October 5, 2017

TSC IntelBrief: U.S. Strategy on the Iran Nuclear Agreement

President Donald Trump has an October 15 deadline to recertify to Congress that Iran is complying with the 2015 multilateral agreement to curb its nuclear program.

• By threatening to withdraw from the landmark 2015 nuclear agreement, President Trump seeks to negotiate new curbs on Iran.

• The Administration believes that by confining the agreement to nuclear issues, the deal failed to blunt growing threats posed by Iran, particularly its ballistic missile program.

• The nuclear agreement is likely to collapse if the United States withdraws, even if other parties continue to support it.

• The Administration might win new restrictions on Iran’s missile program, but significant curbs on Iran’s support for regional armed factions are unlikely.


President Donald Trump has an October 15 deadline to recertify to Congress that Iran is complying with the 2015 multilateral agreement to curb its nuclear program. The President has sharply criticized the deal; both on the campaign trail in 2016 and in the months since he took office. In his September speech before the U.N. General Assembly, he called the agreement an ‘embarrassment.' In August, the president signaled he might decline to recertify, indicating that in his judgement the deal fails to adequately protect the U.S. and its allies from either Iran’s ballistic missile program or its regional actions  supporting Middle East factions and regimes opposing U.S. interests. Administration officials have also expressed concerns that expiring restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program take effect in 2025, mean the deal postpones—but does not end—the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran

Refusal by President Trump to recertify compliance would not automatically trigger a U.S. pullout from the accord. If there’s no recertification, then, under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, Congress would have 60 days to begin to act on legislation to re-impose U.S. secondary sanctions on Tehran. Should that legislation pass and be signed into law, it would represent a cessation of U.S. performance under the agreement, an act tantamount to withdrawal. Only a simple Senate majority would be required, though it’s far from clear a majority could be assembled. Many Senators believe the Iran deal has achieved its main objective, and recognize that Iran is widely acknowledged to be complying with its terms. To unilaterally abrogate the deal would signal to U.S. partners the United States is not reliable and to North Korea that a similar agreement could also be subject to a sudden U.S. withdrawal.  

Were the U.S. to re-impose sanctions nonetheless, the agreement would almost certainly collapse, even though the U.S. partners that helped negotiate the pact—Britain, France, Germany, China, and Russia—all support its continued implementation. U.S. secondary sanctions would be damaging, causing many major international firms to cease doing business with Iran, regardless of the positions of their respective governments. Major international firms will not risk being shut out of the large U.S. market and dominant U.S. financial system in order to do business in the much smaller Iranian market. The exit of major multinationals from the Iranian market would cause Iran’s economy to resume its pre-accord downturn, and Iranian leaders would undoubtedly consider the agreement no longer worthy of implementation. Tehran has already threatened to resume its suspended nuclear work if U.S. sanctions return.  

Despite his acerbic comments, there have been signs in recent weeks that President Trump might not intend to pull the U.S. from the accord. White House strategy appears to be to threaten withdrawal in order to force new talks aimed at curbing what the U.S. considers to be objectionable Iranian behavior that the accord failed to address. The strategy requires building support among U.S. partners to compel Iran to negotiate an addendum to the 2015 agreement (or a separate new agreement), centered on binding restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missile program. The 2015 accord does not address missiles at all, and U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231, which enshrined the agreement, contains only a voluntary restriction on Iran’s development of missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. The United States also seeks to extend the agreement’s timelines at which restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program expire. Iranian leaders consider these issues closed. However, at the U.N. General Assembly meetings in September, some Western leaders, particularly French President Emmanuel Macron, expressed support for returning to the bargaining table with Iran to achieve these objectives. The prospect of other powers supporting the Trump Administration on these points raises the potential for White House strategy on restricting Iran’s ballistic missile and nuclear programs to succeed.  

However, the Administration is highly unlikely to gain any new curbs on Iran’s support for regional pro-Iranian governments and armed factions, as the White House lacks broader international support for its position. Iran is intervening in regional conflicts not necessarily of its own making; while some regional conflicts have been exacerbated by the actions of U.S. allies, such as Saudi Arabia. One major power, Russia, is aligned with Iran on at least one of these conflicts—Syria. Both Iran and the United States are supporting the government of Iraq against the Islamic State organization. U.N. resolutions that prohibit Iran’s supply of weapons to regional actors, including Resolution 2231, have failed to prevent such supply. Even if Iran agreed to accept additional restrictions on its nuclear or ballistic missile programs, it would likely escape any international efforts to prevent it from being an increasingly influential player in the region.

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