Most of the Democrats running for president have promised to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal if they win the Oval Office.
It won’t be that easy. By the time Inauguration Day rolls around in 2021, there might not even be a deal left — it has been hanging on by a thread since President Donald Trump pulled out last year. Even if it still exists, sections of the 2015 agreement are set to expire in the coming years, Trump’s punishing sanctions on Iran will be hard to fully unwind, Iran has elections that could put more anti-deal hardliners in power and Tehran has already threatened to unwind itself from the deal in the months ahead. Then, there’s the possibility that Iran and the U.S. could be in a full-blown military conflict.
Democratic campaign aides acknowledge these challenges. But they insist that the smartest move, politically and policy-wise, is for White House hopefuls to promise a return to the 2015 agreement. It’s a way, they said, for candidates to link themselves to a popular Barack Obama legacy, distinguish themselves from Trump and send a signal to the world — including Iran — that the U.S. will once again be a reliable partner.
“It’s moving away from this hysterical way that Washington talks about Iran, as this uniquely problematic actor that exists outside the realm of normal diplomacy,” said Matt Duss, an adviser to Bernie Sanders, the independent Vermont senator seeking the Democratic nomination.
Former President Barack Obama’s administration spent years negotiating the nuclear agreement with Iran’s Islamist government and global partners. The deal removed numerous international sanctions on Iran in exchange for severe restrictions on its nuclear program.
Trump quit the agreement last year, arguing that it was too narrow and time-limited and that it should have covered Iran’s non-nuclear activities, too, such as its support for terrorist groups. But despite using sanctions and other pressure, Trump has been unable to lure Iran into crafting a new deal. If anything, the two countries have been moving closer to a military confrontation, with each side downing each other’s drones, among other face-offs.
The nuclear deal is one of the few foreign policy issues that comes up with any regularity for the two dozen Democrats striving for the White House.
In February, the Democratic National Committee passed a resolution calling on the U.S. to rejoin the agreement. In debates and other forums since, most of the Democratic contenders have taken essentially the same position.
“Whatever its imperfections, this was perhaps as close to a true ‘art of the deal’ as it gets,” candidate Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., said in a foreign policy speech last month.
The only serious exception so far has been Cory Booker, the New Jersey senator, who declined during a debate to “unilaterally” promise a return. “If I have an opportunity to leverage a better deal, then I’m going to do it,” said Booker, who is close to pro-Israel activists who oppose the current agreement.
Either way, former U.S. officials and Iran analysts say a reality check is in order.
After adhering to the deal for a year following Trump’s abandonment, Iran’s Islamist leaders have in recent weeks started to retaliate, taking small — albeit reversible — steps that put them out of compliance. They’ve promised more violations every 60 days going forward, unless somehow the U.S. lifts its sanctions or other parties to the deal help Iran get economic relief.
The way things are going, Tehran may be significantly out of compliance with the deal by the 2020 election, or it may have just walked away completely.
That poses a dilemma for Democrats, some of whom have hedged their pledge to return to the deal by saying Iran has to be complying with it. A paralyzing “chicken and egg” scenario could result, with Iran refusing to return to compliance until the U.S. lifts sanctions and the U.S. refusing to lift sanctions until Iran is back in compliance.
Even if that was resolved, other challenges loom. Some hardliners in Iran have suggested that the country should not return to the agreement until the United States pays it reparations for the economic damage Trump’s snap back of sanctions has caused. That is likely to be a non-starter in Washington, with plenty of members of Congress, including some Democrats, sure to be dead set against such a payout.
“The assumption in Washington is we have gained leverage by stepping away from the deal — that we might get concessions from Iran,” said Ariane Tabatabai, an associate political scientist at the RAND Corporation. “Iranians think the same thing — that they have leverage now and will be able to get concessions from us.”
The United States isn’t the only one having an election that could determine the future of American-Iranian relations. Iran holds parliamentary elections in 2020, and anti-American sentiment stirred by Trump and his sanctions could give an advantage to Iranian hardliners who oppose talks with the United States.
Iran also holds its presidential election in 2021, and it’s anyone’s guess who will triumph.
President Hassan Rouhani, whose administration negotiated the 2015 deal, is ineligible to run again. On Iran’s political spectrum, Rouhani is considered a moderate. He took over from the more conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2013.
Ultimately, though, the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has the final word on matters of state. The cleric has dismissed the idea of negotiating with Trump, and he appeared hesitant even to agree to the deal struck under Obama. If a Democrat becomes president in 2021, Khamenei may still find it politically challenging to talk. But Iran’s economy may be so damaged by then that he may have no choice but to negotiate — even if Trump is reelected.
Another inconvenient fact: Elements of the 2015 nuclear deal, as well as other international limits on Iran, are going to start expiring in the coming years.
A United Nations-backed ban on conventional arms sales to Iran is due to expire in 2020. By 2023, a U.N. measure that calls on Iran to constrain its ballistic missile program also sunsets. In the decade afterwards, pieces of the deal will expire, allowing Iran to use advanced centrifuges and enrich uranium above current limits, among other moves.
Under the deal, Iran has agreed to allow on a permanent basis enhanced international inspections and monitoring of its nuclear activities. Iran also is party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which took effect in 1970, meaning it has committed to the international community that it will not seek nuclear weapons. Still, critics of Iran will point to its past nuclear subterfuge and the looming expiration dates on elements of the 2015 deal as reasons not to return to the existing agreement.
“It’s a really good talking point to say ‘Trump got out of the deal. I’m going to get back in,’ but reentering an agreement when the clock is already ticking is a fool’s errand,” said Ilan Berman, senior vice president of the conservative American Foreign Policy Council. ”The message needs to be that any framework the U.S. agrees to has to be longer and better than the one before.”
Rejoining the original deal would require a new U.S. president to lift the nuclear-related sanctions that Trump has slapped on Iran. That alone is a complicated task.
And it might not be enough for Iran, because Trump has gone beyond the sanctions that were on Iran prior to the nuclear deal. The Republican president has imposed a wide array of new penalties on Iranian individuals and entities as part of his “maximum pressure” campaign, and Iranian leaders might insist that all of those sanctions get rolled back. That could be logistically, as well as politically, challenging.
For instance, Trump has designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization, the first time the U.S. has placed such a label on a foreign state institution. Even Democrats say the IRGC is a malign actor, and it could cause serious domestic political blowback if a Democratic president decided to cancel that designation.
Indeed, some Iran hawks have pushed Trump to impose such complex and heavy sanctions precisely to complicate a future president’s return to the 2015 nuclear agreement. And in a general election, Trump is sure to accuse his Democratic opponent of endangering America by promising to lift sanctions on Iran and rejoin the deal.
Democratic campaign aides note that, when given the chance, their candidates offer caveats to their baseline position of reentering the deal.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, for one, has said he will return to the agreement only once Iran is in compliance. But he’s also pledged to find a way to “strengthen and extend it.”
A senior Biden campaign adviser said the former vice president knows a lot can change by 2021, but he sees pledging a return to the 2015 agreement as, among other things, an important signal to send to U.S. allies in Europe who are furious over Trump’s abandonment.
“It’s a down payment on our credibility,” the aide said. “An incoming administration will have to do something to reestablish the good word of the United States.”
Various polls have shown that most Americans opposed Trump’s decision to quit the 2015 agreement.
For now, as they compete against each other for their party’s nomination, promising a return to the deal is a politically safe space for Democrats in part because of Obama’s continued popularity, one Democratic operative said.
“The Iran deal is popular with Democrats for the very reason that Donald Trump left it,” the operative said. “It was negotiated by Barack Obama.”