There are not many issues on which Europe, Russia and China all agree, but there is one: Ensuring that United States’ President-elect Donald Trump does not undermine the Iran nuclear deal.
There are legitimate grounds for concern that the incoming American administration or Congress will sabotage the deal, which Trump has referred to as a “disaster” and vowed to “dismantle”. The president-elect has also surrounded himself with people like Rudolph W. Giuliani and John R. Bolton, both mentioned as potential secretary-of-state picks, who have said they want an immediate end to the deal and called for regime change in Iran. Trump’s pick to lead the CIA, Mike Pompeo, recently wrote on Twitter: “I look forward to rolling back this disastrous deal with the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism.”
As Trump decides in what direction he will take his Iran policy, countries that have until now partnered with the US on Iran must draw a line. They should firmly tell the president-elect that as long as Iran continues to meet its obligations under the deal, they will do so as well. They should also make clear that if either Congress or the American president unravels the deal, other world powers will go their own way with Iran.
It is no surprise that most countries overwhelmingly support the nuclear deal and that US President Barack Obama pledged to veto Republican attempts to undo the monumental diplomatic achievement. Iran has dismantled and limited key aspects of its nuclear programme in exchange for an easing of sanctions. Not only has it advanced the West’s nonproliferation agenda, it has also prevented the US from resorting to military responses.
There is a good chance that after intelligence briefings show him how US security interests have benefited from it, Trump will come to realise the importance of keeping the nuclear deal intact. He may even be persuaded by corporate lobbying and commercial interests to preserve it, given the potential for American companies to gain access to Iran’s markets.
This would earn the support of American businesses as well as European allies, Russia and China. It would also strengthen the international credibility of the US and its new president and open greater diplomatic space for his administration to carry out his stated goal of cooperating with Russia to counter Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant).
But Trump may also be persuaded by the hawks he has surrounded himself with. He can swiftly deliver a death blow to the deal by withholding, neglecting or seeking to renegotiate American commitments on easing sanctions. This could result in the reintroduction of secondary American sanctions against international companies doing business with Iran.
The US, like other signatories to the nuclear agreement, can also undo it by claiming that Iran has breached its terms. In this case, United Nations Security Council sanctions would “snap back”. But in reality, the rest of the world is unlikely to enforce these sanctions as they did before the deal if they believe that the US is violating the spirit of the agreement.
Alternatively, Trump may avoid overt responsibility and allow the deal to die by signing legislation that imposes fresh sanctions on Iran or introduces oversight measures on Iran’s nuclear programme beyond the terms of the deal.
In all these scenarios, the US will be seen as undermining the deal and provoking Iran to walk away from its obligations. The sympathy of the rest of the world in that case will be with the Iranians.
It will be Trump, as president, who will have to deal with these repercussions. Because the international coalition that previously supported sanctions on Iran will not be put back together, America’s economic leverage on Iran will be much weaker, increasing the likelihood that Iran will ramp up its nuclear programme, and in turn, increasing the risk of American military action.
Twenty-eight European leaders had unanimously reiterated their “resolute commitment” to the deal regardless of the outcome of the American election. Heads of state from the other five countries that negotiated the agreement with Iran would undoubtedly feel personally betrayed by the American president’s withdrawal. This is likely to put the US in a confrontation with Russia, China and Europe — not just on Iran, but on other issues where Trump will need their cooperation, like the Syrian war.
If the US president or Congress is viewed as sabotaging the deal, the European Union, together with Russia and China, must attempt to salvage its key nuclear restrictions by offering meaningful sanctions relief to Iran. This will need to include the continued lifting of European banking sanctions and the oil embargo that was once imposed because of Iran’s nuclear programme. It will also require bold, but not unprecedented actions to protect European companies against the enforcement of American sanctions by the US Treasury Department aimed at prohibiting business with Iran.
There are steps that can be taken now to avoid the need to resort to such measures. International leaders should immediately convey to the incoming administration the importance of preserving the deal.
There is also a window before Trump’s inauguration during which world powers can cement the gains made under the agreement by resolving banking and regulatory hurdles now faced by companies seeking to execute major deals already made with Iran.
European countries, in particular, should work with Iran and the Obama administration to develop channels of communication between Tehran and Washington that will outlive Obama’s tenure, and to send firm signals of their continued political commitment to the deal. Business leaders, too, must make clear that the nuclear deal serves both American and global security interests.
Trump’s immediate position on the Iran deal will be one of the first critical tests for his presidency. It will also test the legitimacy of the UN Security Council. The American public, like international leaders, should make clear to the president-elect that they do not want to become entangled in yet another military crisis in the Middle East, especially one that the world has already worked so hard to avoid.
— New York Times News Service
Ellie Geranmayeh is a policy fellow in the Middle East and North Africa programme of the European Council on Foreign Relations.