In Unpacked, Brookings experts provide analysis of Trump administration policies and news.
The protests that have rocked Iran over the past 10 days have come on the eve of a set of crucial decisions surrounding America’s adherence to the Iran nuclear deal. President Donald Trump fervently opposes the 2015 agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, describing it as “the worst deal ever.” In October, he announced that he would decertify Iran’s compliance with the deal and threatened to terminate the JCPOA unless Congress and U.S. allies found ways to toughen its enforcement and expand its restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities. While talks continue, no new legislation or other initiatives to address the shortcomings that Trump perceives have been announced. This week, Trump will have to make a clear choice about the future of the deal, with the culmination of deadlines for decisions on waiving an array of American sanctions on Iran, as required under the agreement. The latest showdown on the future of the deal follows more than a week of spontaneous street protests in cities across Iran that apparently began over economic issues and quickly shifted to generalized rage against Iran’s post-revolutionary system.
The White House has spoken out forcefully in support of Iranian demonstrators, with Trump denouncing Tehran on Twitter as “failing at every level” and the Treasury Department unrolling new penalties on entities related to Iran’s ballistic missile program. The unrest will no doubt tempt the White House to double down and take advantage of the waiver deadlines as an opportunity to intensify pressure on Tehran. That would be a terrible mistake. Refusing to continue the sanctions waivers is a full frontal assault on the nuclear deal that, at minimum, would initiate a diplomatic uproar among our allies and partners, unsettle oil prices and broader economic trends, and encourage Iran to reconstitute the elements of its nuclear program.
And as a response to the current volatility in Iran, bringing down the deal would be precisely the wrong step from Washington. It would shift the focus away from the protestors’ courageous efforts to expose the failings of their government and instead vindicate Tehran’s narrative of American treachery. The Iranian leadership would relish a new justification for falsely attributing all the country’s economic problems on Washington. Right now, the eyes of the world are focused on Iranians’ legitimate grievances about the consequences of their government’s corruption and its massive investment in regional adventurism. The best thing that the Trump administration could do right now is to ensure Iranians’ voices are heard and that their demands from their own leaders are not overshadowed by counterproductive American theatrics around the nuclear deal.
There is a tremendous amount of uncertainty about whether the president is purely interested in showmanship on Iran or whether in fact he is looking to advance an agenda that might bring us into direct confrontation with Tehran.
The things you need to know:
- In 2015, Congress passed legislation requiring the president to certify Iranian compliance with the deal.
- The legislation was intended to assert Congress’s role in evaluating major foreign policy initiatives. It created a 90-day reporting requirement that President Trump reportedly dislikes.
- In October, he announced that he would not certify the Iranian nuclear deal.
- In his announcement, Trump outlined an array of accusations against Iran, including its support for terrorist groups, its repression of its own people, and its use of Shiite militias around the region to target American troops in Iraq and elsewhere. However, the nuclear deal was never intended to address any of these issues. The deal was solely focused on the issue of Iran’s nuclear ambitions and its nuclear program.
- The deal was reached after more than a dozen years of negotiations and involved the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, the European Union, Russia, and China.
- Decertifying the deal was largely a symbolic move by the president and has not yet provided greater leverage for getting a better deal or for addressing the range of concerns that exist about Iranian policies outside the arena of the nuclear issue.
- This week, President Trump will need to make a decision about whether to continue the deal-related sanctions waivers. That is the most important aspect of American compliance with the agreement, and what he does there will be more important than the speech that he gave this past October.
- It’s not clear whether the president is purely interested in showmanship on Iran or whether he is looking to advance an agenda that might bring the United States into direct confrontation with Tehran.
- If President Trump seeks the latter, he’ll need to do a better job at explaining his approach and how he intends to succeed to the American people.
- Confrontation with Iran would likely require a much greater American presence in the Middle East—something the president campaigned against extensively.
Why Trump’s decertification of the Iran deal matters
To certify or not to certify? That’s not the question
Ending the Iran deal is an invitation to war
Under Trump, U.S. policy on Iran is moving from accommodation to confrontation