Trump and the Iran Nuclear Deal


On October 25, the Center for the National Interest organized a panel discussion entitled “Trump and the Iran Nuclear Deal.” Speakers included Michael Singh, managing director and Lane-Swig fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former senior director for Middle East affairs on the National Security Council staff during the George W. Bush administration, and Ambassador Frank Wisner, an international affairs advisor at Squire Patton Boggs, a career diplomat and a former U.S. ambassador to India, Egypt, the Philippines and Zambia, as well as a former Under Secretary of State and Under Secretary of Defense. Geoffrey Kemp, the Center’s senior director of regional security programs and a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan and National Security Council senior director for Near East and South Asian affairs, moderated. A summary of the event can be found below.


“Could you imagine any issue in the Middle East—today—that would be less intractable if Iran had a nuclear weapon?,” asked Frank Wisner, international affairs advisor at Squire Patton Boggs and a former career U.S. diplomat.  Wisner assessed that although the United States is unhappy with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), “hacking apart the deal with a knife” will only push Iran’s position further from U.S. goals while engendering the consternation of the United States’ European allies.  Instead, he asserts that the United States should utilize “deft diplomacy” to determine what Iran’s “malign activities” are and what they mean for the United States.

Michael Singh, managing director and Lane-Swig fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, offered a somewhat different perspective on the future of the JCPOA and the risks of the Trump administration’s strategy to spotlight Iran’s regional activities.  He argued that the Trump administration is trying to refocus the United States’ Iran policy away from the Iran nuclear deal as the sole issue to a broader Iran strategy. The strategy includes “pushing back against the [Iran Republican Guard Corps’ (IRGC)] operations” throughout the Middle East and the IRGC’s own financing and the financing of other organizations, Singh said.

Singh added that Congress still has a role to play regarding the JCPOA and the United States’ broader Iran strategy. The Trump administration has asked Congress to amend legislation requiring reports on the nuclear deal every 90-days, as well as the certification process, to prevent the JCPOA from “sucking the oxygen out of the policy-making room,” he said. Should Congress refrain from changing the certification process, the Trump administration has other tools, like executive orders, to replicate Congressional action. However, Singh stated that Congress could still articulate and oversee the United States’ broader Iran strategy.

Singh noted the importance of getting Europe on board with any U.S. efforts to address the JCPOA’s sunset clauses, Iran’s ballistic missile testing, or the IRGC’s interference in Iraq and Syria as European investment is critical to Iran’s economic recovery.  Likewise, considering that the Europeans are deeply suspicious of the United States’ intentions, he counseled that only through cooperation with Europe can the JCPOA’s future reach “a more stable footing.”  Singh judged that this was also important for attaining European support for other U.S. actions which address Iran’s growing regional influence.

To achieve its desired objectives, Wisner observed that the Trump administration must first adjust its perspective.  The United States. must develop a strategy that is based on clearly-defined objectives, has the support of American allies, and is well-attuned to resource availabilities.  He further argued that to bring Iran to the table, the Trump administration needs to continue implementing the JCPOA, recognize that sanctions and coercive threats are ineffective without a broader regional strategy, and accept the infeasibility of expelling Iranian influence from Iran’s indigenous region.  Furthermore, Wisner contended that the Trump administration must create an “atmosphere” that is conducive to the “very deft diplomacy” needed to bring Iran and Europe closer to Washington’s position.  To achieve this, the United States. must be willing to engage adversaries at the negotiating table with composure, respect, and good faith.  Yet, Wisner argued the Trump administration’s propensity for insulting and rhetorical bombast is increasing the difficulty of what would already be an “uphill climb.”

Singh contended that although the Trump administration’s threats to withdraw from the deal could create an impetus for action on the deal’s shortcomings, he had not seen indications of the Administration’s strategy being implemented “on the ground.”  For example, he identified that the United States was still reluctant to become more involved in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, despite Iran’s pervasive and growing influence in these countries.  While Singh was skeptical toward a deeper U.S. military role in addressing these challenges, he acknowledged that military power remained an effective tool when it was limited in scope and tied to clear political outcomes.  Wisner largely agreed on these points, but added that threats of regime change or an obsession with hard power would only make the attainment of global U.S. objectives more difficult—as governments like North Korea’s and others have adopted defensive postures and hardened their rhetoric in response to perceived and real U.S. efforts at regime change in their own nations and elsewhere.  He was also adamant that the objective of U.S. policy should be “how to manage Iranian power, not to break it.”

Both Singh and Wisner that lingering personnel gaps are increasing the difficultly of implementing any comprehensive strategy on Iran.  However, while Wisner felt that the problem was primarily one of perspective given a long history of enmity between Iran and the United States, Singh highlighted the importance of having political appointees who can lead the career professionals in the U.S. government.  Nonetheless, both experts agreed that to solve any problem afflicting the United States, the Trump administration needs to have its domestic house in order.