President Trump’s October decision to “decertify” but not immediately dissolve the Iran nuclear deal opened a narrow door to forging a stronger approach to Iran. But his State Department negotiators will need help from Congress — which is facing a Dec. 12 deadline for action — and, crucially, from European governments.
Since the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, was signed in 2015, Iran has hardly moderated its efforts to boost its arsenal and regional influence, as some Obama officials had predicted. Instead, Tehran has expanded its provocative ballistic-missile program and continued to channel funds and weapons to Hezbollah; the Yemeni Houthis; and Shia militiamen in Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq. While it may have been easier politically to keep the JCPOA separate from the rest of the U.S. approach, the unfortunate truth is that in order to make real progress on confronting Iran and protecting U.S. national-security interests, Trump needed to make everyone uncomfortable about the status of the nuclear deal. At the same time, he must tread lightly and keep in mind the risks.
That is perhaps why Trump has chosen not to withdraw from the deal, but rather, under the terms of the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, has given Congress 60 days — that is, until today — to choose among options: end the deal by re-imposing the sanctions related to JCPOA; amend the Review Act to require the U.S. to renegotiate the Iran deal either bilaterally or with the other signatories; or do nothing.
To be clear, the president can still choose to kill or keep the deal. The fact that he made no clear choice tells us a lot about his intention. Trump is betting that the U.S and Europe can come together on harsher restrictions on Iran rather than see the nuclear deal unravel, which would be a political nightmare for all.
Many suggest that this will be impossible, thanks to strains on the transatlantic relationship. So far, the European reaction is of defense, but there is also wariness to not be on the “completely opposing side to the U.S.,” one EU official said. During a visit to the region, French President Emmanuel Macron expressed concern about Iran’s ballistic missile program and raised the possibility of imposing new sanctions after a missile fired from Yemen and intercepted by Saudi Arabia was identified as Iranian. Russian and Chinese buy-in is much less likely, but also not necessary for achieving these policies.
If he is to have any chance to win over his European allies, the American president must lean on their business communities as well as their policymakers, who would “have little choice but to comply since they would not want to risk being shut out of the $19 trillion American market in favor of Iran’s $400 billion one,” said Mark Dubowitz, chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. The U.S. has signaled that it is already adopting this tactic. In October, Secretary of State Tillerson warned, “We are hoping that European companies, countries and others around the world will join the U.S. as we put in place a sanctions structure to prohibit certain activities of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard that foment instability in the region and create destruction in the region.”
There is no evidence yet that Europe will succumb to U.S. demands. But if they do, the next step would be to introduce “targeted sanctions on Iran that do not violate the nuclear accord,” as Antony Blinken, President Obama’s deputy secretary of state, suggested and the House has overwhelmingly supported.
The Trump administration should then demand that Iran conclusively join the international non-proliferation and nuclear safety regime by becoming a signatory to the Convention on Nuclear Safety along with several other treaties on nuclear safety and cooperation.
And finally, they should negotiate improvements to the JCPOA inspection regime. Recent claims of the IAEA not being able to inspect all real and potential activities relating to Iran’s nuclear weapons capability, and that the inspections being carried out lack vigor, must be addressed. By fully committing to the non-proliferation global regime and allowing the IAEA to fully serve its mandate unabated and comprehensively, Iran can show that it is truly intent on not developing nuclear capabilities and reap the benefits of trade and investment with European markets.