There are not many issues on which Europe, Russia and China all agree, but there is one: ensuring that President-elect Donald J. Trump does not undermine the Iran nuclear deal.
There are legitimate grounds for concern that the incoming administration or Congress will sabotage the deal, which Mr. Trump has referred to as a “disaster” and vowed to “dismantle.” The president-elect has also surrounded himself with people like Rudolph W. Giuliani and John R. Bolton, both mentioned as potential secretary of state picks, who have said they want an immediate end to the deal and called for regime change in Iran. Mr. Trump’s pick to lead the C.I.A., Mike Pompeo, recently wrote on Twitter, “I look forward to rolling back this disastrous deal with the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism.”
As Mr. Trump decides in what direction he will take his Iran policy, countries that have until now partnered with the United States on Iran must draw a line. They should firmly tell the president-elect that as long as Iran continues to meet its obligations under the deal, they will do so as well. They should also make clear that if either Congress or the American president unravels the deal, other world powers will go their own way with Iran.
It is no surprise that most countries overwhelmingly support the nuclear deal and that President Obama pledged to veto Republican attempts to undo the monumental diplomatic achievement. Iran has dismantled and limited key aspects of its nuclear program in exchange for an easing of sanctions. Not only has it advanced the West’s nonproliferation agenda, it has also prevented the United States from resorting to military responses.
There is a good chance that after intelligence briefings show him how United States security interests have benefited from it, Mr. Trump will come to realize the importance of keeping the nuclear deal intact. He may even be persuaded by corporate lobbying and commercial interests to preserve it, given the potential for American companies to gain access to Iran’s markets.
There is a good chance that after intelligence briefings show him how United States security interests have benefited from it, Mr. Trump will come to realize the importance of keeping the nuclear deal intact.
This would earn the support of American businesses as well as European allies, Russia and China. It would also strengthen the international credibility of the United States and its new president and open greater diplomatic space for his administration to carry out his stated goal of cooperating with Russia to counter the Islamic State.
But Mr. Trump may also be persuaded by the hawks he has surrounded himself with. He can swiftly deliver a death blow to the deal by withholding, neglecting or seeking to renegotiate American commitments on easing sanctions. This could result in the reintroduction of secondary American sanctions against international companies doing business with Iran.
The United States, like other signatories to the nuclear agreement, can also undo it by claiming that Iran has breached its terms. In this case, United Nations Security Council sanctions would “snap back.” But in reality, the rest of the world is unlikely to enforce these sanctions as they did before the deal if they believe that the United States is violating the spirit of the agreement.
Alternatively, Mr. Trump may avoid overt responsibility and allow the deal to die by signing legislation that imposes fresh sanctions on Iran or introduces oversight measures on Iran’s nuclear program beyond the terms of the deal.
In all these scenarios, the United States will be seen as undermining the deal and provoking Iran to walk away from its obligations. The sympathy of the rest of the world in this case will be with the Iranians.
It will be Mr. Trump, as president, who will have to deal with these repercussions. Because the international coalition that previously supported sanctions on Iran will not be put back together, America’s economic leverage on Iran will be much weaker, increasing the likelihood that Iran will ramp up its nuclear program, and in turn, increasing the risk of American military action.
On Nov. 14, 28 European leaders unanimously reiterated their “resolute commitment” to the deal regardless of the outcome of the American election. Heads of state from the other five countries that negotiated the agreement with Iran would undoubtedly feel personally betrayed by the American president’s withdrawal. This is likely to put the United States in a confrontation with Russia, China and Europe not just on Iran but on other issues where Mr. Trump will need their cooperation, like the Syrian war.
If the United States president or Congress is viewed as sabotaging the deal, the European Union, together with Russia and China, must attempt to salvage its key nuclear restrictions by offering meaningful sanctions relief to Iran.
If the United States president or Congress is viewed as sabotaging the deal, the European Union, together with Russia and China, must attempt to salvage its key nuclear restrictions by offering meaningful sanctions relief to Iran. This will need to include the continued lifting of European banking sanctions and the oil embargo that was once imposed because of Iran’s nuclear program. It will also require bold, but not unprecedented actions to protect European companies against the enforcement of American sanctions by the Treasury Department aimed at prohibiting business with Iran.
There are steps that can be taken now to avoid the need to resort to such measures. International leaders should immediately convey to the incoming administration the importance of preserving the deal.
There is also a window before Mr. Trump’s inauguration during which world powers can cement the gains made under the agreement by resolving banking and regulatory hurdles now faced by companies seeking to execute major deals already made with Iran.
European countries, in particular, should work with Iran and the Obama administration to develop channels of communication between Tehran and Washington that will outlive President Obama’s tenure, and to send firm signals of their continued political commitment to the deal. Business leaders, too, must make clear that the nuclear deal serves both American and global security interests.
Mr. Trump’s immediate position on the Iran deal will be one of the first critical tests for his presidency. It will also test the legitimacy of the United Nations Security Council. The American public, like international leaders, should make clear to the president-elect that they do not want to become entangled in yet another military crisis in the Middle East, especially one that the world has already worked so hard to avoid.
The article was first published by the New York Times on 25 November 2016.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.