In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s upset victory, no foreign policy question looms larger than the fate of the Iran nuclear deal. That central component of President Barack Obama’s legacy was the focus of Trump’s contempt on the campaign trail: His criticism of “that horrible deal,” as he dubbed it, has been blunt and non-specific, and unlike other leading Republicans (including, quite recently, Vice President-elect Mike Pence), he has boastfully insisted he would renegotiate the bargain rather than tear it up. The agreement—concluded in July 2015 after more than a dozen years of talks—is suddenly in jeopardy once again.
The uncertainty around the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is of course just one aspect of the recalibration of America’s approach to the world—a recalibration already underway after a divisive campaign. But it also underscores the agreement’s implicit vulnerabilities, particularly its reliance on executive authority in the absence of broad domestic buy-in or a wholesale resolution of the underlying antagonisms.
Trump’s Iran Options
Trump’s overall approach to Iran betrays a characteristic combination of eclecticism and bombast. He has warned of dire consequences to Obama’s outreach to the country, saying “they are going to have nuclear weapons. They are going to take over parts of the world that you wouldn’t believe. And I think it’s going to lead to nuclear holocaust.” But he has also complained that American companies are shut out of post-deal economic opportunities in Iran, and suggested that Washington will need to cooperate with Iran as well as Russia in dealing with the Syrian civil war.
Trump’s surprise victory has generated speculation around the Iran deal, ranging from alarmism to denial. Richard Nephew, a nonresident senior fellow with Brookings’s Arms Control and Nonproliferation Initiative, described Trump’s election as “the end game for the deal,” noting the centrality of the executive branch in implementing American obligations—specifically, waivers that provide for U.S. sanctions relief that are required by the JCPOA. As a sanctions lawyer underscored, the entire edifice for American compliance with the deal “could be overturned with the stroke of a pen.”