When Donald Trump made Iran the subject of a significant shift in U.S. Middle Eastern policy by announcing a refusal to certify the Iran deal, positive reactions rapidly emanated from Saudi Arabia and Israel. Should the U.S. be unable to diplomatically rectify perceived shortcomings of the deal, Trump announced on October 13 that the agreement would then be “terminated”. While Trump refused to provide presidential certification of the deal, a compromise on unilateral withdrawal means Congress now confronts a choice between ratifying a set of stringent amendments to the deal or refusing, in attempting to maintain a deal that almost all signatories agree works.
President Trump’s intention to alter the deal initially derived from a conviction on the campaign trail that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran was “stupid” and he pledged to renege from the agreement. After inauguration, Trump’s Department of State and the U.N., along with other international organizations and states, maintained Iran was fully complying with the deal, despite repeated testing of conventional ballistic missile technology by Iran. Two near insuperable obstacles in America vitiating, or even renegotiating, the JCPOA mean any attempt to do so can only be detrimental to America’s national interest.
First, none of the other signatories have expressed discontent with the deal since its ratification. European states particularly were and continue to be keen in stabilizing economic and commercial ties with Iran. EU leaders recently reaffirmed their commitment to upholding the deal irrespective of Washington’s actions. Russia and China also remain recalcitrant to any changes to the existing deal. Through Trump’s insistence on deprecating the Iran deal, America has found itself diplomatically isolated in its attempt to unilaterally alter yet another international agreement (withdrawing from the Paris Agreement of 2016 and instigating NAFTA renegotiations are other examples of this proclivity). Although the EU is unlikely to side with Russia and China in opposition to the United States, it is equally unlikely to fully submit to demands that will endanger multiple investments the EU made in Iran since the lifting of sanctions. German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel explicitly stated Europe has to tell “the Americans that their behaviour on the Iran issue will drive us Europeans into a common position with Russia and China against the USA”. In refusing to abdicate his stance on the deal, Trump has further incensed critical allies over an issue where America will continue to be largely isolated.
Second, any renegotiation of the deal can not occur without the consent of Iran. Past substantive criticisms of the deal by Trump concentrated on Iran’s continued ballistic missile program (which has often been said to constitute a violation of the agreement’s spirit) and its activities throughout the Middle East, particularly in the Iraqi and Syrian theatres. Recent hints that Trump, in addition to sanctioning certain elements of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, seeks to subject the organization as a whole to sanctions augur the impossibility of arriving at another agreement with Iran. Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif reportedly resisted any attempt by the U.S. to renegotiate the deal in a speech to Parliament when he stated Iran “will never renegotiate” the deal. Iran will jealously guard the concessions extracted from the United States over years of painfully protracted negotiations and it is naïve to expect an automatic Iranian acquiescence in renegotiating the JCPOA or any supplementary agreement.
Since the signing of the agreement, Iran has proceeded to exert a growing influence over the region, effectively surrounding Saudi Arabia on two geographical fronts along the way with paramilitary forces in Iraq and Yemen. A significant indicator of a shifting balance of power is Iranian influence manifesting in the form of militia and mercenary units on the ground. Such conditions already existed in 2016 and were permitted to further flourish under short-sighted diplomacy by the Obama administration. In arriving at the agreement, Obama’s administration separated Iranian nuclear activity from the rest of Iran’s destabilizing actions for the sake of arriving at an agreement. Trump is correct in denouncing Iranian actions that further exacerbate the conditions leading to a conventional war in the Middle East. Whether Trump is able to constraint such Iranian actions is far more questionable. The conditions allowing for an altered agreement or even a supplementary agreement- which is the more conceivable of inconceivable alternatives- if they ever existed currently do not.
More importantly, even if such conditions did exist, only an imprudent American foreign policy would seek to affect the agreement by unilaterally withdrawing from it. Complex conditions in the Middle East, impossible to describe in such a short piece, mean removing the only obstacle preventing Iran from resuming its nuclear program is likely to reignite a possible arms race in the region. Many Congressmen on both sides of the aisle have sensed the international difficulties involved in unilaterally reneging from the deal and the larger geopolitical consequences such an action would have. Republicans who two years ago presented near intractable opposition to first ratifying the deal are now fearful America’s credibility will be eroded if the U.S. withdraws from an agreement strongly support by its allies.
Trump’s consolidated effort to dismantle Obama’s legacy through scrapping any agreement arrived at under Obama before establishing his own is in this instance restrained by the role of Congress. Although it is not likely for Congress to refuse to certify the deal, this vote is but an episode in a series of opportunities for Trump to still renege from the deal. The next opportunity for Trump to do so is next January when, under terms of the JCPOA, he may refuse to continue waiving sanctions on Iran, a vital component of a functioning agreement. If another ‘crisis of credibility’ occurs in January too over America’s commitment to the deal, Iran will be even less likely to endorse any American attempt to negotiate an altered or separate agreement. Seeking to contain regional Iranian hegemonic ambitions is in America’s national interest. Doing so by actions that disturb present underpinnings of stability in Middle Eastern geopolitics is not.