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The Trump administration appears to be divided over whether to re-certify the nuclear deal with Iran, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which was agreed after years of painstaking negotiations over many years.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis, along with the National Security Advisor, Lieutenant General HR McMaster, have concluded that, thus far, Iran is complying with its end of the deal. This comes on the heels of Congressional pressure to impose more sanctions on Iran.
Hawks see Iran through the lens of Robert Jervis’s deterrence model, which says that ‘great dangers arise if the aggressor believes the status quo powers are weak in capability or resolve … If the status quo powers retreat, they will not only lose the specific value at stake but, more important in the long run, will encourage the aggressor to press harder’.
President Donald Trump’s goal may be for the US to take responsibility for a more intrusive inspection regime, while the rest of sides to the JCPOA, the P5+1 (namely the UK, France, Germany, Russia and China), dole out carrots.
However, this would necessitate a degree of clockwork collaboration with Western Europe with which the Trump administration previously seemed uncomfortable.
Iran appears now to have three options: isolationism; a traditional balance of power stance; and the pursuit of primacy.
Under isolationism, Iran would withdraw behind its borders and give up its influence in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan. It would work to resolve conflicts with other actors in the region, starting with Saudi Arabia.
This could see the Al-Quds force cut off support for actors from Hizbullah to the Taliban. The Supreme Leader could cut the defence budgets of both the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and the traditional military. Iran would dedicate its precious resources to hardening its borders.
Driven by defensive realist thinking, Iranian isolationists would reason that any challenge to the US is simply not worth the candle. They may reason that despite America’s withdrawal, it may be advantageous to continue to comply with the terms of JCPOA to signal Iran’s benign intentions and open the country up to more intrusive inspections.
While this is a dream for hawks, it is unrealistic for two reasons. It would diminish newly re-elected President Hassan Rouhani in his ongoing battle with the hardliners and Iranians across the political spectrum would likely fear that concessions may ruin the country’s reputation and invite future predation.
Iran could opt for a traditional balance-of-power posture. Instead of pursuing hegemony, the Islamic Republic could find security by opting to prevent any one state from dominating the region. It’s first three concerns would likely be Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
A balance-of-power framework may see Iran more discriminately intervene in its neighbours’ affairs. However, it would have every incentive to keep these regional rivals ‘off balance’ by maintaining its presence in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.
A balance-of-power strategy would not necessitate further nuclear concessions. Israel has nuclear weapons and the UAE has a latent nuclear capacity. It is indeterminate whether Iran would pursue a crash nuclear weapons programme or not, but it cannot be ruled out.
Primacy is Iran’s third option. If regional hegemony was not Tehran’s goal before the nuclear deal, withdrawal from JCPOA could convince it to change its mind. Brigadier General Massoud Jazayeri, deputy head of the Iranian Armed Forces, last week already demanded that America leave the region.
For offensive realists, the only way that a state can be safe is if it dominates its neighbourhood. Hard-liners and fence-sitters in Iran may be convinced that the only way to secure the regime is by doubling-down in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen, putting together a crash programme that results in one or two nuclear devices and accelerating its ballistic missile programme.
Jazayeri’s comments suggest that absent American retrenchment from the region, abrogating JCPOA could significantly raise the likelihood of conflict between the US and Iran.
Before the Trump administration jettisons JCPOA, it would be well advised to think strategically and should ask itself, ‘And then what?’
Albert B Wolf is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the American University of Afghanistan. In addition to his ongoing research, he worked on Iran policy for two presidential campaigns and while he served as a Legislative Assistant in the US House of Representatives.
Banner image: The foreign ministers of the P5+1 group gather in Vienna to sign the nuclear agreement with Iran. Courtesy of Bundesministerium für Europa, Integration und Äusseres/Wikimedia.
The views expressed in this Commentary are those of the author, and do not reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.