by Erin Rodewald // December 5, 2016
(This article originally appeared in The Philos Project)
There is no shortage of prognosticating attached to the forthcoming Trump administration. During the long election season, President-Elect Donald Trump was long on fiery rhetoric, but short on policy details, leaving observers uncertain as to how a President Trump would approach the highest job in the land. But then, that is the Trump way – keep ‘em guessing.
Will he actually build a wall? Will he blow up Obamacare? Is NATO truly on its last legs? Of the myriad foreign and domestic balls in the air between now and Jan. 20, perhaps the most supercharged international concern is the future of President Barack Obama’s signature foreign policy initiative – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Trump has called the deal “disastrous” and “catastrophic,” yet his intentions about it remain unclear. In one major foreign policy speech earlier this year, he made two seemingly contradictory promises: to both dismantle the deal and enforce its terms.
Of course, Trump’s lack of political experience makes predictions about his upcoming administration even more difficult; there is no track record from which to glean clues or analyze patterns. On the question of the Iran Deal, perhaps the best indicator of the sort of policy that is to come is to consider the people with whom Trump is surrounding himself.
In recent weeks, Trump has tapped several vocal opponents of the Iran Deal to serve in senior leadership positions within his administration: Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn as national security advisor, Kansas Rep. Mike Pompeo as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. In addition, as of this writing, Trump is expected to announce formally his choice of retired Marine Gen. James Mattis to become secretary of defense.
Flynn is strident in his views on the regime in Tehran and has been critical of the Iran Deal, calling the Obama Administration’s Middle East policy one of “willful ignorance.” His testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee in June 2015 indicates that Flynn will recommend a hardline against Iran. He stated his belief that, deal or no deal, Iran has every intention of building a nuclear weapon. “The United States of America must comprehend that evil doesn’t recognize diplomacy and nations such as Iran will still maintain the intent of achieving nuclear weapon status.”
“I look forward to rolling back this disastrous deal with the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism.” —Mike Pompeo
Pompeo is equally critical of the agreement with Iran, describing it as a “historic failure” and “one of America’s greatest foreign policy blunders.” He has been relentless in his scrutiny of the JCPOA, pointing – along with Sen. Tom Cotton – to two secret codicils to the deal that call into question the verifiability of Iran’s compliance with the terms of the agreement; questioning the current administration’s blind-eye response to Iran’s ballistic missile launches; and blasting the administration’s payment of $1.7 billion to Iran, which was widely interpreted as ransom for four American hostages.
Shortly after receiving the nod for the top CIA post, Pompeo tweeted, “I look forward to rolling back this disastrous deal with the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism.”
But it is not wholly predictable that “rolling back” means “tearing up” in Pompeo’s vernacular. He is likely of the mind that any deal with a rogue regime such as Iran cannot withstand the standards of prudence. But at least initially, he seems willing to attempt to calibrate what may not be amenable to calibration. He seems to favor an approach that would hold the mullah’s feet to the fire on the finer points of the deal, something the Obama Administration has been reluctant to do for fear of endangering the fragile accord. “I think the Trump Administration should say clearly, ‘We have permitted Iran to engage in behavior that goes beyond the deal,’ such as missile tests and how they have handled nuclear material.” In other words, Pompeo is likely to counsel that the new administration should “enforce the deal fairly, but in rigorous detail.”
The JCPOA is wrapped up in United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231, which means that Haley, if confirmed by the Senate, would have a pivotal role as the U.N. ambassador in interpreting the unfolding nuances of the Iran Deal. In 2015, she joined 14 GOP governors – including now Vice President-Elect Michael Pence, as well as former presidential candidates Gov. Bobby Jindal, Gov. Chris Christie, Gov. Scott Walker and Gov. John Kasich – in writing a letter to Obama opposing the JCPOA.
“If implemented, this agreement would lead to the lifting of United States nuclear-related sanctions on Iran without any guarantee that Iran’s drive toward obtaining a nuclear weapon will be halted or even slowed,” the collective wrote. “Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism, and it should not be permitted any pathway toward obtaining a nuclear weapon, now or ever.”
Chief among the governors’ complaints was the pressure to lift state-level sanctions against Iran as part of the nuclear agreement. Sanctions will remain a contentious option, particularly within the international community, but Haley is likely to hold fast to their importance when representing U.S. interests with the international body.
As of this writing, Trump had yet to announce his pick for secretary of state, his foreign policy linchpin. The top contenders for the position are telling; all have voiced varying degrees of hardline opposition to the JCPOA.
“I don’t think [Trump] will tear it up, and I don’t think that the way to start.” —Sen. Bob Corker
The question remains whether Trump’s red-hot rhetoric on the campaign trail will play out from the Oval Office – whether he will rip up the Iran Deal or take a more measured approach. To date, he has lined his administration with experts whose collective contempt for the JCPOA would suggest a hardline, but initially restrained attitude toward Iran. If he chooses to listen to those voices, it is likely that Trump will restrain his urge to blow up the deal outright and instead focus his attention on Iran’s adherence and accountability.
“I don’t think [Trump] will tear it up, and I don’t think that’s the way to start,” said Sen. Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who is rumored to be on the short list for secretary of state. “I think that what he should do is build consensus with these other countries that [Iran is] definitely violating the agreement.”
Short of tearing up the agreement, which some would argue may be impractical and imprudent, options might include an assortment of measures that many agree must start with more rigorously holding Iran accountable to the terms of the deal. Critics point to numerous violations already, including twice exceeding the limits of heavy water used to produce weapons-grade plutonium; ballistic missile tests; questionable interpretations of banking regulations; and refusal to allow inspections of military bases.
Sanctions will remain a problematic but essential means of leverage against bad behavior. Problematic in that the U.S. will have difficulty convincing the global community – already enamored of its newfound trading potential – to once again adopt a posture of economic accountability; essential because it is the most effective way to squeeze Tehran and motivate compliance.
Last month, the House of Representatives passed a 10-year extension of the Iran Sanctions Act, which would give the U.S. means to “snapback” punitive measures against Iran if they fail to meet their obligations. The Senate also approved the extension early this month, and Obama is expected to sign it into law before year’s end, thus securing an important tool whereby Congress can hold Tehran accountable.
There are other economic strategies that can be explored. The U.S. Treasury Department, for example, could intensify pressure on foreign companies by ratcheting up penalties for doing business with groups that overtly engage in terrorist activities, such as Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Finally, Flynn and others have advocated that the U.S. abandon the “lead from behind” strategy of the Obama Administration and replace it with a more robust and active role in the region. Flynn may be hard pressed to convince his new boss – whose words on the campaign trail suggest a unique strain of Jacksonian isolationism – to adopt a muscular, boots-on-the-ground approach to Middle East policy. But Flynn’s counsel to recognize, fully support, and help organize regional partners into an “Arab-NATO-like” structure that is better able to secure its own regional responsibilities will likely play to Trump’s sensibilities. If so, such a strategy may enable the U.S. to re-assert some influence in the region and stem Iran’s hegemonic fantasies.
Still, there are those within earshot of the president-elect who maintain that prudence is not synonymous with caution and ripping up the deal is, in fact, the most prudent course of action. Which leaves the prognosticators and the rest of us with a healthy dose of uncertainty and suspense.