By Matt Cohen
After withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – better known as the Iran nuclear deal – and re-imposing sanctions, President Trump has unknowingly set Iran on a path which presents a number of negative externalities for the United States.
This move does not come as a surprise. In the recent shakeup of U.S. foreign policy leadership, President Trump brought in two Iran hawks, which likely reinforced the President’s views on U.S. participation in the Iran nuclear deal. After waiving sanctions in January, Trump promised that it would be the last time unless European interlocutors fixed the “terrible flaws” in the deal. New National Security Adviser John Bolton has long been the bellwether of the “bomb Iran” camp of neo-conservatives who itch for a fight with the Islamic Republic. New Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been just as critical, though less militarily focused, calling the JCPOA, “disastrous,” and promising a “roll back” of the policy. With this backdrop, President Trump announced U.S. withdrawal from the deal and the re-imposition of sanctions on May 8th.
The aim in this piece is not to re-litigate the tenets of the agreement or to argue for or against the President’s foreign policy decision-making, but instead to examine what will happen within Iran with the return of U.S. sanctions. The thinking on the U.S. side is that re-imposing sanctions and therefore rendering the JCPOA moot will force Iran, on pain of further economic stress, back to the negotiating table to incorporate all the things the U.S. doesn’t like about them (ballistic missile program, Quds force activity in the region, proxy fights, and state sponsored terrorism, etc.) into a brand new agreement. But this is not a realistic expectation; these are items that the JCPOA was specifically designed not to incorporate for practical purposes. Additionally, why would anyone now negotiate in good faith with the United States? This naïveté is a miscalculation about the way the Iranian political establishment and citizens are likely to react to what they perceive as another example of why, in the words of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, “America can't be trusted to negotiate and interact with.”
The next Iranian election is held in 2021, and a number of eventualities could occur. President Rouhani of Iran will surely be forced to react to the U.S. pullout, but what the reaction looks like depends on (1) the manner in which the United States leaves the arrangement, and (2) whether the European countries party to the deal still support it. It could, in the words of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Fellow Karim Sadjadpour, “render President Rouhani a lame duck, and strengthen the Revolutionary Guard.” Rouhani campaigned on a platform defending the nuclear deal during the 2017 presidential election and its prospects for improving the Iranian economy. The election served as a proxy for support of the nuclear deal and Rouhani was handsomely rewarded, winning the presidency with roughly 57 percent of the vote. So, he is politically tied to the agreement. If it falls apart it would likely be a millstone around Rouhani’s political neck throughout his term.
It’s possible he could simply resign, as he will likely be pilloried by Iranian hardline conservatives for trusting the Americans. Conservative anger was on full display during an in-parliament, American flag burning a few days ago. This would force an out-of-cycle presidential election. Or, he could shift his stance towards a more conservative posture to try and preserve political survival. Prior to President Trump’s announcement, Rouhani had promised “severe consequences” should the U.S. withdraw. Rouhani is a moderate in the Iranian sense, not a full-blown reformist liberal. He can take on a position more hostile to the West to appease hardliners while maintaining various reformist social policies.
Aside from politics, if the JCPOA were to fall apart it could also lead Iran to resume their march towards a nuclear warhead. It will make Rouhani increasingly unlikely to resist calls from hardliners to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which Iran became a party to in 1970. They would no longer be constrained by the tenets of the JCPOA and could therefore develop weapons grade uranium at the pre-treaty rate. Indeed, Rouhani has already stated that “there is a ‘short time’ to negotiate with other world powers to keep the nuclear deal in place, and that if negotiations fail, the Islamic Republic will enrich uranium ‘more than ever before’ in the coming weeks.”
What is key in post-May 12th developments is what the European signatories do. Germany, France and the United Kingdom have signaled their willingness to try and salvage the deal. If they stay in, they will invoke the ire of Trump and give the Ayatollah and hardline conservatives a victory in dividing the West. If European investors pull out, the vacuum will likely be filled by the Revolutionary Guard who control a large part of the economy, something Rouhani has been trying to combat in recent months. This is a win-win for Iranian conservatives. The IRGC will likely be hurt less by sanctions vis a vis the rest of the population because they are largely free to evade them. They can pursue other means of capital even if they are informal, unofficial, or nefarious in nature. The common Iranian company does not have similar bandwidth. So there is another counter-productive externality of the JCPOA falling apart.
Not only would American and European prospects for progress with Iran drop dramatically, but the possibility that Iran falls decidedly into a Chinese/Russian sphere of influence would be almost guaranteed. President Rouhani has already signaled such prospects with a barbed line calling Russia and China, “the world’s two superpowers.” China and Russia would be unlikely to comply with any sanctions targeting Iran, especially China, who is in no mood to listen to the U.S. about trade policy gripes given the nature of the U.S.-China trade relationship.
What is for sure, is that the conservative elements of Iranian politics have received a gift from the United States. “Any hope for moderation at home in the near future will fizzle out,” according to political analyst Hamid Farahvashian. These types of diplomatic failures have consequences. President Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech in 2002 is thought to have advantaged hardliners and created a political environment that facilitated the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005.
We in the West talk a lot about Iran “spreading the revolution.” That revolution, or those revolutionary ideals are defined by mistrust and disdain for the West and for Israel. Those ideals were born out of a state of resistance. It is those feelings which give the Ayatollah his legitimacy and power. The United States reneging on the terms of the agreement only plays into the hands of the hardliners in Iran. It gives them one more piece of ammunition, one more recent reference point as to why the West cannot be trusted and why the clerical governing establishment is necessary to protect the state – “ripping up” the JCPOA only buoys the revolutionary ideals of the Islamic Republic of Iran. If the U.S. foreign policy goal is a modernistic Iran more in line with Western ideals, then this move is the last thing likely to further that momentum.
Matt Cohen is a contributor at Emerging Voices and Master’s candidate at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs concentrating in Transnational Security with a focus on the Middle East.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of their employer or Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.