Trump's Botching of the Nuclear Deal Destroyed U.S. Leverage on Iran | Opinion

President Donald Trump listens in between U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) and National Security Advisor John Bolton during a news conference at the 2018 NATO Summit at NATO headquarters on July 12, 2018 in Brussels, Belgium. Jasper Juinen/Getty Images

Despite the early stage of the 2020 race, several major Democratic Presidential candidates have already announced their support for returning the U.S. to compliance with the Iran nuclear deal—including Julian Castro, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren. But despite the obvious benefits of returning, some voices have already begun to push back.

Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer, who thoroughly alienated Democrats through his partisan maneuvering during the nuclear negotiations in 2015, has warned that returning to the Iran nuclear deal "has to be seen as totally unacceptable." Similarly, deal opponents have called on Trump to build a "sanctions wall" to prevent a successor administration from returning to the accord. This much, perhaps, is to be expected. But some Washington experts also appear to be falling for the trap set by deal opponents, by suggesting that Trump may have enhanced U.S. leverage by withdrawing from the deal and re-imposing sanctions. Such notions could not be further from the truth. In fact, outside the nuclear deal, the U.S. has no effective leverage to force new concessions on Iran.

The policymakers sober enough to realize this have much of the rest of world powers for company. The Trump administration's isolation on Iran is routinely exposed as our former negotiating partners continue to sustain the JCPOA. In contrast to the Obama administration's efforts to rally the international community behind both sanctions and a diplomatic effort to constrain Iran's nuclear program, Trump's approach is met with resistance.

Fearful of exposing these divisions in the transatlantic alliance, Europe convinced the State Department to water down the agenda of February's Warsaw ministerial from an Iran-bashing fest to little more than a brainstorm on the Middle East. Still, Vice President Mike Pence failed to get the memo, calling on Europe to leave the JCPOA on European turf while excoriating our allies for sustaining an agreement that the U.S. negotiated.

But in March the remaining parties to the accord reiterated their support for full implementation of the deal, describing the JCPOA as "a significant diplomatic achievement of multilateral diplomacy endorsed unanimously by the UN Security Council." Moreover, Europe has taken initial moves to protect its companies from the extraterritorial reach of U.S. sanctions in a bid to provide Iran with some benefit from its continued compliance with the deal. Those initial steps could be strengthened if the Trump administration escalates its financial war against our estranged allies.

Even if the Trump administration manages to bully our former negotiating partners into line with its escalatory approach, Trump's snapback of sanctions has soured both Iran's political elite and the populace at large on accommodation with the West and thus ensured a more rigid posture to U.S. demands. While the U.S. has a long list of complaints against the Islamic Republic—including the Iran Hostage Crisis, the backing of designated terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, and the continued unjustified imprisonment of U.S. citizens by hardline elements of the regime—there is a similarly long list of Iranian complaints of U.S. behavior. Both Iran's leaders and its public remember the U.S. backing the Shah's authoritarian reign, as well as Saddam Hussein's chemical warfare against Iran. Now, hardliners' warnings that the U.S. could not be trusted to lift sanctions have been proven prescient, while the Rouhani administration's efforts to bank on U.S. follow through looks foolhardy.

Some, perhaps deluded by wishful thinking, have argued that growing despair and economic plight in Iran is a recipe for the end of the regime. However, both the history of sanctions and the Islamic Republic itself cast severe doubt on this assumption. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has expanded both its economic and political power amid U.S. sanctions, while ordinary Iranians who have proven capable of pushing their government in a more moderate direction - despite severe limitations - have suffered. What we are beginning to see instead is an increasingly hardline Iranian regime looking for improved relations not with the West, but authoritarian regimes in China and Russia. These negative trends come at a dangerous time, as Iran prepares for the passing of only its second Supreme Leader, 79-year-old Ali Khamenei.

If this wasn't bad enough, Iran's continued compliance with the JCPOA cannot be counted on. Trump administration hawks like John Bolton, who have long preferred military confrontation over negotiations, have significant room for maneuver on Iran policy under a disinterested President who has already declared mission accomplished on Iran. Those hawks believe they have less than two years to collapse the JCPOA, prevent a future administration from returning to the accord and either provoke a war or regime collapse in Iran. If the pressure continues to escalate without hope for reprieve, Iran may calculate that it has little choice but to respond to pressure with pressure and escalate its nuclear program.

With no leverage, international backing or negotiating partners in Tehran, preconditions are bound to fail. So too will efforts to change the accord from the outside. That is why it is so important that Democratic contenders to replace Trump have pledged that they will return to compliance with the JCPOA if elected President and if Iran continues to comply with the nuclear accord. While far from a silver bullet to undo the damage wrought by Trump's team, the move – coupled with other decisions like a return to the Paris Climate accord - will begin to restore America's diplomatic credibility with our allies and former negotiating partners. Moreover, the move will reverse 32 months of U.S. violations of the JCPOA, beginning to restore some faith in Iran that the U.S. can abide by its sanctions-lifting commitments.

The window to return to the JCPOA is narrow, and risks closing if a future President insists on continuing the Trump administration's preconditions or seeking some alternative concessions from a lame duck Rouhani administration. Iran holds critical Presidential elections in May 2021 which will help determine Iran's orientation toward the West. If a future administration fails to rejoin the deal early, it risks ensuring the election of a hardliner and keeping the diplomatic window with Iran closed for the foreseeable future. Whether a future administration seeks to alter the JCPOA itself to ensure its political stability, to pursue resolutions to festering regional conflicts or to address the worsening human rights situation in Iran, the first step for all approaches is to restore U.S. leverage by returning to compliance with the JCPOA.

Ryan Costello is Policy Director at the National Iranian American Council (NIAC.) He tweets @RN_Costello.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.