American Studies, Dialogue Series, Regional Studies

US-Iranian Relations in the Age of Trump: Back to the Future?

Daniel Brumberg

In an October 13, 2017 speech, US President Donald Trump rejected the 2015 Iran nuclear deal—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—the arrangement made between Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany. The agreement had lifted economic sanctions on Iran and placed strict limits on its nuclear program, and was a signature achievement of President Barack Obama. US legislation enacted in response to the agreement requires the president to certify every ninety days that Iran is in compliance with the agreement. Trump’s refusal to certify Iran’s compliance in October did not immediately pull the US out of the deal; instead it shifted the responsibility onto Congress, which now has sixty days to decide whether to reimpose sanctions on Iran, which could kill the historic deal.


Trump has frequently criticized the agreement, which he called “an embarrassment” and “the worst deal ever.” In his speech, he claimed that Iran had been on the verge of total collapse before the deal, and the country would have collapsed had it not been for the previous administration’s lifting of sanctions. Daniel Brumberg, co-director of Democracy and Governance Studies at Georgetown University, called this assertion “demonstrably crazy and false and baseless,” and said “anybody who has an understanding of how this system works knows that it is simply false.” Brumberg delivered a talk, “US-Iranian Relations in the Age of Trump: Back to the Future?” at the Center for International and Regional Studies on November 8, 2017. He described Trump in a January 2017 article as “a narcissistic personality” and said his projections in domestic and foreign policy were a reflection of that narcissism, adding, “This is dangerous.” 


“I make the argument that those arguing for renegotiation know that this will not succeed. This is just a tactic to weaken support. They know that there can’t be a renegotiation of the deal and they don’t really want one at all.”


Brumberg said that Trump’s own advisors favored certification of the agreement and did not want to abandon it, but it was well known that Trump was raging about it. They had to find a way to channel his rage into a more productive approach, and they found a “compromise” by removing Trump from having to regularly certify that the Iran deal is in fact working. After he has been so publicly outspoken against it, this avoided the potentially catastrophic consequences of him outright quitting the Iran deal.


Trump’s speech would be interpreted in Tehran as the United States has decided to forgo the agreement and is getting ready to find a sanction-based or military-based solution, said Brumberg. “It revives the perception that runs deep along the hardliners in Iran that ultimately for the US, the only solution to Iran is to have regime change,” he said. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, told Iranian President Rouhani in 2015 that he was wasting his time with the nuclear deal and the US would renege on the agreement, according to Brumberg. And in the wake of Trump’s speech, the hardliners now feel vindicated, he said. “Now there’s this clampdown on the reformists and this motley coalition of forces that Rouhani has put together at a crucial time in Iranian history.” In the next few years the critical matter of who will succeed the Supreme Leader will be determined. In that sense, Brumberg said, as far as the hardliners are concerned, “the speech could not have come at a better moment. It worked beautifully—almost as if they had written the script themselves.” 


Brumberg said that politically, for Iran’s own internal politics, it’s a disaster, “but it is also a disaster for US foreign policy.” He said that because there isn’t a coherent alternative to the agreement, Trump’s decision to undermine and sabotage it leaves the US without any policy at all. “When you don’t have a coherent policy, when there’s a vacuum, the chances for war increase. Now they’ve increased that much more.” It’s making everyone justifiably nervous, he said.


For many years the US-Iran policy was incoherent and was basically forged on the basis of tactics and no clear strategic view, Brumberg explained. For a long time the consensus policy had been maintaining and increasing sanctions, and applying more pressure with the hope that the regime would change, he said. But crippling sanctions never stopped Iran’s nuclear program, and they acquired more centrifuges and more capability over time.


American policymakers didn’t want to choose because the choice was difficult to make, Brumberg said. You have to go beyond tactics and have a strategic view of what you want to achieve and how you’re going to achieve it, he explained. The problem for the US has been a short menu of choices. Brumberg said he is “thoroughly dubious” about alternatives to the JCPOA, but he offered war as one possibility, which some Congress members have advocated. “There’s no such thing as a short-term war,” he said, and “there’s also no such thing as an overnight attack.” The military would say a short-term attack will provoke a long-term war, he explained. His other suggested strategies include engagement and diplomacy, with some sort of negotiated outcome; or containment and deterrence, which can go along with diplomacy and be blended in different ways.


Brumberg explained that Obama supported the agreement because of the lack of a better alternative. He had inherited a very weak hand after the G.W. Bush term, and the choice was an agreement or no agreement. “Once you decide on an agreement you’re going to negotiate. And negotiation means that each side gives in on certain kind of things,” he said. The agreement is not just a US-Iran agreement and it is supported by the international community. He believes it is still a good agreement that provides controls and intents and supervision of Iran’s program for the next 20 to 25 years, and possibly longer.


Brumberg asserted the possibility that if this agreement were to hold, and there would be an evolution in Iran’s own political system, it might actually help over time to open up the space in Iran, because from the perspective of the hardliners, “conflict with the United States is fundamental to their existence,” he said. “As soon as you don’t have that conflict their position is being undermined.” After the nuclear agreement was struck, there was a very sharp reaction backlash from the hardliners, he said, which was a measure of how seriously they took the agreement. The backlash was against Rouhani and his people, because from their perspective the deal was strengthening their domestic positions. Rouhani had been calling for international peacemaking and a world without violence, Brumberg said.


If you look at Trump’s speech and the critiques of many of the experts who know the situation, you can see that in terms of his criticisms of the agreement, they really fell short, Brumberg said. Trump either misrepresented the agreement or he distorted the facts on many issues. He said the agreement was about one thing only: nuclear weapons. Had the Iranians been asked to negotiate on the zero-enrichment of uranium policy, or terrorism, Hezbollah, or Israel, there never would have been an agreement, he argued.


Brumberg said, there’s a “nix or fix” scenario, meaning let’s fix or renegotiate, or nix it. He argued that you can’t renegotiate an existing agreement like this; you can start or propose new talks, but you don’t renegotiate, which Trump is pushing. “I make the argument that those arguing for renegotiation know that this will not succeed. They are waiting for the nix part. This is just a tactic to weaken support. They know that there can’t be a renegotiation of the deal and they don’t really want one at all,” he said. Most of the critics of the nuclear deal actually want regime change, however that’s going to happen. Blumberg’s solution is to use the elaborate mechanisms provided in the agreement for addressing concerns. “Jettisoning the agreement is no way of dealing with this challenge,” he said. 


Daniel Brumberg is Co-Director of Democracy and Governance Studies at Georgetown University. He spent ten years as a Special Advisor to the United States Institute of Peace; and also served as a consultant to the US Department of State and the US Agency for International Development. He is the author of Reinventing Khomeini, The Struggle for Reform in Iran, (University of Chicago Press). He coedited Conflict, Identity, and Reform in the Muslim WorldChallenges for US Engagement (USIP Press) with Dina Shehata; and Power and Political Change in Iran with Farideh Farhi (Indiana University Press).


Article by Jackie Starbird, Publications and Projects Assistant at CIRS.