Is the Iran Nuclear Deal in Trouble Again?
Ellen Laipson Tuesday, June 20, 2017
Last week, the U.S. Senate passed a bill imposing new sanctions on Iran and Russia. Even if the bill makes it through the legislative process to become law, it should not derail the 2015 agreement that curtails Iran’s nuclear activities. But more intangible factors, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recent comments on the Iranian regime, could do harm to the agreement’s durability.
The sustainability of the Iran nuclear agreement, one of former President Barack Obama’s signature foreign policy achievements, has been in doubt since Donald Trump’s presidential election. On the campaign, Trump mocked the agreement and suggested that he might walk away from it once in office. Instead, his administration has launched a policy review on Iran that might lead to a call for canceling or revising the agreement. In the meantime, the U.S. government has kept it in place.
The administration has turned its focus to all the other things about Iran that are incompatible with U.S. interests: its role in various regional conflicts, including the recent escalation of its military involvement in Syria; its support for Hezbollah and other nonstate actors that use terrorism; its ballistic missile program; and its poor human rights record at home, including its mistreatment of dual-national Iranian-Americans. So far, the discussion about new sanctions has addressed these nonnuclear problems, and therefore does not technically undermine the U.S. commitment to the nuclear agreement.
In the bill it passed last week, the Senate targeted the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which would be treated as a terrorist organization; sanctioned any businesses engaged in Iran’s ballistic missile program; and proposed new measures to enforce the arms embargo against Iran more effectively. In a rare show of bipartisan unity, the bill passed by a vote of 98-2, suggesting that Democrats were comfortable with this tough approach to Iran and did not weigh heavily its possible impact on Iran’s continued commitment to the nuclear deal.
In truth, the driver for the bill was not Iran, but Russia. What’s more, the bill was most notable for being a strong assertion of the Senate’s role in foreign policy formulation, and a possible repudiation of the Trump team’s ambivalence toward Russia. The president’s desire to find ways to work with Moscow, and his seeming indifference to the strong possibility that Russia interfered with the U.S. elections, are at odds with sentiment on Capitol Hill that sees Russia almost entirely in adversarial terms. So Congress is beginning to press hard for a tougher approach, and the president will have to consider similar entreaties from his national security advisers. But he may choose to sit on this sanctions legislation if it makes it to his desk.
The Iranians will likely use even the prospect of new sanctions as a sign that America is not a reliable partner. Former Secretary of State John Kerry has worried about the impact new sanctions would have on the re-elected team of President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who shepherded the deal through on the Iranian side. If they are weakened politically, support for the agreement could begin to unravel in Iran, which could in turn strengthen the hand of skeptics in the U.S.
Members of the foreign policy community who, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, saw the agreement as a net positive for nonproliferation—and as a potential new beginning in U.S.-Iran relations—are working to defend its merits. Last week, the Atlantic Council released a series of short papers to update the story and address potential risks to the survivability of the deal. I contributed an essay, but wish to call attention to others in the series.
Does Tillerson understand that taunting Iran’s leaders may not actually serve American interests in the short to medium term?
Former Treasury Department official Elizabeth Rosenberg argues that new sanctions, if targeted properly, will not undermine the nuclear agreement. She makes the case, essentially, that those in favor of taking a harder line on Tehran can have their cake and eat it too: Washington can preserve the benefits of the nuclear agreement, which, after all, provides more than a decade of significant restraint on Iran’s nuclear activities, yet still pursue a tough-minded policy toward Iran for all its regional activities deemed to be destabilizing.
Several other essays—from former White House official Laura Holgate, former Ambassador Tom Pickering and nuclear expert Kelsey Davenport—offer some creative and ambitious ideas that would expand the impact of the nuclear agreement by making it a new global standard. In so doing, it would advance nonproliferation goals, and even provide Iran additional incentives to sustain the commitments in the deal beyond their current deadlines.
The greater danger to the durability of the agreement is more intangible, and can be found in the intended and unintended signals that the Trump administration transmits in its chaotic approach to national security. Last week, Tillerson reintroduced the threat of regime change as a U.S. objective when he told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that Washington would “work toward support of those elements inside of Iran that would lead to a peaceful transition of that government.” Without further elaboration, the statement could be seen as a bureaucratic compromise, allowing Tillerson to hint at regime change without making it explicit. It nevertheless prompted an angry response from Iran’s foreign minister and could rile up the political debate in Tehran.
In the end, Iran, which has more at stake in maintaining the agreement, will have to have the discipline to prevent the current uptick in rhetoric from driving a policy change. Every previous American president since the 1979 revolution has considered how to persuade or pressure Iran to engage more productively with the international community. All have eventually concluded that any change in Iran’s political system will have to come from within. Until that happens, the U.S. must pursue its interests with the revolutionary regime still in power.
Does Tillerson understand that taunting Iran’s leaders may not actually serve American interests in the short to medium term? Or does he hope that Iran will rise to the bait and the administration will be vindicated in its dark view of it? That outcome would raise the dangers and costs to the U.S. immeasurably.
Ellen Laipson served as president and chief executive officer of the Stimson Center from 2002 to October 2015. She now is president emeritus and distinguished fellow. Her WPR column, Measured Response, appears every Tuesday.