Trump’s third demand—that the Europeans automatically reimpose sanctions if Iran ramps up its uranium enrichment after some of the deal’s restrictions lapse—is more problematic, since complying with it would entail violating the deal’s current terms. So the Europeans have instead reaffirmed their determination to prevent Iran from ever acquiring a bomb, and agreed to respond if they saw any indication it was doing so; they have also said they would be ready to negotiate a follow-on agreement with Tehran and other JCPOA participants.
But because they have little faith in Trump’s constancy and reliability, or even in whether the Americans they speak to can speak for him, Europe has asked for a firm U.S. commitment in return that the president will actually live up to his part of the bargain. That means in particular continuing to waive U.S. nuclear sanctions as long as Iran continues to comply with its nuclear obligations, and halting its current practice of discouraging any business with Tehran.
So the emerging bargain may not be everything Trump asked for, but enough, if he so desired, to chalk it up as a win. Yet that does not appear to be Trump’s intent, as his recent personnel choices suggest. Bolton, Trump’s new national-security adviser, has dismissed efforts to salvage the nuclear deal, instead variously advocating ripping it up, resorting to military force, ousting the Iranian regime, or all of the above. In his April 12 confirmation hearing, incoming Secretary of State Pompeo said his preference was to fix rather than withdraw from the JCPOA. But there is reason to be skeptical of Pompeo’s newfound conversion given his past support for tearing up the deal, taking military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities, and fomenting regime change. Finally, while many analysts worry that a U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA would devastate American credibility entering talks with North Korea, Bolton in particular can be expected to tell Trump the exact opposite: that scrapping the Iran deal will actually help convince Kim Jong Un that the United States means business and that Trump will drive a far harder bargain than Obama.
Even as talks between European and administration officials continue, in other words, it seems increasingly likely that Trump will decide to walk away from the JCPOA regardless of what the Europeans do, much as he has ignored their preferences on other key foreign policy issues.
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May 12 is the date to watch. That is the next time by which Trump must decide whether to continue to waive U.S. nuclear-related sanctions on Iran. If Trump, dissatisfied with what the Europeans propose, chooses not to do so, he has a few options. He could conceivably delay enforcement of reimposed sanctions, giving the Europeans another six-month grace period as a final opportunity to reopen the terms of the agreement and cooperate with the administration on isolating Iran. It’s unclear how more time could make a difference, but some in the administration may be attracted to the prolonged uncertainty it would create over the JCPOA’s fate, which would further discourage economic dealings with Iran. Alternatively, Trump could follow Bolton’s former advice to simply “cut cleanly,” ditching the JCPOA and slapping secondary sanctions on any foreign bank or party doing business with Iran—with the goal of shocking the Iranian economy and, perhaps, triggering regime change.