2016-11-23 / Mideast

This is how Trump could scrap the Iran deal


President-elect Donald Trump delivering his acceptance speech as Vice President-elect Mike Pence looks on at the New York Hilton Midtown in Manhattan, Nov. 9, 2016. JTA photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images. President-elect Donald Trump delivering his acceptance speech as Vice President-elect Mike Pence looks on at the New York Hilton Midtown in Manhattan, Nov. 9, 2016. JTA photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images. WASHINGTON—Enforce the Iran deal. Violate the Iran deal. Leave it to Congress. Do nothing.

President-elect Donald Trump has an array of options before him when he assumes the presidency, according to supporters and opponents of the deal. Reached last year between Iran and six major powers led by the United States, the agreement rolled back Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

The open question—as are so many questions about Trump’s intentions—is what does the next leader of the free world want to do?

His peregrinations were evident when Trump spoke in March to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s policy conference and claimed—literally minutes apart—that he both planned to enforce the deal and to scrap it.

“My No. 1 priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran,” Trump said at the time. Then a few moments later: “We will enforce it like you’ve never seen a contract enforced before, folks, believe me.”

More recently, Trump appears to be leaning more in the direction of enforcement over scrapping.

Here are some of the president-elect’s options on Iran:


The deal essentially is done. Sanctions are lifted, Iran has rolled back its nuclear program. Trump never took much advice during his campaign; he may be less inclined to do so as commander-in-chief. If he doesn’t want a headache, this is one way to go.


Does Trump want to shut up Rubio and Cruz? Just declare the deal dead and do nothing. He ran a campaign successfully navigating the tensions between contradictory declarations and actions—why shouldn’t he get away with the same as president?

Drawbacks: The Iranians can point to a declaration of intent to withdraw in order to drop out of the program themselves and then start enriching uranium to weapons-grade levels.

“The Iranians might present themselves as a victim and begin to start restoring their centrifuges,” said Dennis Ross, a former top Iran adviser to President Barack Obama, speaking at a session on Trump’s possible foreign policy changes at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where Ross is now a fellow.


Trump has a number of mechanisms at his disposal that would immediately pull the United States out of the deal. All of them involve restoring an array of sanctions that targeted third parties that deal with Iran. (Direct dealings with Iran, with several exceptions, are still banned for U.S. entities.)

He could simply stop waiving the sanctions already in place according to existing law. Trump could, as President Bill Clinton did in 1995 not long after pro-Israel lobbying shifted to focusing on Iran’s nuclear program, issue an executive order advancing new sanctions. Or he could invoke the International Emergency Economic Powers Act of 1977, which gives the president broad sanctioning power.

Moreover, Trump may not have the ability to waive existing sanctions—the most passive option described above. That’s because the Iran Sanctions Act, which authorizes the sanctions, is set to lapse on Dec. 31. Congress broadly agreed that it needs to be reenacted, but there is precious little time to do so. Moreover, Democrats want a clean reenactment of the original law, no additions, while Republicans want to insert language making it harder for any president to waive the bill’s provisions. They have yet to settle on a compromise. Without renewal, the president would have to use executive action to impose penalties on Iran.


Worried that the world will turn away from the United States should it pull out? Then make it clear that the Iranians are at fault, say conservatives who oppose the deal.

“He has to start first enforcing it, second doing a bunch of stuff that’s allowed that the [Obama administration] hasn’t been doing,” said Omri Ceren of The Israel Project. “In other words, taking the deal seriously.”


If Congress fails to reauthorize Iran sanctions before it concludes its business, there are any number of Republican senators ready to write new ones. That way, Trump doesn’t get blamed for walking away from the deal.

Drawbacks: Democrats will likely filibuster any new legislation. An array of groups that backed the deal, including J Street, the liberal Middle East policy group, has pledged to hold the party’s feet to the fire.

And perhaps, from Trump’s perspective, that’s not a drawback: He satisfies hard-liners by encouraging them to come up with the toughest anti-deal legislation possible—and then watches it wither on the vine.

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