Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is greeted by United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres at UN headquarters in New York, September 2017.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is greeted by United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres at UN headquarters in New York, September 2017.
Brendan McDermid / REUTERS

On September 19, U.S. President Donald Trump gave his first UN General Assembly speech. Unsurprisingly, he dedicated portions of his remarks to calling out Iran for its destabilizing activities and reiterating his criticism of the nuclear deal his predecessor, President Barack Obama, reached with the country. Trump called the nuclear deal “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into” and “an embarrassment to the United States.” He also signaled that the United States wouldn’t be sticking to the deal much longer when he argued that “we cannot abide by an agreement if it provides cover for the eventual construction of a nuclear program.” These comments come just weeks before his administration must recertify Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal. And it’s becoming increasingly clear that it won’t do so, effectively taking the United States out of the equation.

Not long after Iranian President Hassan Rouhani kicked off his second term in office in August, reports circulated in the U.S. media that the moderate leader had threatened to abandon the nuclear agreement if the United States imposed new sanctions on the country. The articles were based on mistranslations of Rouhani’s remarks. In fact, the president had said that if the new administration wanted to return to “the failed experience of sanctions and coercion [that] brought their previous governments to the negotiating table […] surely, in a short amount of time, not in a period of weeks and months, but hours and days, we will return to a much more advanced situation than that of the beginning of the talks,” meaning the country would resume elements of its nuclear program curtailed by the agreement if the deal collapsed. A few days later, the Iranian vice president and head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi, made a statement of his own, noting that his country would continue to abide by the deal even if the United States dropped out. But his statement came with a caveat: the other parties to the agreement, particularly the Europeans, would need to stay on board. This time, U.S. observers were perplexed that Tehran was apparently giving Trump a green light to withdraw from the deal with impunity—a point quickly echoed by Iranians.

It isn’t a secret that Trump is no supporter of his predecessor’s chief foreign policy legacy, which he’s routinely called the “stupidest” and “worst” agreement ever made. On the campaign trail, he pledged to dismantle the deal and negotiate a better one. Since his inauguration, however, Trump has continued to implement it, even though he has not stated a U.S. commitment to the agreement, leaving its future in the air and stymieing Iran from attracting risk-averse businesses and investors—a key prerequisite for Iran’s economic recovery. Accordingly, Iranians have become much more anxious about the deal’s future and its ability to garner sanctions relief and economic revival. To be sure, the administration has frequently singled out Tehran for what it describes as Iranian violations of the “spirit” of the agreement, including the Islamic Republic’s work on its ballistic missile program, and has gone so far as to put the regime “on notice.”

As the administration came closer to deciding whether to recertify Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal in July, Tehran became more assertive. Rouhani and his team felt pressured to explain that with or without Washington, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action would move forward because the agreement is losing support within the public and key backers within the regime, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. As Rouhani put it during the first televised interview of his second term in August, it’s hard to assess and predict Trump’s behavior: “even the Americans can’t.” He reassured his constituents that the United States wouldn’t be able to galvanize the international community to isolate and sanction Tehran as it once could. It’s precisely to make sure Washington won’t have the tools to coerce its Western allies and Iran that the Rouhani government has issued so many statements committing to the agreement whether or not Washington remains a part of it.

The Rouhani government has issued many statements committing to the agreement whether or not Washington remains a part of it.

Both Rouhani and Salehi have insisted that Iran’s main focus is to continue implementing the hard-earned nuclear deal. Salehi’s August comments were designed to drive the point home that Iran is a responsible party and to put the onus on the Europeans to take a more active role in preserving the agreement. Indeed, throughout the nuclear talks, and since its signature, Iranian officials have often complained that although Europe stands to gain the most from the deal—thanks to its privileged political and economic position and Iranians’ eagerness to resume business with the continent—it has remained relatively passive in the process.

For Rouhani, Europe’s participation is key to continued support for the deal in Iran. Indeed, a key driver behind Tehran’s return to the negotiating table in 2012 was to rebuild ties with European capitals. Tehran has largely realized this goal, and it affords Rouhani a big victory: today, Iran and Europe are using their formal channels of communication to address mutual areas of concern and interests, including the Islamic Republic’s human rights track record, regional security, and economic development. For the moderate government whose chief promise to a population eager to reopen its country to the world was to bring Iran out of isolation, this is a major steppingstone, and one that it seeks to reinforce.

This is why almost immediately after Rouhani’s reelection, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif toured European capitals with a simple message: the future of the deal depends on Europe. Indeed, for Iran, the United States is now a lost cause. As officials in Tehran see it, Trump seems hell-bent on undoing Obama’s foreign policy, as his UN General Assembly remarks signaled. From Tehran, even the most moderate among the Trump administration seem incredibly hawkish when it comes to Iran. At worst, the Trump administration could withdraw from the agreement; at best, it could continue on its current track by preserving the deal while leaving its future perpetually uncertain. The failure to recertify Iranian compliance could achieve both. China and Russia both stand to gain from the agreement, but because they are committed to a presence in the Iranian market no matter what, they don’t want or need to waste political capital serving as a bulwark against U.S. efforts to torpedo the deal.  

Because of this, Iran has tried to deepen relations with Europe to raise the costs of having it follow the United States’ lead. But the European Union is hardly united in its foreign policy and must balance different positions and interests. Since the Brexit vote last summer, for example, London is increasingly looking to align itself with Washington. Moreover, the United Kingdom has already followed the U.S. lead on a number of major developments in international affairs, most notably the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Hence, the United Kingdom may very well follow in the United States’ footsteps should the latter choose to walk away from the agreement—though so far it has indicated that it wants to remain in the deal. For their part, other EU member states, especially France, Germany, and Italy, have expressed their commitment to preserving the deal and building on it to increase dialogue and areas of cooperation with Tehran. But they, too, will have to balance their ties to the United States with their interest in integrating Iran into the international community. European leaders are clearly exasperated with Trump’s disdain for international institutions and multilateral processes, but years of taking the back seat and allowing the United States to guide the liberal order are making it difficult for Europe to become a more active player in the face of waning U.S. leadership.

The Europeans are becoming increasingly proactive in voicing their commitment to and support for the nuclear deal. But they must do more. Until mid-October, they must double their efforts to convince the Trump administration and Congress to keep the deal alive while thinking about the possibility of implementing the agreement without the United States. This is uncharted territory with many complexities, including the intricate sanctions regime, and Europe must assess it and plan for the deal after a U.S. exit.

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  • ARIANE M. TABATABAI is Director of Curriculum and a Visiting Assistant Professor at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service in the Security Studies Program and an International Security Program Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center.
  • More By Ariane M. Tabatabai