Iran's 'Scrupulous' Adherence to the Nuclear Deal Under Trump

Former White House Coordinator for Arms Control and Weapons of Mass Destruction Gary Samore explains why Iran has been particularly "scrupulous" in complying with its nuclear non-proliferation agreement and how the deal is playing into international relations. (2 min., 53 sec.)

Since becoming president, Donald Trump has made good on promises to pull the United States from international agreements including the Trans Pacific Partnership and the Paris Climate Accord. But so far, he’s refrained from following through on another: dismantling the Iran nuclear deal. Experts say that’s not only good for keeping the U.S.-Iran relationship stable, but also for keeping hardline elements within Iran’s government in check.

“When we isolate [Iran] politically and economically, in some ways that's more of a carrot to Iran's hardline leaders than a stick,” said Karim Sadjadpour, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Speaking at Asia Society in New York on Thursday, Sadjadpour pointed to last month’s Iranian elections, in which moderate President Hassan Rouhani was re-elected by a wide margin in yet another rebuke to the country’s powerful hardliners, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. “You watch this incredibly vibrant young society that really wants to be integrated with the outside world,” Sadjadpour said. “I think it's just another sign that it's a society that's eager to be South Korea, not North Korea.”

The Iran nuclear deal, reached in 2015 with the United States, Britain, Russia, France, China, and the European Union, gave Iran sanctions relief in exchange for suspending its nuclear development program and submitting to international verification mechanisms. The deal is one component of Rouhani’s agenda for opening Iran up to the world politically and economically. Upon his re-election, he pledged to further open Iran and allow more personal freedoms for the country’s citizens.

Sadjadpour noted that this development is uncomfortable for the aging clerics and supreme leader, who have depended on an information blockade and relative isolation to sustain their power. “After the nuclear deal was signed … I think that [hardliners felt] threatened by Iran's political and economic integration,” Sadjadpour said. “I think if [the supreme leader] opens Iran up to the world, normalizes relations with the United States, that's far more of an existential threat than continued contained hostility.”

In April, Trump echoed complaints he’d made on the campaign trail when he said that Iran was "not living up to the spirit" of the nuclear deal without further elaboration. Gary Samore, former White House Coordinator for Arms Control and Weapons of Mass Destruction under President Barack Obama, said that Iran has in fact been particularly scrupulous lately in complying with the agreement for fear that Trump might pounce on any hint of noncompliance as a pretext to pull out.

“When President Obama was in office, the Iranians were playing games, testing limits,” Samore said. “Since Trump has taken office, the Iranians have not gone over the limits by an ounce or an inch, and I think it reflects the fact that they, especially President Rouhani, are benefiting from the agreement.”

Ambassador John Limbert, former deputy assistant secretary of state for Iran in the State Department's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, added that another danger to U.S.-Iran relations stemming from the new Trump Administration is a greater likelihood that an accidental clash in the region or at sea could escalate. Under Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry had cultivated a close relationship with his counterpart, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, during long negotiations over the nuclear deal. “It's more dangerous now than it was six months ago,” Limbert said. “Six months ago, our secretary of state could pick up the telephone and speak to his good friend Javad Zarif and these problems that had the potential to create — if not an armed conflict, at least a major political crisis — could be resolved. As far as I know, that doesn't happen today.”

Sadjadpour cautioned that even under the best circumstances, social and political change in Iran will be slow, and the United States is still too useful of an adversary for many leaders for relations to become especially friendly in the near future. The best that can be hoped for is competent management of hostilities. “I think you [should] contain, do arms deals when necessary, try to intelligently support Iran's progress and transformation to a more tolerant society,” he said. “I don't think that the Trump Administration has done any of these things well, but there's no silver bullet unfortunately.”

In the above video clip, Samore discusses Iran’s adherence to the nuclear deal and how it’s playing into international relations. Watch the full program in the video below.

Karim Sadjadpour, Gary Samore, and John Limbert discussed the recent re-election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, how the Iran nuclear deal is holding up, and the prospects for U.S.-Iran relations under U.S. President Donald Trump. Nazee Moinian moderated the discussion. (1 hr., 15 min.)

About the Author

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Eric Fish was a Content Producer at Asia Society New York and is author of the book China's Millennials: The Want Generation.