Mark Fitzpatrick and Paulina Izewicz: Whither the JCPOA under Trump?


Trump is unlikely to tear up the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on day one of his presidency, as some of his earlier rivals for Republican nomination claimed they would do. Doing so would create a crisis with the European allies who were also party to the deal, and who like it just fine. And however much one may dislike the conditions Obama agreed to, the deal is working well in limiting Iran’s nuclear capability. There is no crisis that needs immediate attention.

During his campaign, Trump repeatedly made unfavourable, but often contradictory, comments about the agreement. At various times, he called it the worst deal ever made; accepted it as fait accompli and vowed to strictly ‘police’ it instead; and said he would renegotiate it early in his presidency. He also expressed concern that US companies were now the only ones restricted from doing business with Iran while everyone else was allowed to enter the market. Indeed, many of Trump’s campaign statements with respect to foreign-policy issues have been similarly vague and inconsistent, making it very difficult to predict what his approach ultimately will be. Given his lack of foreign-policy experience, the key is likely to be in his cabinet appointments.

Two of the names that have been mentioned for secretary of state are opposite in inclination. Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee has a reputation as a constructive and tireless dealmaker. He played a central role in the legislative manoeuvre that allowed Obama to move the JCPOA through Congress without requiring a positive vote of approval. Former UN ambassador John Bolton, on the other hand, repeatedly denigrated negotiations with Iran and advocated moving directly to military action as the solution. The JCPOA is far more likely to survive under Corker.

Given that it is an agreement among eight parties, the JCPOA cannot easily be abrogated unilaterally. In addition to Iran and the US, the UK, France, Germany, China, Russia and the EU as an independent player are also important stakeholders. All have a strong interest – politically, strategically and commercially – in its continued implementation and will not meekly acquiesce to a US demand to renegotiate the conditions. If the JCPOA broke down because the US unilaterally applied new penalties that were not deemed to be justified by an egregious Iranian violation, there would be little support for actually implementing sanctions under the deal’s ‘snap-back’ provision. Although America’s outsized role in the international financial system gives it an advantage in being able to impose secondary sanctions, such measures require some degree of buy-in from other parties. The EU has used blocking legislation in the past to prohibit individuals and entities under its jurisdiction from complying with US sanctions. It is not inconceivable that it would do so again in the event of unilateral US action that was not clearly warranted. America’s allies will surely be explaining this to the new administration.

Rather than a quick dispatch, the real danger to the JCPOA is a slow death, as oxygen is withheld. As former US negotiator Richard Nephew recently explained, the president may refuse to sign off on extending waivers of sanctions, as called for in the deal. This, too, may well depend on Trump’s cabinet appointments and, optimistically put, is open to question. What is almost certain, however, is that the next administration will not take any action to encourage European banks and companies to resume business with Iran the way that Secretary of State John Kerry has. Given that Iran’s main complaint with respect to the JCPOA’s implementation to date has been the slow pace at which foreign businesses have returned to the country, this may prove to be a major issue. Continued attempts by the Republican-controlled Congress to introduce new sanctions or other restrictions will pose an additional challenge. No longer would such attempts face the threat of a presidential veto.

Although Iran’s economy is in much better shape than many expected, the growing disenchantment of the Iranian public due to unmet expectations poses a difficulty for President Hassan Rouhani. His administration has invested immense political capital in reaching the agreement – so much so, in fact, that a domestic economic reform plan was dubbed BARJAM 2, as the JCPOA is known under its Persian acronym. Facing re-election in May 2017, Rouhani is under increasing pressure by hardliners. If more tangible effects of sanctions relief fail, or are too slow, to materialise, Iran will have less of an incentive to implement its own commitments.

Iran could be expected to calibrate its response so that blame for breaking the JCPOA would fall elsewhere. For example, rather than rushing to re-install the 9,000 centrifuges that were removed last year, thereby triggering international opprobrium, Tehran could take less visible steps, such as ramping up research and development on advanced centrifuges. An effort to drive a wedge between the US and its allies would be facilitated if Trump followed through with some of his other campaign rhetoric, such as his denigration of NATO. It would not be a winning strategy for the new president. But for the time being, all bets are off.

Mark Fitzpatrick is Executive Director, IISS–Americas.

Paulina Izewicz is IISS Research Associate for Non-Proliferation and Nuclear Policy.

Original op-ed was publised on the website of International Institute for Strategic Studies