Why Trump might not need to rip up the nuclear deal

First, the Iranians have already accrued the majority of their benefits from the JCPOA— namely nuclear sanctions relief—up front. The U.S., in contrast, does not see its gain from the deal—preventing a nuclear weapon, if Tehran sticks to its terms—until the end. If Trump wants a realistic shot at a new deal, he would need to be sure the Europeans, Russians, and Chinese are on board with reimposing oil embargoes, financial transaction restrictions, and other similar types of the painful sanctions that finally brought Iran to the table in 2013. Those are far from certain propositions. Otherwise he risks walking away with little or nothing to show for America’s trouble.

Second, Trump will also be aware that any major confrontation with Iran over the JCPOA must be considered in context of his policies toward Russia and vice-versa. Russian President Vladimir Putin did not, and still does not, want Tehran to get the bomb. Moscow, however, has used the nuclear deal in part to carve out a much more significant role in the Middle East, including a burgeoning new military alliance with Iran in Syria and elsewhere. These circumstances likely limit the degree of coercive diplomatic or even military power the United States could use in any renegotiation, unless Russia is on board with the White House’s game plan.

Third, the administration’s initial review of the JCPOA will offer Trump an excellent opportunity to reevaluate U.S. intelligence assessments on Iran’s nuclear program and determine whether Tehran is indeed fully adhering to the precise terms of the nuclear deal. The most recent reports from International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) show that adherence appears to be increasingly a matter of interpretation. As opposed to the Obama administration, Trump may not find Iran’s regular bypassing of limits on its heavy water production to be acceptable, and declare Tehran formally in abrogation of the JCPOA. Placing the onus on the Islamic Republic for breaking the deal, rather than on the U.S., will be a much more attractive way to create leverage.

Fourth, Trump will find that he has numerous options to ratchet up economic stress on Iran while keeping the basic deal intact.