WASHINGTON — The depth and breadth of popular Iranian anger over government corruption and a failing economy have taken the West by surprise.
Until Dec. 28, this was the calculus in Washington: Would President Trump kill the 2015 nuclear agreement or be content with dismissing it as “the worst deal” in history. Now the question is whether Trump sees the demonstrations and their repression by Tehran as an additional spur — or even the last straw — that would convince him to pull the United States out of the pact.
In a Washington Post op-ed published last Thursday berating the Obama administration for its handling of Iran, Vice President Mike Pence said that additional actions definitely were an option, given the latest protests.
In mid-January, Trump has two deadlines looming:
•Whether to certify Iran’s compliance with the deal: Under a 2015 law passed by a Congress skeptical of President Barack Obama’s agreement, the deal requires certification every 90 days. Trump refused to certify the last time the 90 days were up, in October, effectively punting the issue to Congress. Doing so again would have the same effect; it would be up to Congress to reimpose sanctions.
•Whether to waive the nuclear sanctions: The sanctions are renewable every 120 days under laws passed early in the Obama administration. Trump may also reimpose the nuclear sanctions by executive order at any time. Not waiving the nuclear sanctions or reimposing them would effectively pull the United States out of the deal.
We asked experts who favor and oppose the Iran deal two questions: How would the protests influence Trump’s decision-making on whether to stick with the deal? And is there a connection between the deal and the protests? Here’s what they had to say.
The protests may be last straw.
Mark Dubowitz, director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, who has counseled the White House on its Iran strategy, said the protests could spur Congress and America’s European allies to finally take up Trump’s challenge in October — essentially to “fix it or nix it,” amend the terms or walk away.
“The protests reinforce the administration’s view that the Iranian regime is an odious, expansionist and destructive force in the Middle East,” Dubowitz said. “Its foreign adventurism and domestic repression must be confronted using all instruments of American power.”
The protests are exactly the
wrong time to end the nuclear deal.
Dan Shapiro, Obama’s ambassador to Israel from 2011 until a year ago, said scrapping the deal would play into Khamenei’s claims that outside actors are trying to influence the protests.
Daryl Kimball, who directs the Arms Control Association, said killing the deal would be a gift to Khamenei.
“If Trump decides to reimpose the nuclear-related sanctions waived under the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, he will be creating a nonproliferation and security crisis and providing top Iranian officials — particularly Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — a propaganda bonanza,” Kimball said. “If Trump unilaterally reimposes all the nuclear sanctions, it will allow the Iranian regime to blame the U.S. for the regime’s failures to address the grievances of those who are marching in the streets.”
Alireza Nader, a senior Iran expert at the Rand Corp., a think tank that frequently consults with the Pentagon, said it made no sense to rattle the Iran deal when there were many other non-nuclear sanctions options that could squeeze the regime. Taking Iran off the list of Muslim-majority nations whose citizens are banned entry to the United States would be a signal to Iranians that the United States is heeding their plight.
Another measure would be to remove sanctions on U.S. information firms doing business in Iran, Nader said. That would “make sure that Iranians have access to technology that gets information in and out of Iran,” he said.
The nuclear deal helped get us here, in a bad way.
Deal opponents say the nuclear deal freed up cash that the Iranian regime is now using to fund its military adventurism — and to repress protests.
In his op-ed, Pence said the pact “flooded the regime’s coffers with tens of billions of dollars in cash — money that it could use to repress its own people and support terrorism across the wider world.”
The nuclear deal helped get us here, in a good way.
Obama-era officials sent mixed messages on the deal when it was being negotiated. Some, like Secretary of State John Kerry, hoped it would moderate the regime. Others, like Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, argued that taking a nuclear threat off the table — however temporarily — made it easier to squeeze a recalcitrant Iran for its other bad acts.
Nader of the Rand Corp. said the latter argument appears to have been validated, to a degree: Non-nuclear sanctions that Obama kept in place and Trump has reinforced have afflicted Iran’s economy, helping to spur the uprising. But the real villain is the regime’s incompetence and corruption.
“The economy in Iran is abysmal, and U.S. sanctions have contributed to that,” he said. “But the No. 1 blame should go to the Iranian regime for being corrupt.”