Back in March, Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas composed a letter to Iranian leaders regarding the nuclear deal that would soon be approved by the United States, Iran and five other nations. The letter was signed by 46 other Republican senators. It warned that they would "consider any agreement regarding your nuclear-weapons program that is not approved by the Congress as nothing more than an executive agreement between President Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei. The next president could revoke such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen and future Congresses could modify the terms of the agreement at any time."
Cotton would still like to see that revocation or unilateral modification happen. But he’s in a minority even among those who spoke loudest against the agreement.
The matter doesn’t appear on Donald Trump’s list of things to do on Day One of his presidency. But it could be added.
Unlike so many other issues, Trump has been less contradictory in his statements on the nuclear deal, which lifted economic sanctions in exchange for Iran dismantling parts of its nuclear development program. He has called it “the worst deal ever negotiated,” one that he would do over if elected. His strongest statement came last March when he told the pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC that his “No. 1 priority” would be to “dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.”
That’s certainly the kind of typical Trump bluster beloved by foes of the deal. But it’s clearly not his No. 1 priority. And now that he is actually going to be president, many of those who objected to even talking with Iran are less keen—at least in public—about taking the dismantling approach that sounded so good to them on the campaign trail. Nahal Toosi writes:
As the reality of Donald Trump's White House win sinks in among nuclear deal opponents, some are insisting that pulling out of the agreement is unwise. Instead, they say, Trump should step up enforcement of the deal, look for ways to renegotiate it, and pursue measures to punish Iran for its non-nuclear misbehavior. Such a multi-pronged, get-tough approach may even give Trump cover to fend off any criticism he may get for keeping the deal.
It's a remarkable moment for the anti-deal crowd, which includes Israel's prime minister, Saudi princes and Republican lawmakers. Many tried to keep the deal from ever being reached, accused outgoing President Barack Obama of appeasing an enemy and used the agreement to knock Democrats during the 2016 campaign. Now that they have a shot at scuttling the deal they hate so much, they are urging caution.
Trump could, if he wished, take the oath of office and immediately sign executive orders reimposing nuclear-related sanctions on Iran. That would certainly dismantle the deal in the view of Tehran. And it certainly would strengthen the hand of Iranian hard-liners, including the Revolutionary Guard, who, as with hard-liners like Cotton in the United States, opposed the talks from the beginning and the deal that came out of them last summer.
Renegotiations would face stiff difficulties since the deal isn’t just an agreement between the United States and Iran, but among the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany, and Iran. While the United States could probably get the U.K. on board, getting Germany and France to agree to years of new negotiations, much less Russia and China, would be next to impossible. In addition to that obstacle, the European Union has urged Trump to stick with the agreement.
Destroying the agreement by outright withdrawal or pushing for renegotiations would put Iran in the position of aggrieved party throughout much of the world.
Which, as Toosi reports, is one reason David Ibsen, the president of the U.S.-based United Against Nuclear Iran, says, "You don’t want all the blame for the deal falling apart to land on the U.S."
Instead of dismantling, Ibsen and others are urging Trump to step up enforcement of the agreement, which they note Iran has violated twice since it came into force. Both violations occurred this year when Iran exceeded the 130-metric ton limit on how much heavy water it is allowed to stockpile. Heavy water is used to cool certain types of reactors, which can produce plutonium that can be used in bombs.
In February, the International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors found that Iran had 130.9 tons of heavy water on hand, and last week, the watchdog agency found it had 130.1 tons stockpiled. But in neither case did Iran try to hide the overage, and it is taking steps to export five tons of the stuff.
What that shows is that the deal and the inspection regime hammered out over 20 months of negotiations by the Obama administration is working precisely as it was supposed to. Every agreement, whether on trade or closing a house sale, requires vigilance to ensure that the details are carried out as agreed to by all parties. As President Obama has noted, Iran will be hard-pressed to cheat given the strength of the inspection clauses in the agreement.
Besides heightening enforcement of the nuclear deal, the Trump administration could also impose new, or tighten existing, non-nuclear sanctions over Iran’s ballistic missile tests, its support of rebels in Yemen, and its imprisonment of Iranian Americans. There is considerable support for such moves and it comes not just from Republicans but also hawkish Democrats.
How this plays out once Trump is sitting behind the big desk in the Oval Office is anybody’s guess. For one thing, given the myriad matters that need to be fought, coordinated opposition to the dismantling of the Iran agreement or taking a much harder line on it has yet to be organized.