Can Trump Afford to End the Iran Nuke Deal?

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Technicians at a uranium-processing site in Isfahan, 200 miles south of the Iranian capital of Tehran, on March 30, 2005. Emma Ashford writes that it would be extremely costly for the U.S. if President-elect Donald Trump were to rip up the Iran nuclear deal, the diplomatic equivalent of shooting ourselves in the foot. reuters

This article first appeared on the Cato Institute site.

During the Republican primary season, most candidates railed against the Iranian nuclear deal, promising to rip it up.

Indeed, President-elect Donald Trump described the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPoA) as “one of the worst deals I’ve ever seen.” With Trump’s unexpected success in the election, the future of the Iran deal—one of the major diplomatic successes of Barack Obama’s presidency—has become murky.

Over the past year, Trump’s campaign was impressively inconsistent on the Iran deal. Various Trump surrogates—including Rudy Giuliani in his speech at the Republican National Convention—suggested that Trump would “rip up” the deal on his first day in office. Trump himself strongly criticized the deal, promising in a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in March that dismantling it would be his No. 1 priority.

Yet later statements focused instead on the idea that he would “fix” the deal, by going back to the negotiating table with Tehran, a line later adopted by many of his campaign advisers.

Unfortunately, while this might indicate that Trump’s stance was more rhetoric than reality, he is likely to face strong pressure from the GOP-dominated Congress to upend the deal. The pressure is liable to come from inside his administration too. Not only did Mike Pence, Trump’s VP, take a hard line on the Iran deal in debates, but several of Trump’s potential advisers have similarly argued that the deal should be destroyed.

It’s hard to imagine an administration featuring Bob Corker, John Bolton or Michael Flynn taking a conciliatory approach to Iran on any issue.

So can Trump actually end the Iran deal? Perhaps more effectively than many have assumed, though it would be politically and diplomatically costly. To end the deal, the United States would have to tell the U.N. Security Council that Iran is violating the agreement.

Though such a violation would technically be confirmed by an external party like the International Atomic Energy Agency, the fact is that the “snapback” provision of sanctions relief found in the JCPoA allows the United States to exercise its veto power, forcing the reintroduction of U.N. sanctions.

The United States cannot force the European Union to reintroduce all its sanctions, which include some of the harshest measures on Iran’s oil and banking sectors. Nor can it apply sanctions retroactively; companies cannot be punished for deals made since sanctions were lifted (like the oil and gas deal involving French energy company Total).

But if he wanted to, President Trump could issue executive orders reinstating or creating new sanctions on Iranian individuals or companies. He could also direct the Treasury to apply those sanctions extraterritorially, preventing European or Asian companies that do business with Tehran from accessing the U.S. financial system.

Yet the choice to end the Iranian nuclear deal would be extremely costly for the United States. It would alienate key allies in Europe and elsewhere, discouraging them from participation in future U.S. diplomatic endeavors.

A better deal would pretty much impossible to achieve. Thus, we would substantially increase the likelihood that Iran will return to nuclear development, bringing it closer to the bomb and the United States closer to military conflict. And it would be a black eye for the United States, implying that we cannot be trusted to abide by international agreements that

It’s certainly possible for Trump to dismantle the JCPoA. But as with all questions about his foreign policy, it remains unclear whether he will choose to do so or not.

If he does, the repercussions for U.S. foreign policy would be unpleasant. Tearing up the Iran deal may look good to the Republican base, but it’s the diplomatic equivalent of shooting ourselves in the foot. It would achieve no foreign policy goals, run the risk of destabilizing the Middle East still further and do grave harm to America’s diplomatic reputation.

Emma Ashford is a research fellow at the Cato Institute.