When President Donald Trump refused to certify that waiving economic sanctions on Iran under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is in America’s interest last week, he cited a long list of reasons. From Iran’s aid to Hamas and Hezbollah, its role in the Iraqi Civil War, to its meddling in Yemen and unflinching support for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, he painted a troubling — and mostly accurate — picture of Iranian foreign policy.
It is an imperfect but extremely useful tool for halting Iran’s efforts to build a nuclear weapon, and it is verifiable and enforceable to boot. If Iran breaks the terms of the deal, there are plenty of governments — both those who signed the JCPOA and those who did not — that would impose harsh economic sanctions on Iran
The problem is not that Donald Trump is necessarily wrong about Iran’s foreign policy. It’s that his threat will not work.
President TrumpDonald TrumpUkraine's president compares UN to 'a retired superhero' Collins to endorse LePage in Maine governor comeback bid Heller won't say if Biden won election MORE did not withdraw the U.S. from the JCPOA. Instead he told Congress to find a way to make the JCPOA permanent (e.g. get rid of the 10- and 25-year sunset clauses), and to find ways to include Iran’s ballistic missile program in the agreement. If Congress and America’s allies don’t give the White House what it wants, “then the agreement will be terminated.” This would presumably mean the U.S. would lead an effort to get a global coalition together to impose crippling trade and economic sanctions on Iran, the very thing that brought Tehran to the negotiation table in the first place.
This is not a credible threat. Iranian national security officials are going to look at the mood of Congress – and its ability to pass legislation – and at the policies of America’s allies and those of its own trade partners, and conclude that if they stick to the JCPOA the White House will not be able to follow through on its promise.
Let’s look at Congress first. Sceptics of the JCPOA, from Democrats like Chris CoonsChris Andrew CoonsDems punch back over GOP holdup of Biden SBA nominee Biden threatens more sanctions on Ethiopia, Eritrea over Tigray conflict Senate Democrats to Garland: 'It's time to end the federal death penalty' MORE to Republicans such as Ed Royce, have made it clear: So long as Iran abides by the deal, let’s stick with it (in Royce’s words, “as flawed as the deal is, I believe we must now enforce the hell out of it”). The JCPOA was made to keep Iran from getting a nuclear bomb in the next decade. If the bargain is holding, why provoke Iran into a mad dash for a nuclear weapon by cancelling it?
Even if you don’t like the logic of Congress’ argument, the likelihood of a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate coalescing around a very tricky national security bill has to be in question.
Then there’s the U.S.’ allies. France, Germany, and the UK responded to Trump by declaring that preserving the JCPOA is “in our shared national security interest.” Former British Foreign Secretary William Hague was blunter, saying if the U.S. walks away from the deal, it will simply “reinforce the idea that the word of America cannot be trusted.”
That is not a reputation a deal-making president should seek out. European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini has signalled that the EU won’t leave the deal even if the U.S. does, saying the JCPOA “does not belong to any single country and it is not up to any single country to terminate it.”
These are not just America’s allies that are saying this, these are also the countries — along with China, India, and Turkey (three countries that tend to avoid dancing to America’s tune) — that the U.S. will need to work with if they want to effectively sanction Iran.
Since the JCPOA went into force, Iranian exports to the EU have grown 560 percent, according to my calculation of IMF data. Exports to China have risen 38 percent, to India 90 per cent, and Turkey, 56 percent. The EU and India’s exports to Iran are up by about a third, and China’s by 17 percent, since 2015. While these numbers aren’t setting any economies on fire, they do matter. It is going to be much harder to reimpose sanctions now that real jobs could be affected.
Tehran’s policymakers can find some comfort in these facts. The White House’s new Iran policy is out of step with Congress, its allies, and with economic reality. The president may have a point when he argues that Iran’s foreign policy is destabilizing the Middle East. An impotent threat to tear up a bargain that keep Iran’s nuclear program under international surveillance won’t change Tehran’s behavior.
Simon Palamar is a research associate at the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI). He is currently leading several projects within African conflict management and continues to manage CIGI’s work in the areas of emerging global security issues.