways to deescalate with Iran and look for areas in which we can work together, which is what we saw with the JCPOA. If we swing too far to the right on our Middle East policy, I think we’re edging toward the precipice of another war.