Trump and Iran

What the Next Administration Can Do

The U.S. and Iranian flags in Vienna, July 2015. CARLOS BARRIA / REUTERS

The United States’ relationship with Iran tops the list of foreign policy issues that will confront President-elect Donald Trump when he takes office in January. Like many of the other Republican presidential candidates, Trump was an early and staunch opponent of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the controversial nuclear deal concluded last summer between six world powers and Iran. But Trump took up contradictory positions on the deal over the course of his campaign, at times promising to tear it up and at others suggesting he would simply amend it.

As Trump readies his administration, he is likely to favor the latter course. For a host of reasons, it may be impractical for his administration to scuttle the agreement outright. Still, there is much that Washington can do with respect to Iran, especially by more rigorously enforcing the nuclear deal and constraining Iranian expansionism. 

Donald Trump delivering a speech on U.S. foreign policy in Washington, April 2016.
Donald Trump delivering a speech on U.S. foreign policy in Washington, April 2016. Kevin Lamarque / REUTERS


The JCPOA’s status as an executive agreement, rather than as a formal treaty, means that the next president can indeed abrogate Washington’s commitments under the deal. But doing so wouldn’t nix the JCPOA entirely because of the deal’s multilateral nature. Even if the United States were to withdraw from the pact, the other signatories could keep the JCPOA in force despite pressure from the new administration to take a harder stance against Tehran. 

It is true that Trump could decide to unilaterally impose (or reimpose) penalties on U.S. companies doing business with the Islamic Republic. On its own, however, that will do little to curb the activities of the foreign firms that are beginning to dip their toes back into the Iranian market, as these firms will not be affected by any new restrictions levied against American entities. And although the prospect of a stricter U.S. approach to Iran is likely to give such foreign businesses pause, at the end of the day,

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