On Friday, President Donald Trump will once again have the opportunity to follow through on his threat to pull the United States out of the 2015 nuclear deal it with Iran.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — also signed by France, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, and Germany — limited Iran’s nuclear program and placed it under strict, regular U.N. inspections in exchange for sanctions relief.
Trump, as candidate and president, has repeatedly attacked the agreement as “the worst deal ever” and has vowed to either break it or force Iran to renegotiate it. Under U.S. law, the president must recertify the deal every 90 days, ensuring that Iran is complying with the terms of the JCPOA and that it remains in the best interests of the United States. Refusing to certify the deal would allow Congress to take action, snapping back the lifted sanctions. Trump in October refused to certify the deal, although Congress did not take action within the allotted 60-day window.
Trump is also facing a second deadline to waive the application of sanctions against Iran, which need to be waived every 120 days. He granted the last waiver in September, but stipulated that if Congress does not act to snap back the sanctions against Iran that “the agreement will be terminated.”
According to Reuters, Trump’s advisors are urging him to continue waiving the sanctions. “You either waive the sanctions or you don’t and if you don’t you’re in breach of the JCPOA,” one unnamed official told Reuters.
Trump could decide not to certify the Iran nuclear agreement again, but like last time, it’s not clear that Congress would move forward on reimposing sanctions. But deciding not to extend the sanctions waivers could be a big deal.
“Congress has no interest in passing legislation to snap back sanctions,” said Tyler Cullis, an associate attorney at Ferrari & Associates P.C. who specializes in U.S. economic sanctions. “Other than some intrigue in the first weeks following decertification [in October], the Hill was very quiet on the issue,” he said.
“If he fails to waive the applications of sanctions, all those sanctions will take again,” said Cullis.
Reimposing the sanctions would have a large impact on Iran’s economy and its ability to do business with other countries, and Iran would no longer have access to much of its oil revenue. It would also effectively pull the United States out of the JCPOA since it wouldn’t be upholding its end of the agreement.
Iran has already said it will not renegotiate the deal and is willing to honor its terms provided the other partners to the agreement stick with it — and they have, while encouraging Trump to honor the terms of the deal. So far, not only has Trump refused to recertify the deal, but he has also imposed new sanctions on Iran directed at its ballistic missile program.
While Trump is mulling over sanctions waivers and decertification, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif met with his European counterparts in the JCPOA on Thursday in Brussels, all of whom continue to support the deal, with British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson saying in a statement released prior to the meeting, that the deal is “a crucial agreement that makes the world safer.”
During the meeting, which Zarif tweeted showed a “strong consensus,” the Europeans also urged the United States to separate any concerns with Iran’s foreign policy in the Middle East from the JCPOA.
Strong consensus in Brussels today: 1)Iran is complying with #JCPOA, 2)Iranian people have every right to all its dividends, 3)any move that undermines JCPOA is unacceptable. E3 and EU fully aware that Iran’s continued compliance conditioned on full compliance by the US. pic.twitter.com/vpib5DQT18
— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) January 11, 2018
If the United States pulls out of the JCPOA and other partners stay in, what will result, said Cullis, is “a big mess,” largely because the United States will be in the impossible position of imposing sanctions on its allies.
“If the Europeans decided to take a hard stance against the Americans, and say, ‘We’re going to continue with this deal. We’re going to enact measures to prohibit European compliance with U.S. extraterritorial sanctions. We’re going to continue to encourage European firms to invest in Iran…’ if those kinds of steps are taken by the Europeans, I think you will see Iran adhere to the terms of the agreement,” Cullis told ThinkProgress.
“From the Iranian perspective, there’s something of a victory in the fact that you’ve peeled the Europeans away from the Americans and created a real trans-Atlantic split,” he said.
But the agreement was not really intended to be feasible if the United States pulls out, said Richard Nephew, former Director for Iran on the National Security Staff.
“The sanctions relief that we provide is a big hunk of the incentive for the Iranians, and so if we start mucking with their incentive structure by taking away a big hunk of it, I find it very, very difficult to see how the Iranians will be able to keep on truckin’,” added Nephew, currently a senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy.
Nephew describes the stance that the Europeans and Iran are taking in Brussels as “signalling” intended to let the United States know that they will not pushed around and that if the United States chooses to “tempt fate” that there will be consequences.
But surely President Trump — or at the very least, senior members of his administration — are aware of this, right? What’s the likelihood that he would go ahead with pulling the United States out of the JCPOA?
“In any kind of more routine presidency, that would be a lot of pressure — that’s a pretty powerful set of feedback loops, and most presidents would respond to that by saying, ‘I don’t like being told what to do, but there’s only so much I’m going to row backwards against the tide,” said Nephew. “But this president got the same messages with regards to the Paris [climate] agreement and still walked out. And he got the messages with regards to Jerusalem [recognizing the city as the Israeli capital] but did it anyway. So to me, that’s made me nervous all day.”
“All the messages he’s getting is that ‘everyone thinks you’re crazy if you don’t extend the JCPOA,’ and with this particular president, his response might be, ‘Well, they think I’m crazy, I’ll show them crazy.'”
The United States has also been going after Iran at the U.N., alleging that Iran has been supplying missiles to Houthi rebels fighting the government there since 2015. The United States points to missiles fired at Saudi Arabia, which is leading a U.S.-backed coalition in support of the Yemen’s government, as evidence of Iran’s involvement. But the U.N. has yet to corroborate U.S. claims, and Iran has denied supplying the Houthis with weapons.
And after the most recent round of protests in Iran, which resulted in thousands of arrests and social media blackouts, Trump tweeted his support for the protesters multiple times and the White House indicated it was considering additional sanctions on Iran.
But re-imposing sanctions on Iran is unlikely to help Iranians, said Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, professor of economics at Virginia Tech University.
“The Iranian economy suffered under sanction during 2012-2015. The impressive rebound during 2016/17 (11 pecent GDP growth, and continuing at half that rate this year), is evidence of JCPOA’s benefit for Iran,” Salehi-Isfahani told ThinkProgress over email.
“Re-imposition of U.S. sanctions will certainly hurt the recovery, but the situation will not be as bad as before JCPOA because global compliance with sanctions will be reduced,” he said. “However, with the snap back of UN sanctions, Iran could experience another recession.”
Such respect for the people of Iran as they try to take back their corrupt government. You will see great support from the United States at the appropriate time!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 3, 2018
Plus, snapping back the U.S. sanctions would hurt the United States in what Nephew calls, “the battle of the narratives,” as it would only play into the hands of the hardliners, said Nephew.
“It certainly would help the guys in charge in Tehran to have a bogeyman to point to, and Trump is a hell of a bogeyman right now,” he said.
So, if the United States pulls out of the JCPOA, what’s the road ahead for trying to get Iran to meet its demands with regards to a number of grievances, like its nuclear program, its ballistic missile program, and its foreign policy? And how might Iran respond?
“Unless this administration has a plan sitting on the back shelf that they’re not telling anybody about, they don’t have a plan how to deal with any of this stuff either. But that hasn’t stopped them before,” he said, pointing to Trump’s Muslim travel ban as an example of a policy decision made without a clear plan for implementation.
“This is one of the many reasons why walking down this path is really dangerous, because I don’t think anyone knows the answers to those questions,” said Nephew.