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Trump is still pushing for a new nuclear deal with Iran. How likely is that?

Let’s examine the key factors for pursuing such a deal.

- January 14, 2020

After a week of turmoil with Iran, including a U.S. drone strike on a top Iranian general and an Iranian counterstrike on an Iraqi military base housing U.S. troops, President Trump is so far refraining from further military escalation. Instead, in an address on Jan. 8, Trump reaffirmed the “maximum pressure” policy his administration has pursued against Iran since withdrawing from the nuclear deal in May 2018, promising more economic sanctions and calling for a new deal in which Iran would further restrict its nuclear program and stop supporting militant groups abroad.

Although Iran has long maintained that it will enter negotiations only if sanctions are lifted first, Trump reiterated that sanctions would stay in place “until Iran changes its behavior.” Following through on this approach, on Friday the Trump administration announced new sanctions — though the president appeared to undercut his administration’s stated policy by tweeting Sunday that he “couldn’t care less” whether Iran negotiates with the United States.

So can the Trump administration secure a new, stronger deal with Iran? In 2018, I wrote two TMC columns explaining why this was unlikely, pointing out several key obstacles to coercing Iran, as well as the lack of the favorable conditions that made possible the 2015 nuclear deal. Those factors remain today. As I’ll explain below, recent White House actions, including killing Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, have probably made a new agreement even less likely.

When does international coercion work?

To successfully coerce another country, a government must generally clearly communicate its objectives, impose costs that outweigh the benefits the other nation gets from standing firm and assure the target that punishment will be lifted if it complies with the coercer’s demands. Trump’s current Iran policy includes none of these.

In May 2018, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo laid out a list of 12 ways in which Iran must change its behavior to get relief from sanctions. But many observers — including some in Iran — still believe that what the Trump administration really wants is regime change. The administration vocally supported recent anti-regime protests and even claimed that U.S. sanctions helped trigger that public discontent. Killing Soleimani, one of the Iranian government’s most influential and popular figures, reinforced the message that the United States is not serious about diplomacy.

After the killing, John Bolton, who served in the administration until September 2019, openly called for regime change. One of the administration’s key outside advisers recently wrote that if the sanctions toppled Iran’s government, that would be “even better” than a new nuclear deal. And if Iran’s leaders believe the Trump administration’s real goal is regime change, they have little incentive to talk.

But let’s imagine that Iran’s leaders are willing to believe that the White House would lift sanctions if they met Pompeo’s 12 demands. Those demands themselves are incredibly broad. Pompeo asked not just for additional nuclear and missile restrictions but also for Iran to end all support for proxy forces and to withdraw from Syria. Tehran surely considers those to be too wide-ranging to even consider. The Trump administration’s sanctions have proved more powerful than many analysts (including myself) expected. But historical data suggests that sanctions are not very effective at achieving ambitious policy aims. In fact, comprehensive sanctions tend to fail against authoritarian regimes.

Even if Washington and Tehran could agree on the outlines of a deal that covers a few of the 12 issues Pompeo listed, Iranian leaders probably doubt that the United States would honor it over the long run — giving them little incentive to make major concessions. The United States has an increasingly long track record of going back on nonproliferation deals; Trump’s abandonment of the Iran nuclear agreement is only the most recent example.

What conditions are necessary for successful diplomacy?

What’s more, specific historical conditions enabled successful diplomacy between 2013 and 2015. Those conditions are now gone.

Before the nuclear deal negotiations, Iran was largely perceived as in the wrong, and responsible for triggering a crisis, because it had concealed nuclear activities and defied U.N. Security Council resolutions. Today, by contrast, Russia, China and even America’s European allies blame the United States for the crisis, at least in part. That’s because Iran had been complying with the nuclear deal — but the United States withdrew anyway.

That matters. Between 2010 and 2013, the United States was able to secure wide international support for pressuring Iran, increasing Tehran’s incentives to strike a deal. But today, Russia and China have so far refrained from reimposing sanctions or triggering the snapback of U.N. sanctions, even though, in response to U.S. actions, Iran has begun abandoning its commitments under the deal. European countries, however, have finally triggered the dispute mechanism that would challenge Iran’s actions.

During the crisis, world powers have tried to persuade both Iran and the United States to de-escalate tensions and to once again comply with the 2015 nuclear deal. As a result, Iran — although facing tremendous economic pressure — is not as politically isolated as it was before the deal. That gives Iran greater incentive to wait things out and hope that U.S. policy will change, either under Trump or his successor.

It’s possible that this could change. Since the European parties to the nuclear deal recently announced that they would trigger the dispute resolution mechanism, this could ultimately lead to European and U.N. sanctions returning. But all indications so far are that the Europeans still prefer a diplomatic approach that preserves the nuclear deal.

Finally, in 2015, Iran’s domestic politics helped push it toward negotiations. Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate, had recently been elected president, partly on a mandate to get Iran out from under sanctions, providing an opening for diplomacy. Today it is less clear that domestic politics in Iran support successful diplomacy.

Large protests erupted in late 2019 in response to the regime’s economic and political policies. Though the U.S. killing of Soleimani appears to have prompted many Iranians to rally round the flag in the short run, Iran’s accidental downing of a civilian airliner has reignited protests. While this is likely to increase pressure on the Iranian government to try to escape U.S. sanctions, it also probably heightens the regime’s concern that the Trump administration will seek capitulation if not regime change, thus making talks less palatable. Indeed, the regime recently disqualified many moderate candidates from upcoming parliamentary elections, suggesting an effort to consolidate hard-line influence.

In short, the Trump administration’s chances of negotiating a better deal with Iran don’t seem to have improved over the last year and a half. If anything, prospects are worse.

Nicholas Miller is an assistant professor in the department of government at Dartmouth College and the author of Stopping the Bomb: The Sources and Effectiveness of U.S. Nonproliferation Policy (Cornell University Press, 2018).

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