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It's Time To Talk About The Iran Nuclear Deal

"Renegotiation is out of the question," Iranian President Hassan Rohani said on January 17, the first anniversary of the implementation of the nuclear deal, adding that it "isn't something where one person elected can say, 'I don't like it.'"

WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Donald Trump has long portrayed himself as a consummate deal maker, an image he made central to his presidential campaign. That reputation could face a stern test if he pursues one of his proposals: renegotiating the Iran nuclear deal.

Trump has sent mixed messages on how he would handle the accord between Iran and major world powers that lifted some sanctions on Tehran in exchange for restrictions on its nuclear program. At times, he said he would "renegotiate" what he described on the campaign trail as "one of the worst deals we have ever made." At other times, he said he would "dismantle" it.

Scrapping the deal altogether would almost certainly alienate European allies and trigger retaliation from Iran, possibly including ramping up both its contentious nuclear program and its projection of regional power.

But any bid to renegotiate the accord would be fraught with those same risks, experts say.

"No Iranian politician would be in a situation to accept a deal that is worse for Iran and better for the United States," Ali Vaez, a senior Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group, tells RFE/RL.

"Already, the current agreement has many opponents -- many powerful opponents -- inside Iran, and I think no Iranian politician is in a position to take a step that would basically humiliate them internally and turn into a poison pill for them," he adds.

Bilateral Deal

As Helga Schmid, the secretary-general of the EU's foreign policy service, noted recently, the deal hammered out over many years between Tehran and the P5+1 group of powers (the United States, Britain, China, France, and Russia, plus Germany) "is a multilateral agreement that cannot be renegotiated bilaterally."

Thus, Vaez says, any effort by Trump to renegotiate would likely be a bilateral process between Washington and Iran, the results of which -- if any -- would then serve as an addendum to the main deal.

During Trump's presidential campaign, one of Trump's foreign policy advisers highlighted the potential bilateral nature of any renegotiation effort.

"He is going to revise it after negotiating one-on-one with Iran or with a series of allies," Walid Phares said in a July interview with the Daily Caller, adding that Trump would not implement the deal "as is."

Getting Iran to come to the table, however, appears to be a tall order for the moment.

"Renegotiation is out of the question," Iranian President Hassan Rohani said on January 17, adding that the deal "isn't something where one person elected can say, 'I don't like it.'"

U.S. President Donald Trump has called the Iran nuclear accord "one of the worst deals we have ever made."
U.S. President Donald Trump has called the Iran nuclear accord "one of the worst deals we have ever made."


Trump could use sanctions to pressure Iran to negotiate, including by imposing new punitive measures or reversing executive orders used by former President Barack Obama to lift some sanctions on Tehran in order to comply with the nuclear deal.

Such a move, however, would likely stiffen Iran's resistance to new talks, says Mark Fitzpatrick, executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

"Why would Iran agree to renegotiate a deal with a party -- the United States -- that would have just violated the last deal? They would have little reason to do so," Fitzpatrick tells RFE/RL.

If the current deal is torn up, Iran's nuclear program "would resume in a new manner that would shock Washington," the country's nuclear chief, Ali Akbar Salehi, was quoted by Al-Jazeera as saying recently.

If the Trump administration were to unilaterally restore sanctions that were lifted under the Iran deal and, as a result, penalize foreign parties for doing business with Iran, it could cause a rupture between Washington and its allies in Europe and around the world who "wouldn't want to go along," Fitzpatrick said.

Economic Incentives

Besides the threat of new or revived sanctions, Trump could offer economic incentives in exchange for further concessions from Iran, including longer-term limits on Tehran's enrichment of uranium beyond 5 percent or the ability to reprocess plutonium, Vaez of the International Crisis Group says.

To secure such concessions, the Trump administration could dangle access to the U.S. financial system, which Iran continues to be denied and was not a condition of the nuclear accord.

Iranian lawmakers inspect parts of the nuclear plant in the central city of Isfahan, which is used as a uranium conversion facility. (file photo)
Iranian lawmakers inspect parts of the nuclear plant in the central city of Isfahan, which is used as a uranium conversion facility. (file photo)

Iran has complained that it is not benefiting fully from the deal due to U.S. sanctions outside the scope of the nuclear deal and related to Washington's concerns over issues such as terrorism and human rights.

"That is the leverage that the U.S. currently has, and I think the Iranians have already realized that without access to the U.S. financial system, they will have many difficulties for conducting trade," Vaez says.

Such leverage could be deployed to seek nonnuclear concessions as well, including greater cooperation from Iran in ensuring a cease-fire and political transition in Syria or helping to end the war in Yemen, where Iran is backing the Houthi rebels that captured the country's capital in 2014, Vaez adds.

Fitzpatrick says Trump could use the opportunity to boost American business as well, noting the president's earlier complaints that the deal has not benefited U.S. companies. The exception is Boeing, which reached a $16 billion deal with Iran thanks to an aerospace industry condition in the accord.

"One of the big to remove the sanctions that prohibit U.S. businesses from entering into the Iran market," Fitzpatrick says. "There's a lot more potential for such American business, and I can think that somebody like (former ExxonMobil CEO and Trump's nominee for secretary of state) Rex Tillerson would go along with that."

A More Durable Deal

Trump's picks for top national security posts so far have resisted calling for the Iran deal to be scrapped. In his Senate confirmation hearing, Tillerson called for a "full review" of the accord.

New CIA chief Mike Pompeo was a fierce opponent of the deal while in Congress, but in his Senate hearing stressed the importance of "aggressive" verification that Tehran is complying with the terms of the accord.

Meanwhile, new Defense Secretary James Mattis said in his hearing that the landmark deal was flawed but must be upheld.

That doesn't mean there aren't targeted punishments that Trump or Congress could mete out.

In an op-ed last month, former U.S. Senator and vice presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman and former U.S. Ambassador to the UN Mark Wallace argued that deficiencies in the Iran deal could be rectified by "securing an agreement with Iran to verifiably curb its regional aggression, state sponsorship of terrorism, and domestic repression of human rights."

"In exchange, Iran could be given broad-based sanctions relief and even normalization of relations," they argued.

The former officials, both of whom opposed the accord, suggested punishing Iran for noncompliance with measures such as designating the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps as a terrorist organization and backing legislation that would impose further U.S. sanctions related to Iran's ballistic-missile program.

Vaez of the International Crisis Group says the ongoing tension between Tehran and Washington is the most significant factor contributing to the fragile state of the nuclear deal, but that a deal between the Trump administration and Iran could make the accord stronger and "more durable."

Washington, however, would have to be prepared to offer attractive concessions and not rely exclusively the threat of sanctions, Fitzpatrick says.

While sanctions contributed to Iran's eagerness to secure a deal, the Islamic republic did not fully commit until Washington made a "major concession" by allowing some uranium enrichment.

"It was a combination of sanctions and of mutual compromise that produced the deal," Fitzpatrick says. "Sanctions alone didn't bring about the last deal, and I don't think would have brought it about -- and I don't think would bring about a future deal."

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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.