The Trump Presidency and the Iran Nuclear Deal: Initial ThoughtsPosted: November 14, 2016
Well it’s been a rough few days here as I and many others in America have gone through the stages of grief following Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election last Tuesday. I learned about the results as I was walking through Frankfurt airport, on my way back from a week in Amman, Jordan.
The Flight from Frankfurt to Chicago was a very difficult one, as I grappled with the reality through the haze of lack of sleep and disorientation.
Among the many issues that will be affected when Trump assumes the U.S. presidency in January is of course the Iran nuclear issue. Trump famously stated on the campaign trail that “My number one priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.” I don’t actually think this is his number one priority, but nevertheless a President Trump and his foreign policy team will most definitely not be the champions of the JCPOA that President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have been.
Of course this all comes as a shock to most of us who work in the nonproliferation area. I genuinely thought that the JCPOA would, under a Hillary Clinton presidency, perhaps not be as positively supported by the U.S. administration as it had been, but that nevertheless the U.S. would seek to keep its commitments under the deal. And as a side note, I also thought that this meant I probably wouldn’t be writing that much more about the JCPOA, and I welcomed that.
But now we are faced with a new reality and a lot of uncertainty about specifically how Trump and his foreign policy team will treat the JCPOA, as well as whether Republicans in Congress will now – with Trump as president and willing to sign it into law – be successful in imposing new economic sanctions on Iran through statute.
I thought I would just offer a few initial observations and thoughts about the various questions that we now face relative to the JCPOA:
1. I have seen arguments circulating around that because the JCPOA was endorsed by the U.N. Security Council in Resolution 2231, the commitments made in the JCPOA are therefore legally binding obligations under international law, and that President Trump therefore legally cannot withdraw the U.S. from participation in the agreement. This is incorrect. The JCPOA is not a legally binding agreement (i.e. a treaty) under international law. And the hortatory endorsement of its terms in Resolution 2231 does not change that fact. From a legal perspective, President Trump could declare that the U.S. no longer intends to comply with the terms of the JCPOA without incurring the legal responsibility of the United States. The JCPOA is a set of political commitments undertaken by its parties. It is only the political will of the parties that keeps the agreement together.
2. That being said, some of the JCPOA’s commitments – a number of which have already been implemented by the parties including the U.N. Security Council itself – have legal implications. Iran’s provisional application of the IAEA Additional Protocol, the U.N. Security Council’s removal of its economic and other sanctions on Iran through Resolution 2231, and the removal of unilateral economic sanctions under domestic law by the U.S. and the European Union, have all already occurred as of Implementation Day, as stipulated in the JCPOA. President Trump could unilaterally decide to remove the presidential waivers that have implemented most of the U.S. unilateral sanctions relief. The most extreme legal move the U.S. could make under President Trump would be to trigger the snapback procedure stipulated in Resolution 2231 in order to re-apply the now removed U.N. Security Council sanctions. Here is a link to my chapter on the JCPOA from my – now even more timely! – recently published book as a reference for reminding readers about what is in the JCPOA.
3. What is President Trump (and by the way you have no idea how much it pains me to write that phrase) likely to do with regard to the JCPOA once he takes office in January? The short answer is that nobody knows. What could he do? Well, he could do a number of things. He could:
A) simply adopt a hostile tone and approach to the JCPOA, stopping any rhetorical and other activities encouraging foreign banks and businesses to engage with Iran, but not formally state the U.S. intention to not comply with the JCPOA going forward;
B) adopt a hostile tone and approach and additionally allow Congress to adopt new non-nuclear economic sanctions on Iran that do not per se violate the letter of the JCPOA, but that undermine its spirit and effects;
C) adopt a hostile tone and approach, and actually abrogate the JCPOA by re-applying the now waived nuclear sanctions through presidential action, in addition to going along with new non-nuclear sanctions by Congress;
D) as the most extreme legal option, adopt a hostile tone and approach, formally abrogate the JCPOA by reapplying nuclear sanctions, allow Congress to apply new non-nuclear sanctions, and initiate the snapback procedure under Resolution 2231 to re-apply the now lifted U.N. Security Council sanctions.
And there are of course a number of other different permutations of these same options.
4. With each one of these courses of conduct by the United States, both the other members of the P5+1, as well as Iran, will face a different reality to what they have faced to this point, and will have to decide how to react .
It seems to me that European states, as well as Russia and China, are likely to maintain their current course of support for the JCPOA and re-engagement with Iran even if the U.S. decides to pursue any of options A-C above. I don’t think that there is any will to go back to the pre-JCPOA posture of unilateral sanctions on Iran by any of these states, and I expect that the slowly but surely building current of trade deals being made between businesses in these states and Iran are likely to be allowed to continue.
If the U.S. were to re-impose or even strengthen secondary banking sanctions on foreign banks, it’s hard to say if that would have any effect on the pace of re-engagement with Iran by European and Asian businesses, mostly because they’ve already had to find ways to work around unclear U.S. banking sanctions, and haven’t relied on fearful big European banks with strong connections to the U.S. So even the re-imposition or strengthening of U.S. unilateral sanctions wouldn’t seem likely to seriously change the current dynamics of re-engagement between Iran and other countries.
5. It seems to me that there are only a few scenarios in which the JCPOA, and the essential dynamics of its current implementation, could be seriously threatened. One would be if the U.S. took the ultimate legal step and initiated the snapback procedure to re-impose U.N. Security Council sanctions. These sanctions include prohibitions on trade as well as asset freezes on individuals and entities, and they would be binding on all U.N. member states. That’s not to say that the Security Council sanctions in and of themselves would grind re-engagement to a halt, as they only explicitly cover relatively discrete sectors of trade. But I think that there would be a significant chilling effect on most all foreign business transactions with Iran which would flow from the re-imposition of Security Council sanctions.
This is to say nothing of the political implications in Iran which would flow from such a step. It’s hard to predict how the domestic political forces in Iran would react to U.S. action pursuing options A-C above. President Rouhani might, and I stress might, be able to keep conservative groups within the Iranian government from forcing him to withdraw from the JCPOA if the U.S. pursues any of options A-C, although I have serious doubts about his ability to do so in response to option C. However, I don’t think the moderate forces in Iran would triumph if the U.S. actually forced the re-imposition of U.N. Security Council sanctions under option D. I think that would be too much for conservatives, and in particular Ayatollah Khamenei, to swallow, and that Iran would under that circumstance likely withdraw from the JCPOA and possibly dramatically resume the nuclear work it ceased under the JCPOA’s terms. I readily confess that I am out of my element of expertise here in trying to guess how the Iranian government, in all of its complexity, would respond to U.S. actions. Perhaps I can get a better informed expert on Iranian politics, like Aniseh Tabrizi or Sanam Vakil, to provide some more insight.
Those are some initial observations. A lot will depend on just how aggressive Trump and his foreign policy team decide to be in their efforts to undermine the JCPOA.
Here’s a picture of me at Petra to brighten my and maybe your spirits.