That’s an understandable maneuver. The agreement was President Barack Obama’s signature foreign policy achievement. It remains popular among Democratic voters and European allies. Well after Trump unilaterally withdrew the United States from the pact and reimposed sanctions on the regime in Tehran, a host of international experts and monitors said Iran was still in compliance with the deal’s terms. The risk of an Iranian nuclear weapon — a dominant fear in policy circles a decade ago — seemed comprehensively, if not permanently, averted.
But Trump, who just this week tweeted threats of Iranian “obliteration,” has forged a new reality. Embracing the neoconservative position in Washington that this nonproliferation pact did not do enough to curb Iran’s other activities in the Middle East, Trump has placed the United States one rash decision away from a war with Iran. The Iranian regime, choked by sanctions and chafing under an American pressure campaign, seems to consider strikes akin to the recent attacks in key Persian Gulf shipping lanes as its best chance to roil markets and upset U.S. strategic calculations. And the coterie of hawkish senior administration officials driving Trump’s policy may be all too eager for an escalation.
The White House insists that its stated goal remains a diplomatic resolution of differences with Iran. But avenues toward diplomacy — already thin — are narrowing further. This week, Trump even targeted Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, with sanctions that could block him from travel to the United Nations in New York. And the Trump administration, goaded by anti-Iran hawks in Washington, is also weighing whether to scrap waivers it has preserved that permit a handful of foreign governments to keep working with Iran’s civil nuclear program.
Given the current state of tensions, there’s a chance the nuclear deal won’t even survive till the end of the summer, let alone till the next U.S. presidential election. Iran has so far held back on its threat to enrich uranium at levels that would breach the terms of the 2015 agreement. But it is days away from exceeding that limit, officials warned. European diplomats have pointed to Iran’s one-sided compliance with the deal as justification for their plans to create a trade mechanism with Iran, dubbed Instex, that could bypass U.S. sanctions, much to the chagrin of Washington. But that may take a hit should Iran join Trump in breaking the deal.
The Iranians aren’t confident that the Europeans can make up for the loss of oil revenue — oil sales to Europe are now down to zero, while total E.U.-Iran trade in the first quarter of 2019 is down almost 70 percent year over year. “What is our demand? Our demand is to be able to sell our oil and get the money back. And this is in fact the minimum of our benefit from the deal,” an Iranian official told reporters on the condition of anonymity.
“Iran has essentially told Europe: You’re actually not doing anything,” Michal Koran, president of the board of the Global Arena Research Institute, a Prague-based think tank, told my colleagues.
The European powers are expected to unveil a multimillion-euro credit line to kick things off, but this relatively modest commitment may only underscore the feebleness of what Europe can muster when it’s at odds with the United States. “The U.S. position on Iran has shown that the E.U.’s security policy is controlled by the importance of the U.S. dollar to global trade,” Tom Tugendhat, chair of the U.K. Parliament’s foreign-affairs committee, told the Atlantic. “U.S. sanctions determine our policy, and unless there is a new global currency and banking system, it will remain so.”
Even if things hold as they are in the months to come, there are other reasons there may be no going back. By 2021, both the interlocutors and issues at the heart of hypothetical new talks with Iran would be different. President Hassan Rouhani’s term would end not long after a potential Democratic victor enters the White House. Before that, Iranian parliamentary elections in 2020 may see a surge of support for the country’s anti-diplomacy hard-liners, a camp that has been only strengthened by the White House’s coercive tactics. And it won’t just be enrichment that’s up for discussion then.
“Under the ‘sunset clauses’ that were the target of much of the criticism of the JCPOA in the U.S., the U.N. embargo on conventional arms sales to Iran is due to lift in 2020, before the next election,” explained Slate’s Joshua Keating, using the nuclear deal’s formal acronym. “By 2023, within the next presidential term, a ban on assistance to Iran’s ballistic missile program will be lifted, as will a ban on its research and development of some types of advanced centrifuges.”
Reentry to the nuclear deal of 2015 may be impossible for a Democratic president in 2021. “There will be political pressure in the United States to demand not a return to the old deal but a new, more stringent one,” wrote Ariane Tabatabai and Elise Catalano Ewers in Foreign Policy. “And Iran is unlikely to concede more for the same deal it received in 2015 — or an even tougher one.”