Donald Trump’s election win raised interest because of the difficulty of making accurate policy predictions owing to his unpredictability. The President-elect could pursue one of his main foreign policy objectives based on his pre-election campaign call to dismantle the Iran nuclear deal, known by its formal name, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), reached between Iran and the major world powers led by the United States. As the election campaign continued and drew near, at times Trump further suggested the possibility of somewhat softer approach; to simply review and amend it to make it more suited to the wider US interests in the region. As much of President-elect Trump’s foreign policy agenda is still taking shape, it is still far from certain as to which direction his foreign policy vis-à-vis Iran will take: dismantle, amend, or keep the JCPOA under the current terms of the agreement. Although it can be seen as a great deal of speculation based on Trump’s campaign rhetoric until he takes office in due time, some might suggest that his choice for his incoming foreign policy team known for their fierce critique of the JCPOA and Iran in general, adds some credibility to this speculation.
According to Ray Takeyh, a prominent expert on Iran and the US foreign policy, advocating for more uncompromising policy toward Iran, this task of dismantling, or more importantly amending the US commitments under the deal will not be hard for the Trump administration to pursue; there already is a sizable number of senators and other influential officials who opposed the current restricted nature of the JCPOA. But because of the deal’s multilateral nature, a much harder task for Trump will be to convince the other signatories who have contributed hard diplomatic work and are fairly satisfied with the JCPOA. Nonetheless, should the Trump administration decide to follow through his campaign rhetoric and walk away from the deal altogether, or should they decide to push for renegotiations on more inclusive terms unsuccessfully, the JCPOA is likely to fall apart given the weight of the US as a leading signatory of the nuclear agreement. Whatever direction the Trump administration takes will not show good prospects for Iran as it is likely to push the Islamic Republic back into international isolation.
The prospect of promising regional developments for Iran
At first glance, this situation looks advantageous for Iran in the face of its growing influence vis-à-vis the United States in the region where the Islamic Republic enjoys superior geographic and political advantages. In this context, it can be argued that Trump’s wider foreign policy in the region may unintentionally align with Iran’s interests. For example, in the Presidential debate, Trump talked about his vision of the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, suggesting that his policy priority will be defeating the Islamic State; not Assad. The survival of the Assad regime sits at the top of Iran’s regional policy priorities. This will undoubtedly be welcomed by the leaders of the Islamic Republic, as professor Mohammad Marandi of University of Tehran has been quoted by New York Times, “it will be good for Iran, the region and the world.” Trump has also talked about Saudi Arabia, questioning the current level of the US close relations and security commitments to the Kingdom. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the main political and religious rival for Iran, as they both have hegemonic ambitions for the regional order based on the religious-political vision for the region. If Trump follows through his foreign policy vision vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia expressed in the Presidential debate, this will undoubtedly boost Iran’s growing influence in the region.
In this context, Mahan Abedin, an Iran analyst, has argued the prospect of hopeful political developments on the regional stage may suit Iran according to which Trump’s presidency could even be preferred. Namely, the prospect of the Trump administration’s improving relations with Russia could lead to attracting less criticism of Russia’s ongoing military intervention in support of Assad. This would allow it together with Iran “to dictate the terms of the Syrian conflict’s conclusion.” As well as Trump’s favoured more isolationist foreign policy on the world stage will play in the Islamic Republic’s favour as “even a modest US withdrawal from global affairs is welcomed by the Iranian establishment.”
Likewise, according to the observances of other Iran analysts, political leaders in Tehran are likely to view Trump’s presidency more favourably. This observation is based on the grounds that his vision of the US role, in the Middle East, in particular, does not appear to include a commitment to spreading democracy and human rights; he is less likely to have these issues based on the Western liberal values as a prime objective in future dealings with the Islamic Republic, which is a highly sensitive issue for the theocratic state. Furthermore, Hilary Clinton’s known strict stance on Iran’s regional foreign policy – its interventionist policies in Iraq and Syria through the Revolutionary Guards and its strong supporter Hezbollah, as well as perceived support of the Shi’a Houthis religious-political movement in Yemen – that the US is concerned with, might be a strong incentive for Iran to lean towards Trump.
But after giving it a careful consideration, it stands to reason to argue that any attempt at renegotiating of the current terms of the JCPOA, not to mention to completely dismantling it, will work counter to Iran’s fundamental national interest of a religious nature – safeguarding the revolution. Understanding this is important because this incentivised starting the nuclear talks in the first place. The leaders of the Islamic Republic have understood the situation and were quick to demonstrate Iran’s intended compliance with its commitments. President Hassan Rouhani, emphasising the multilateral nature of the JCPOA, said that Iran will stay committed and loyal to the deal regardless of the direction Trump and his incoming administration’s foreign policy vis-à-vis Iran will take. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, as well as the Chairman of the parliament’s (Majlis) National Security and Foreign Policy Commission Alaeddin Boroujerdi, stressed that the new president has a responsibility to stay committed to US obligations agreed under the JCPOA. As for Ayatollah Khamenei, who holds ultimate decision-making authority especially in the area of foreign policy, it was his endorsement that made the nuclear deal possible.
Iran’s policy of compliance
The understanding of the main concept of foreign policy through which conditions that influence the actions of states towards the external environment of the international political scene are important. Apart from the geography, the main influence on formulating foreign policy is country’s military and economic capability. In addition to that, in the case of the Islamic Republic, as a theocracy ruled by the Shia jurists (mujtahids), religion constitutes a significant influence on Iran’s foreign policy formulation. Understanding this is fundamental to assessing its objectives and intentions. In the founder of the Iranian Revolution and the leader Ayatollah Khomeini’s theory of the Governance of the Shi’a Jurists (velayat-e faqih), the ruling jurist is the direct representative of the twelfth hidden Imam. In this context, as Mehdi Khalaji, a Qom trained Shiite theologian and a prominent expert on Iranian politics and foreign policy observes the ruling jurist has the same religious status and authority as the Imam. In this sense, the Theo-Political system of the Islamic Republic that the revolution of 1979 created is understood as a divine mandate to ruling clergy which must not be abandoned. Therefore, the preservation and safeguarding of the revolution on which the Islamic Republic is based becomes the highest religious duty. This, in essence, means the belief in the survival of the Islamic government system with its power of the clergy as the ultimate religious value.
With his incoming foreign policy team’s fierce criticism of the JCPOA and its view of Iran as an untrustworthy partner to the agreement who has been granted too many concessions, Trump poses a greater threat to the Islamic Republic’s hopes of sanctions relief reached under the current terms of the agreement. The international sanctions regime against the Islamic Republic has indeed proved to be burdensome. Agreeing to adhere to the terms of the JCPOA could thus even be seen as an otherwise unwilling submission to the West. But presumably, the leaders of the Islamic republic understood that they would find themselves in such a hostile environment in the long run, reaching the deal under the current terms would both have served and benefited the country’s ultimate national interests and strategic goals. Now, burdened by growing political, economic, and social problems as a result of the heavy impact of the international sanctions regime, the Islamic Republic could find itself one of the biggest victims to Trump’s foreign policy.
Renegotiation of the JCPOA and its possible consequences for Iran
If President-elect Trump and his incoming foreign policy team decide to follow through the campaign rhetoric of proposed renegotiation of the JCPOA, not to mention completely dismantling it, it will work counter to Iran’s fundamental national interests. The Islamic Republic’s foreign policy approach in the Middle East is dominated by concerns about security and ideology which are interconnected with the religious fundamental national interest. This approach is founded on Khomeini’s concept of action-based revolutionary Islam which puts great emphasis on striving for just Islamic order internally as well as regionally. In this striving for regional influence, concerns about its military and economic capability have always been at the forefront. The underlying hope of the JCPOA is to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear power status by significantly delaying the path to becoming a state with the capability to build nuclear weapons. It also expects that Iran will gradually abandon its revolutionary foreign policy and become a reliable member of the international community. On the other side of the equation, leaders of the Islamic Republic understand that the US believes the negotiated nuclear agreement was foremost in the US interest on non-proliferation grounds, accepted the JCPOA with the underlying assumption that the deal serves Iran’s fundamental national interests.
The reasons envisioned, which will work counter to Iran’s designed projection for gaining strategically calculated advantages, are various in nature. One of the most important is the economic aspect of the deal. The international sanctions regime had severe consequences which played a major role in subjecting its economy to a significant decline in its well-being: restrictions on oil exports – a major source of the Islamic Republic’s government revenues; Trade embargo – that prohibited the large international firms from trading with Iran (foreign investment has always been viewed with great suspicion by the Supreme Leader and the ruling clergy); financial assets freezes; significant decline in economic growth; worsening inflation rates; and growing unemployment rates consequently had highly negative effects on the country’s overall economic performance and its citizens’ economic well-being. The JCPOA gradually relieves much of that burden on the economy. The initial expectation of the JCPOA effect is that it has a potential of rapprochement and could empower Iran’s moderate political forces, spearheaded by President Rouhani. This could result in the Islamic republic transforming from the country with an ideologically insurgent foreign policy to one who becomes a reliable member of the international community. The recent Parliamentary elections which secured a comfortable win by the allies of President Rouhani is seen as the first step in that direction. President Rouhani’s role is important to be considered in this context. The most important achievement of his presidential election pledge is on his account. He has successfully, with the Supreme Leader’s endorsement, negotiated a ground-breaking diplomatic nuclear deal with world powers and has started to remove burdensome sanctions on the country. This was followed by his first tour of European visits in pursuit of post-sanctions deals. But Rouhani’s diplomatic opening – and by extension, his relatively unconvincing stance on the Khamenei’s economic doctrine of Resistance Economy – should not be seen as a willingness to slowly embrace the West’s liberal democratic values. Rather, as a member of the clerical elite, the basis of Rouhani’s tours lies in his conviction that without using the economic opportunities in restoring the economy that the agreement gives, the survival of the Islamic Republic’s entire government system could be threatened. To that end, heavily dependent on energy revenues from the oil and gas sectors whose export has been severely restricted by the international sanctions regime, it automatically became imperative to regain its economic capability by opening foreign trade, resumed by the JCPOA, to effectively sell the oil and gas needed to continue funding its domestic needs; not least to preserve peace and stability at home. It is not surprising then that emphasis concerning Iran’s oil and gas industry was at the centre of his negotiations during the tour.
On the military dimension of the deal, according to Oded Brosh, an expert on nuclear and military issues, the JCPOA under its current terms gives the Islamic Republic an enhancement in its regional stance by increasing its defensive and offensive military capability. As Brosh argues, If the compliance of the Islamic Republic in its commitments with the current terms of the JCPOA is confirmed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on a regular basis as designed by the agreement, the agreement assumes the gradual lifting of all conventional arms-related sanctions, including such weapons as missiles and rockets. This will give Iran much needed time – and by using the additional financial resources gained as a result of the sanctions relief – to acquire assets of a military nature to boost its defensive and retaliatory capability. The essence of his argument is that the Islamic Republic will use the lifting of sanctions negotiated under the JCPOA to increase and expand its defensive as well as retaliatory military capability in order to enhance the level of deterrence – and to a certain extent even immunity – for any possible future military option after the run timeframe of the JCPOA. According to the “worst-case analysis scenario” that critics of the JCPOA are worried about, which Brosh sees as “more realistic and probable”, the violation of the JCPOA by the Islamic Republic will become realistic once the fullest benefits are obtained in the plan for the furtherance of the military program. In sum, Brosh concludes, by reaching the negotiated current terms of the JCPOA, “the Iranians have aimed much higher” with an intention of complying with it, in order to achieve “a vision of a fundamental strategic shift in the balance of power” to use this significant strategic advantage “regionally and beyond.”
This analysis can be put into the context in which the Islamic Republic, by demonstrating its compliance with its obligations under the JCPOA, finds itself in a favourable environment where the international sanctions regime will be removed and most nuclear-related restrictions will run out after the term of the agreement. Since signing the JCPOA, it allows the Islamic Republic opportunities to purchase arms on the international market; it has already received the first shipment of powerful air-defence missiles from Russia. The importance of the advanced defensive capabilities was stressed by the Supreme Leader himself, who said that the future of the Islamic Republic was in the deterring power of missiles. Given this military dimension of the deal, according to some popular contentions, it is reasonable to assume that if the stated attempt on renegotiation fails and the JCPOA continues to function under the current terms; even if seen as inconsistent with the constructive spirit of the deal, the Islamic Republic will have manoeuvrability in continuing building its military might largely allowed by the financial benefits brought by the deal, with a future view that the JCPOA at best delays its nuclear program.
With respect to regional influence, the economic boost that the Islamic Republic will receive as a result of the JCPOA could potentially facilitate the influence of its hegemony-oriented foreign policy in the region. The JCPOA assumes in itself an expectation that in the long run, by the positive force of international cooperation, Iran will abandon its revolutionary foreign policy and gradually become a reliable member of the international community. On the other side of the equation, presumably, the leadership of the Islamic Republic viewed the deal as a facilitating factor for leverage and latitude, vital for the furtherance of the regional foreign policy priorities. Taking the importance of regional influence into account, the notion of the survival of the system of the velayat-e faqih can also be tied to the notion of “exporting the revolution” thereby gaining the legitimacy as a way of becoming the Islamic role-model state among the Shia and the wider region. To look at a broader perspective on this argument, the concept of the “exporting the revolution”, subject to regional or international circumstances, tends to return to the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy at every opportune moment as it “represents as much a defensive as an offensive necessity.” The critics’ often made arguments that the JCPOA puts the Islamic Republic in a more advantageous position with respect of its nuclear program as the agreement only delays it by putting it on hold, can be tied to the constructivist model of international relations according to which, by acquiring the nuclear capability, states seek to establish their identity as deserving special recognition and great power status by taking the top seats on the international political scene.
Whatever direction Trump and his incoming foreign policy team take vis-à-vis the JCPOA, it will be amongst the first decisions to be made. The essential points that can be gathered from the above argument is that the leaders of the Islamic Republic well understood that the JCPOA was neither directed at inducing political reforms internally nor changing Iran’s foreign policy in the region. It was, strictly speaking, a non-proliferation agreement. As Ilan Berman, Vice President of the American Foreign Policy Council and Middle East expert, puts it, “the nuclear deal sought to limit only one aspect of Iran’s rogue behaviour; its persistent nuclear ambitions.” And as the above arguments tried to show, because the agreement formally excluded all other disputed issues with the West, the continuing policy of compliance with the JCPOA meant entering a strategically advantageous environment. Presumably, this thinking was the main reason behind the Islamic Republic’s willingness to cross its own red lines during the agreement.
Under the current terms of the JCPOA, benefits have been much broader in scope. Economic and military dimensions of the deal together with the anticipated facilitating factor in furtherance of its regional influence have played to the Islamic Republic’s fundamental national interest in the long run. Therefore, it is understandable that the leaders of the Islamic Republic have no incentive to restart the renegotiation process – which, as stated, will aim to demand fresh concessions from Iran – over a deal they are presumably satisfied with. This posture expressed in a few words by the Chairman of the parliament’s (Majlis) National Security and Foreign Policy Commission Alaeddin Boroujerdi that “The Trump of the campaign is different to Trump the president” was perhaps the official clearest stance on its approach towards the JCPOA’s expectation of Trump’s future policy.
Irakli Tusiashvili is a researcher at Liberation. His research interests include Iran and Saudi Arabia, with an emphasis on Political Islam and their foreign policies.