The Future of the Iran Nuclear Deal Under The Trump Administration


Since Implementation Day, January 16, 2016, the Iran Nuclear Deal has succeeded in its goal of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capabilities. However, in the past year, relations have not substantially improved between the U.S. and Iran and Iran has not seen the economic improvements it expected. The deal has also been tested by several temporary violations of the agreement by Iran and a suspected violation by the U.S. via the recent extension of the Iran Sanctions Act. Iran’s recent missile test and President Trump’s travel ban for citizens of Iran have further contributed to the tense environment surrounding the agreement. Given these circumstances, Yukiya Amano, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, described the deal as “fragile,” saying, “reaching an agreement was very important, but making it sustainable requires a lot of effort.” Continued U.S. support for or withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Deal will have significant consequences for Iran’s nuclear status, stability in the region, global proliferation, and U.S. credibility with current and future international negotiating partners.

A Brief History of the Deal

On July 24, 2015, the U.S., China, France, Russia, Germany, and the UK signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran, a long-term agreement in an effort to curb the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. At the time of the agreement, Iran was believed to be 2-3 months away from producing enough weapons-grade uranium for at least one nuclear weapon. The agreement has extended this breakout time to one year or longer, providing enough time for world powers to “mobilize action to interrupt Iran’s pathway to a bomb,” should Iran deviate from its obligations outlined in the agreement.

iran nuclear sites

The agreement blocks all of Iran’s paths to gain nuclear weapons capability. First, the deal has reduced Iran’s nuclear stockpile of uranium by 98 percent, eliminating much of the material that could have fueled 8 to 10 bombs. Second, Iran agreed to maintain uranium enrichment at the level of 3.67 percent, well below the enrichment level necessary to make a weapon. Third, under the deal, Iran reduced their number of centrifuges at the Natanz and Fordow facilities from 20,000 to 6,104 for the next ten years. Furthermore, no enrichment can take place at Fordow, and the only centrifuges that can be used are the “oldest and least efficient models.” Fourth, the deal prevents Iran from accessing weapons-grade plutonium through the redesign of the Arak reactor, and spent fuel rods are now sent out of the country. Iran is also not permitted to build a heavy-water reactor for at least 15 years. Lastly, the deal enables International Atomic Energy Agency officials to inspect facilities and monitor compliance with the agreement.

Despite concern coming primarily from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. Congressional Republicans, on Implementation Day, international inspectors determined that Iran had complied with its terms of the deal sufficiently to trigger the lifting of sanctions. Iran had shipped 98 percent of its fuel to Russia, dismantled over 12,000 centrifuges, and poured cement into the core of the Arak reactor to prevent the production of plutonium. This resulted in the lifting of oil and financial sanctions and release of roughly $100 billion in Iranian assets, though the U.S. maintained human rights and terror-related sanctions on Iran, most recently extended in December 2016.

An Uncertain Future Under President Trump

The recent election of Donald Trump has placed the deal in jeopardy as he has claimed to renegotiate or leave the deal entirely. Trump criticized the agreement throughout his campaign, calling it “incompetently negotiated,” and telling American Israel Public Affairs Committee members in March, “my number one priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.” Also, several of Trump’s cabinet picks have also been highly critical of the agreement. Rep. Mike Pompeo, tapped to lead the CIA, tweeted in November, “I look forward to rolling back this disastrous deal with the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism.” Gen. James Mattis, the incoming Secretary of Defense, and Gen. Michael Flynn, the incoming National Security Adviser, have both also been vocally critical of Iran. Flynn stated the U.S. “gets nothing but grief from the deal.” Additionally, Trump has, at times, seemed to accept the inevitability of global nuclear proliferation. He noted during the campaign, “he wouldn’t object if Saudi Arabia, Japan, or South Korea obtained nuclear weapons, since, as he told CNN, proliferation is “going to happen anyway.” More recently, he stated, “let it be an arms race” while proposing to increase the nuclear arsenal of the U.S. If he takes this same blasé approach to Iranian proliferation, he has little incentive to continue with the deal. Trump has also demonstrated a tendency to favor extreme approaches, and disregard for precedent and norms, demonstrated by his stance on the use of enhanced interrogation, immigration measures, and “winner-take-all” style military operations.  

With the backing of a GOP-led Congress, President Trump is “positioned to swiftly pull the U.S. out of the Obama administration’s landmark nuclear agreement.” However, there is also reason to believe President Trump may not kill the deal. First, during his campaign, Trump rapidly changed policy positions, and this may be no exception. NBC noted that within the first six weeks since being elected, Trump “took ten new policy stances on eight different issues”, following his pattern during the campaign in which he “took 141 distinct policy positions on 23 issues over the course of 511 days.” Furthermore, he has not given the deal much attention since the election, indicating that he may not, as previously claimed, make this his first priority as president. Additionally, though Trump’s cabinet picks argue for a strong approach against Iran, they do not necessarily oppose the Iran deal in particular. Incoming Secretary of Defense Gen. Mattis noted that “there is no going back” from the deal and Secretary of State choice Rex Tillerson voiced interest in U.S. companies doing business in Iran which is only possible with limited sanctions.

The Case for Maintaining the Deal

There are a great many reasons Trump would be unwise to abandon the Iran Nuclear Deal. Though the agreement has experienced hiccups, may be temporary, and the US is right to be concerned with Iran’s role in the region, the deal has prevented Iran from becoming a nuclear power. Abandoning or even attempting to renegotiate the deal seems to provide little benefit in terms of preventing Iranian proliferation, and risks a return to pre-agreement Iranian practices, leading to far more difficult foreign policy decisions in the future.  It would also incur costs to U.S. credibility.

First, a unilateral U.S. desertion of the agreement will not somehow kill the deal as a whole. The U.S. is one of seven countries party to the agreement, none of which have voiced a desire to leave the deal. In the past, President Rouhani said Iran would not “allow” Mr. Trump to “rip up the deal,” and European partners, China, and Russia have all voiced continued support for the pact. Even President Trump’s incoming Secretary of Defense, Gen. Mattis favors working with allies to enforce the deal, recently emphasized that the U.S. “would be alone” if it left the deal and that the unilateral resumption of sanctions from the U.S. “would not have near the impact of an allied approach.” Thus, efforts to harm Iran’s economy such that they could not develop their nuclear program are untenable in a world in which Russia, the UK, China, France, and Germany are all doing business with Iran.

Second, based on empirical evidence, Iran would be able to advance its nuclear program even if the U.S. “doubled and tripled up sanctions” as Trump has suggested in the past. The U.S. has maintained nuclear-related sanctions on Iran since 1992, yet, just this year Iran positioned itself 2-3 months from acquiring weapons capability. Additionally, the U.S. still maintains non-nuclear-related sanctions on Iran, and President Trump has failed to demonstrate why doubling sanctions are likely to produce any effect unique from that of current sanctions.

There are also good reasons to think that scrapping the deal would exacerbate the likelihood of Iran getting the bomb. First, Iran could pull out of the deal altogether. While President Rouhani has continued to be a strong proponent of the deal, he has made clear the deal cannot be renegotiated, and the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran threatened to increase uranium enrichment capacity to 100,000 SWU in a year should the U.S. backtrack on the deal. Furthermore, Iranians haven’t seen the level of economic benefit they were anticipating, and hardliners in Iran believe Iran is not getting enough from the deal.  Iranian hardliners may try to capitalize on these concerns, discrediting President Rouhani and opting for a new candidate for June presidential elections, making future deals less likely, and proliferation more likely.

While President Trump casually discusses proliferation, there are real risks associated with horizontal proliferation. The existence of any additional nuclear weapon increases the risk of intentional or accidental use, theft, hazardous leaks, impacts from waste storage, and instability stemming from the mere perception of use, testing, or increased further proliferation. This may also trigger proliferation by other countries in response, intensifying these risks further.

Additionally, as noted by CIA John Brennan in a recent BBC Interview, tearing up the agreement made by a previous administration would be “unprecedented.” Pulling out of the deal would give Iran little incentive to renegotiate with the US and would damage U.S. credibility with other negotiating partners in the international community. This action would alienate us from our allies and perhaps reduce the likelihood of future negotiations with other states in the future. Considering deals often take many years to negotiate, partners must know that future administrations will honor past and pending deals to endure the time and energy it takes to craft an agreement such as the Iran Nuclear Deal.  

Though the Iran deal has not worked to perfection, it is working. The Trump administration’s penchant for making decisions guided by hyper-masculinity and vengeance without regard for strategy, historical awareness, or long-term vision is both dangerous and counterproductive to the goals of the U.S. President Trump must first determine the strategic interests of the country, which should be to prevent further nuclear proliferation. He then must determine his course of action related to the deal: to scrap it, attempt to renegotiate it, or maintain the status quo. If Trump is serious about ensuring Iran does not reactivate its nuclear program and avoiding a future conflict, he would be wise to heed the advice of Gen. Mattis and maintain the deal, focusing efforts on ensuring compliance to create stability.

Image Source: Majid Asgaripour/AP.