What If America Backs Out of the Iran Deal?

Scuttling the nuclear deal jeopardizes U.S. interests.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, colloquially known in Washington as the Iran deal, was a monumental coup for American and global diplomacy. Years of negotiations involving seven countries with competing interests somehow succeeded in blocking the paths to an Iranian nuclear bomb, while simultaneously dismantling a draconian sanctions regime. War was averted and commerce took the place of blockades. Up until the present, the world has seemed rather pleased with this trade-off. Europeans and Asians have parachuted into Tehran en masse, signing contracts to build airports, automobile factories and high-speed rail. The United States, after decades of blocking Wall Street from doing serious business with Iran, is poised to allow Boeing and GE to cash in on multibillion-dollar contracts. Even the Israelis, erstwhile foes of the Iran deal, seem resigned to the fact that the agreement has lessened the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran.

Despite global optimism and a palpable sense of worldwide relief, the Iran deal is being challenged relentlessly in an American presidential election where diplomatic pragmatism is not known to be a vote getter. Republicans lambaste the deal as a foolhardy pact with an untrustworthy foe, complete with harsh rhetoric of “tearing up” the deal and fantastical vows to “renegotiate” the pact should they take the White House. Democrats, although keen to defend Obama’s legacy, seem to express their praise of the deal quietly, with enough room to quickly jettison support in the face of political expediency. As the Iran deal becomes a political football, its layered nuance and inherent compromises will likely become the target of opportunistic soundbites and cynical distortions. Amid such fluidity in America’s view of the Iran deal, it is worthwhile to examine whether a future American president can scuttle the agreement, how she or he could take action against it, and what the global repercussions of such an action would be.

As the Iran deal was being negotiated, many in Tehran fretted that it was not garnering bipartisan support in Washington. This led Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to declare that no future U.S. president would be so irresponsible to destroy American credibility and walk away from a multilateral agreement that Iran has not violated. Implicit in Zarif’s argument is the fact that a future U.S. president can, in fact, take actions that could destroy the Iran deal. Despite Republican bluster about a dramatic withdrawal from the deal, however, the more likely strategy for a future antideal White House would be to use nonnuclear disagreements to trigger U.S. action, designed to compel Iran not to live up to its nuclear commitments.

In Tehran’s view, such a trigger would be any American act that would prevent Iran from benefiting from the deal’s promised sanctions relief, thereby denying Iran any reason to comply with its own commitments. The wording of the nuclear deal itself, committing the U.S. to “make best efforts in good faith to sustain this [deal] and to prevent interference with the realization of the full benefit by Iran,” gives Tehran significant leverage to prevent future multilateral or secondary U.S. sanctions. The current missile and dollar disputes between the United States and Iran are vivid examples of the constraints that the deal places on the Obama administration. The type of American sanctions that can be levied on Iran because of its missile activities are limited in scope, because Iran’s missile activities are not violations of the Iran deal. Thus, any new missile sanctions must carefully avoid blocking the benefits that Iran gained under the nuclear deal.

Furthermore, despite American reluctance, the Obama administration seems set to loosen restrictions on Iran’s use of dollars in international transactions in order to live up to its commitment not to block promised sanctions relief. A future, antideal White House can easily use Iranian acts such as missile tests, threats against Israel or a host of other disputes to interfere with sanctions relief granted to Iran under the deal. The easiest and quickest avenues to do so would be to again curtail Iran’s use of the dollar in international transactions or to reimpose harsh unilateral sanctions that would overlap with the nuclear deal’s sanctions relief. Such actions would prompt Iran to renege on its own commitments under the nuclear deal, presumably leading to a collapse of the agreement.