Why the Iran Deal Will Survive the Trump Presidency

by Esfandyar Batmanghelidj

Trump’s triumph is sending shockwaves through the foreign policy community, particularly among supporters of the Iran nuclear deal. Reuters has already reported that Trump’s election puts the Iran Deal “on shaky ground.” Richard Nephew, a former State Department official who was involved in the nuclear negotiations, told Reuters, “Say goodbye to the Iran deal.” Daryl Kimball, director of the Arms Control Association, which supported the Iran Deal, noted to The New York Times that it was unclear whether Trump “would deliberately or inadvertently take actions that unravel that agreement.”

Views from Iran echo this pessimism, as political commentators note that Trumps election could empower Iran’s hardliners. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has sought to temper concerns by arguing that the “most important thing is that the future U.S. president sticks to agreements.”

Trump’s win no doubt introduces uncertainty into the already complicated status of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). But the notion that Trump can or will single-handedly dismantle JCPOA overstates his likely power as president. Three factors will constrain his ability to unravel the Iran deal: the relatively low importance of Iran in the current landscape of American politics, the essential security implications of the Iran deal for Russia, and the economic ambitions of Europe.

Trump’s Priorities

Trump will arrive in the White House with little pressure to take immediate action on Iran. Although Trump did use the Iran deal as a means to impugn both Hillary and Obama, his vocal opposition to the deal probably had little to do with his electoral success, as other races show. Republican Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois, one of the most vocal opponents of the JCPOA, lost his seat to Democrat Tammy Duckworth, a deal supporter.

Although foreign policy was important in the election, it was not for the typical reasons, and this may be a saving grace for the deal. According to data from the Pew Research Center, 89% of Trump supporters highlighted terrorism as a “very important” issue, while 79% considered foreign policy to be “very important.” In both categories, the Trump supporters considered the issue more important than did Clinton supporters (74%, 73%). Although these figures might suggest that the electorate expects Trump to take action against what Trump has called a “terrorist state,” it is important to remember the tenor of the foreign policy debate in the election and what Trump came to represent.

For the Trump camp, the overall posture of foreign policy amounts to something of withdrawal. This may be reflected in the same Pew dataset—54% of voters believe Clinton would make “wise foreign policy decisions” versus just 36% for Trump. In some sense, Trump supporters may be unperturbed by his lack of foreign policy skills because they want him to make fewer foreign policy decisions overall. As Max Fisher and Amanda Taub argue persuasively in The New York Times, Trump’s success in the foreign policy debate was about avoiding the complexities of actual policy, instead using foreign policy as a discussion point to highlight his appeal as a strong leader. Voters will not likely expect Trump to meddle in the details of the Iran deal and even if he did, they would have a hard time discerning its impact. Trump’s boastful proclamations may suffice for his supporters, leaving him with little obligation to engage the thorny, multilateral nature of the Iran deal at the level of actual policy.

Security Imperatives

Although Iran and Europe have principally depended on the United States to set the pace and parameters of sanctions relief, particularly as US sanctions remain in place, the matter of implementation is actually somewhat separate from the matter of the deal’s viability. Those concerned for the Iran deal’s survival argue that President Trump will block sanctions relief for Iran, playing into the hardliner narrative that the US is obstructing the deal and thereby enabling Iran to back out.

However, the JCPOA’s promise of sanctions relief is of primary importance only if Iran and the United States remain the two pillars of the deal’s viability. With a Trump presidency, the deal will be defined by its more fundamental dimension of security. One of the principal outcomes of the JCPOA was to ameliorate Iran’s security dilemma. Iran had been on the back foot, wary of military intervention from the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia on the pretext of its proliferation threat. The Iran deal was conceived as an arms control agreement, despite its current billing as a kind of economic pact.

If security is the chief justification of the deal for all parties, then the new pillars of the deal are Iran and Russia. For Iran, the JCPOA eliminated an urgent threat of attack by Israel and/or Saudi Arabia by removing the only globally acceptable pretext for such an attack—a proliferation risk. The knock-on effects have freed up Iran’s security apparatus to take a more aggressive security posture in the region, particularly in Iraq and Syria. The notion that this new posture proves that the Iran Deal empowered Iran’s security apparatus is worthy of its own debate, but at the very least it has enabled Iran to align with Russia and mobilize in the theater of conflict in Syria. Russia was a key party in the Iran deal negotiations. Russian strategic interest in the JCPOA is not economic—Iranian companies remain generally uninterested in working with Russian firms, and Russian foreign policy is markedly uninfluenced by economic prerogatives as the ineffective imposition of Western sanctions shows.  Realistically, Russian support for the deal was about enabling Iran to be a more active geopolitical actor in the region, uniquely free from obligations to toe the US line.

For President Trump, Russian interests may pose the biggest barrier to ripping up the deal. This is true irrespective of any special Trump relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, which is beyond the scope of this analysis. If Trump were to rip up the deal, Iran would need to take retaliatory action in light of domestic politics, perhaps by (at least symbolically) restarting its nuclear program. If Iran were to do so, it would put the country back on the agenda for military intervention by Israel or Saudi Arabia. Both states would be able to quickly rally support among US lawmakers for any such move—the image of Iran as a nuclear threshold state persists in Washington. But if Iran were drawn into a direct military conflict with any of its neighbors, its ability to align with Russia in the Syria conflict would be seriously compromised.

Russia, already overstretched in Syria, needs Iranian collaboration to keep Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad in power. Russia has a strong incentive to keep the current balance of power in the region intact, and the Iran deal is part of that balance. Russian enticements should be sufficient to keep Trump contained regarding Iran, while also shoring up Iran’s commitment to the deal through outreach to stakeholders in the IRGC and around the Supreme Leader. In short, the question of faltering implementation during a Trump presidency is unlikely to override the security dimension of the JCPOA. Tearing up the Iran deal means conflict with the nascent Russian-Iranian coalition.

Then There’s Europe

Stuck in the middle of this scenario is Europe. The European interest in the Iran deal is largely economic. Economic development in Iran benefits European economies but also supports the process of moderation in Iran that has been a key part of the political justification of the Iran deal in European capitals. As such, Europe cares more about implementation of sanctions relief than perhaps any other actor.

The Trump presidency will no doubt slow the process of implementation in the near-term. But European companies have yet to directly push US policymakers regarding the lingering challenges of doing business with Iran. Some observers in Iran went so far as to suggest that Trump’s business background will make him amenable to working with Tehran. Although this might be a leap too far, the notion that “money speaks” for President Trump could hold water. To the same extent that Trump’s arrival in Washington discombobulates the foreign policy community, it may do the same for lobbyists. Multinational businesses have an opportunity here to exert influence in the advocacy vacuum if they can get the right mechanisms in place. Given the first and second points made here, the bar will be relatively low: prevent interference in the deal.

Perhaps this explains the brave words already coming from key European actors regarding Iran. French oil giant Total, which this week announced a major investment in Iran’s gas industry, has indicated that “the election that took place in the United States does not change anything” regarding its projects in Iran. Other European industrial firms are likely take a similar view—after all a Clinton administration would have posed its own challenges regarding the political and compliance risks of engaging with Iran.

Importantly, Iran deal implementation is the responsibility of a dedicated group of civil servants at the State Department and the U.S. Treasury, and these individuals are unlikely to be moved from the Iran file, even if Trump’s secretary of state is a vocal opponent of the deal such as Senator Bob Corker. But the new administration’s foreign policy posture will probably sap the ability of the State Department and the U.S. Treasury to actively work on implementation issues through outreach.

So, although the deal’s survival may not be under threat, the Trump impact on implementation will certainly limit the scope of its success. To address implementation, outside actors will need to take on greater responsibility to define challenges, devise policy solutions, and drive advocacy. Selling-in policy suggestions to the Trump administration might become the true “art of the deal.”

In some ways, it is saddening to once again return to a “great-game” type discussion of US-Iran relations in the Middle East, and to suggest that better lobbying might be a way to mitigate the impact of Trump’s presidency. But Trump’s ascendency is merely a step backwards on a journey that has been halting and complicated from the outset.

Photo: Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif (courtesy of UNVIE via Flickr).

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj

Esfandyar has spent the last 5 years working on projects related to "business diplomacy" between the West and Iran. He is the founder of the Europe-Iran Forum, the leading annual gathering for business, government and civil society leaders committed to Iran's economic development, and the executive editor Bourse & Bazaar, a digital business publication with a focus on Iran. He is a graduate of Columbia University.