The nuclear deal with Iran hangs by a thread. The appointment of John Bolton — an unapologetic proponent of war with Iran — as U.S. national security advisor has prompted celebrations among Iran deal detractors. The announcement that nuclear talks with North Korea will be held around the same time that U.S. President Donald Trump must decide whether to keep or kill the Iran deal has further complicated the picture. Yet few in Washington understand how Trump’s gamble with Pyongyang may impact Tehran’s nuclear calculations.
Conventional wisdom declares that Trump would be foolish to kill the Iran deal (formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) if he genuinely seeks to reach an agreement with the North Koreans. If Trump shows that he does not honor America’s agreements, why would Pyongyang strike a deal with him?
But Trump is anything but conventional. His logic runs in the opposite direction, and Bolton will be more than happy to enable Trump’s worst instincts. By killing the JCPOA, Trump thinks he’ll signal to the North Koreans that they should have no doubt that he is ready to walk away from the talks if he doesn’t get what he wants. After all, walking away from ongoing negotiations is much easier than killing an existing deal.
Trump may know bluster, be he does not know diplomacy. Strong-arming subcontractors may work in the Manhattan real estate market, but it won’t work in international diplomacy. Sovereign states don’t react like jilted architects and electricians.
How will Iran react if Trump pursues this path? For Tehran, the JCPOA was never just about the nuclear issue. It was a test to see if the West could come to terms with the Islamic Republic and accept Iran as a regional power. By testing this proposition, the talks became a defining showdown between the two dominant schools of thought within the Iranian elite.
The first school, dominated by conservative elements in the government and military, argues that the United States — pressured by Israel and Saudi Arabia — is inherently hostile to Iran and will never recognize the country as a regional power or come to terms with its regime, regardless of Iran’s policies or the compromises it offers. The inclusion Tehran seeks can only be achieved by forcing the United States and its allies to accept the reality of Iran’s power. The hard-liners’ skepticism of diplomacy and resistance to compromise is partly rooted in their belief that no Iranian compromise can change Washington’s hostility to Tehran.
Iran’s second, more moderate group of policy-makers recognizes both that the country’s own actions have contributed to infectious conflict and that the United States has legitimate concerns about Iranian policies. An American acceptance of Iran’s inclusion in the regional security architecture can be obtained, they argue, through diplomacy and a genuine give-and-take. If Iran compromises, so will the West, the logic goes.
Up until the nuclear negotiations began in earnest, the debate between these two schools was theoretical. Though Tehran had made many diplomatic overtures in the past, America’s willingness to come to terms with Iran had never been tested through a mutual compromise that both sides had signed on to.
Until, that is, the JCPOA.
The Iran nuclear deal was the first time the United States and Iran had agreed to a significant exchange of concessions that not only eliminated Iran’s pathways to a bomb and lifted sanctions, but also put an end to almost four decades of American efforts to completely isolate Iran. It signaled that America, 36 years after the Iranian revolution, was coming to terms with Iran.
Both sides agreed to painful concessions, both faced fierce domestic political opposition, and both recognized that the agreement signaled a major break with past policies. America was coming to terms with Iran. And the Islamic Republic was speaking of the United States not as the Great Satan, but as a negotiation partner.
It was a major victory for the second school of thought in Iran — at least for the moment.
But increasingly, the JCPOA has become a victory for the hard-liners. Despite Iran’s concessions and its adherence to the deal (confirmed by 10 reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency), Trump, Saudi Arabia, and Israel have clearly rejected Iran’s regional integration under any circumstance. Changes in Iran’s policies proved insufficient, so nothing short of Iran’s complete capitulation can seemingly satisfy Trump’s allies.
This conclusion will be unavoidable in Tehran if Trump kills the JCPOA to make a deal with Pyongyang. It will strengthen the Iranian hard-line narrative that Tehran’s mistake was that it only obtained enrichment capabilities — but not a bomb — before it agreed to seriously negotiate. Had it built a bomb — like the North Koreans — then the United States would have no choice but to show Iran respect, strike a deal with it — and honor that deal. Trump will essentially incentivize Iran to go nuclear.
Ultimately, Trump’s bluster won’t work. He lacks a properly staffed State Department with the capacity to negotiate, and his new national security advisor ideologically opposes diplomacy. By killing the Iran deal to impress Pyongyang, Trump will destroy one functioning arms deal without securing a new one. And in the process, he will tilt the balance in favor of those in Tehran who have argued all along that America only understands the language of force.
Originally published in Foreign Policy