Trump may seek to renegotiate, not scrap Iran deal

Sunday 20/11/2016
An Iranian man in Tehran holds a local newspaper displaying a portrait of Donald Trump a day after Trump’s election as the new US president, on November 10th. (AFP)

Beirut - Of all the Middle East­ern powers that face the uncertainties of the looming US presidency of Donald Trump, Iran, firmly set on a process of militarily expanding its influence across the region, may find itself squarely in his cross hairs.

Trump’s campaign threat to tear up the July 2015 agreement with Tehran to curb its contentious nu­clear programme in return for lift­ing crippling economic sanctions — the great diplomatic triumph of Barack Obama’s two terms in the White House — is likely to be a key element in his plans to shake up US foreign policy.

Trump, despite his fiery cam­paign rhetoric, however, is more likely to seek to renegotiate that landmark deal than rip it apart.

Either way, he will find stiff op­position from the political power centres in Iran, which have their own reasons for wanting to keep the agreement, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), intact.

Iran’s Kayhan newspaper, widely seen as the mouthpiece of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, greeted Trumps’ election triumph with the headline The Victory of a Mad Man Over a Liar.

Yet, as Carnegie analyst Karim Sadjadpour observed: “Trump’s victory was actually the preferred outcome of the militant men — Aya­tollah Khamenei and the [Islamic] Revolutionary Guards [Corps] — who control Iran’s Deep State.”

For one thing, he noted, they will not have to “worry about how to deflect the conciliatory letters and overtures from a Trump admin­istration” as they did during the Obama era.

Obama’s persistent efforts to en­gage the Tehran regime “unsettled Khamenei and Iran’s hardliners, who perceive enmity with Wash­ington as an ideological pillar of the Islamic regime, crucial to its survival”, Sadjadpour explained.

The administration of pragmatist Iranian President Hassan Rohani, which negotiated the ground-breaking agreement, cannot afford to dilute the terms of the deal be­cause the lifting of sanctions has reinvigorated Iran’s badly rundown economy — and there is a presiden­tial election looming in May 2017 in which Rohani is expected to run for a second four-year term.

At the same time, Iran’s ideo­logical hardliners — particularly the powerful Islamic Revolution­ary Guards Corps (IRGC), which is benefiting greatly from the deal by boosting its economic empire through the unfrozen billions of dollars now available and upgrad­ing its military might — also do not want to see the agreement scrapped or even overhauled de­spite their constant criticism of it.

They, too, have their eyes on the elections and using the agreement to beat up Rohani politically and, thus, consolidate the clerical re­gime rather than see it undermined by warmer relations with the West.

Indeed, Khamenei, who went along with the 2015 deal primar­ily because he wanted to avert economic collapse in sanctions-battered Iran, has vowed that if the United States tears up the agree­ment, the Islamic Republic would “set it on fire”.

Any serious effort by Trump to negate the 2015 agreement could exacerbate the turmoil gripping the Middle East.

Iran is engaged in conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, which could result in the fracturing of these countries. The Tehran regime could exploit this for its own expansion­ist ambitions. It is also conducting subversive operations throughout the Gulf monarchies.

The collapse of an agreement intended to block Iran acquiring nuclear arms would certainly fuel the growing conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the titans of the Gulf, and enflame a 1,300-year-old schism between Islam’s Sunni and Shia sects.

Any move by Trump to scrap or redefine the nuclear agreement will almost certainly unite Iran’s fractious hard-line factions behind Khamenei, which, during the fi­nal phase of the US electoral cam­paign, voiced support for Trump’s unorthodox positions on the Mid­dle East because these play into their hands.

Walid Phares, Trump’s campaign adviser on Middle Eastern affairs and who is expected to be given a senior post in the new administra­tion, indicated that the president-elect would pursue a diplomatic re­adjustment to the treaty but would not “tear it up”.

“He will take the agreement, review it, send it to Congress, de­mand from the Iranians to restore a few issues or change a few issues and there will be a discussion,” Phares told the BBC.

“It could be a tense discussion but the agreement as is right now — $750 billion to the Iranian regime without receiving much in return and increasing intervention in four countries” — Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon — “that’s not going to be accepted by the Trump admin­istration.”

Phares had said earlier Trump would not make any move to pull out of an agreement that bore the United States’ “institutional signa­ture” but instead rework parts of it through negotiation.