For many months, US President Donald Trump and his advisers have been trying to formally withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States), the European Union, and Iran, also known as the Iran nuclear deal. On 13 October 2017, Trump refused to certify the agreement and handed it over to Congress. In a new strategy, which Trump has since identified, the administration has put in a framework that experts believe is “gradually dismantling the deal.” According to this framework, Trump will try to put an end to the deal through putting more pressure on Iran in various ways. This approach can be seen in Senators Bob Corker and Tom Cotton's bill proposing sanctions on different parts in the Iranian government. Although on paper the measures proposed in the bill mostly focus on Iran’s missile defenses and missile programs, the sanctions, in reality, are aimed at achieving different goals: first, depriving Iran of the benefits of the JCPOA, or at least minimizing them; second, provoking Iran to withdraw from the deal; and finally, building a new regional order in the Middle East that is more supportive of US allies, namely Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the Persian Gulf states. But, how will this three-pronged US policy affect the future of the JCPOA and the region? The outcomes of this policy can be studied at three different levels: national, regional, and international.
The National Level
Iran’s current president, Hassan Rouhani, won the presidential elections against his conservative competitors in June 2013 with the promise to resolve Iran’s nuclear issue. The nuclear deal with the P5+1 in July 2015 secured his second term in office in May 2017. Throughout Rouhani’s presidency, he has enjoyed the political benefits of the deal, including pushing back hard-liners. Now, what will happen to him and his moderate supporters if he loses this advantage? What will he have to offer to the Iranian citizens who trusted him in the elections? The simple answer is that the president’s hard-line opponents, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), will raise their voices and accuse him, the reformists, and the moderates in Iran of being incompetent and naive towards the US and the West. In addition, given the Trump administration and some European leaders’ increasing pressure on Iran to halt its defensive missile programs, Rouhani will likely face more pressure from internal radical political forces. He will have no option but to give in to internal pressure and radicalize Iran’s foreign policy. As a result, moderates’ and reformists’ power will be squeezed, paving the way for hard-liners to regain power in Iran.
The nuclear deal with the P5+1 in July 2015 secured President Hassan Rouhani’s second term in office in May 2017.
A radicalized Rouhani will be the most optimistic outcome of a future Iran without the JCPOA. A look back at the history of nuclear negotiations between Western powers and Iran reveals that Iran is likely to pursue ulterior political pathways when it and the West fail to reach an agreement. For example, when Iran and the European Troika (Britain, France, and Germany) reached an agreement in Sa'dabad Palace in Tehran over the Iranian nuclear issue in October 2003, it was to the advantage of the reformists inside Iran. However, when under pressure from the US, the agreements in Tehran and Brussels were canceled, and Western countries insisted on continuing the suspension of uranium enrichment, which Tehran voluntarily accepted. Not only was there no formal agreement to secure this voluntary commitment, but radicals like former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power quickly in June 2005. Needless to say, Ahmadinejad's presence radicalized Iran’s foreign policy, and the situation in the Middle East even became more volatile.
What will be the outcome of a more radical Iranian foreign policy? Iran will accelerate its missile defense program, increase the level of its cooperation with regional allies, and step up its efforts to gain power in the face of more serious regional and international threats. Iran’s relations with Hezbollah will be tightened. Tehran’s military and security cooperation with Baghdad and Damascus will increase. Hopes for de-escalating Saudi Arabia-Iran tension and rapprochement will simply disappear.
The Regional Level
In a volatile situation like this, there will be dangerous and multi-dimensional competition among regional actors over gaining the most advanced weapons. When other states in the region see that negotiations and diplomacy are not working, they might think they will get behind, so they will enter the course of the arms race too. Furthermore, now that Iran has taken up a more aggressive foreign policy, it will try to increase its influence in Syria and Lebanon so that it can defend itself if faced with possible attacks by Israel. On the other hand, this sphere of influence may extend as far south as Yemen, and Tehran might want to have a serious presence there, something that has not happened so far. Despite many requests from the Houthis in Yemen, Tehran has not shown interest in getting directly involved in the country’s affairs. Iranian officials might have realized that the costs of direct involvement in Yemen for Iran are much higher than its gains. However, under the threat of war and in the face of possible military attacks from Riyadh, Tehran could think again and accept the cost of maintaining the war in Yemen so that it can attack Saudi Arabia from Yemeni soil. In order to understand the implications of a US withdrawal from the JCPOA, the following important actors in regional issues should be considered. Given the significant role that Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Israel play in MENA’s developments, the impact of the Iran deal will mostly be on these countries.
Saudi Arabia puts Iran at the top of its list of “perceived threats.” The Kingdom has already stepped up its efforts to obtain the most advanced weapons in order to prepare for a possible war with Iran. In May 2017, a new weapons deal was signed between Riyadh and Washington worth nearly 110 billion dollars immediately and 350 billion dollars over the next 10 years. Recent unprecedented arrests within the Saudi royal family have made the Saudi situation more complicated and insecure. Under such circumstances, the entire country is at the disposal of a 32-year-old young man who has shown a taste for ill-conceived foreign adventures. Since Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman has been in power, he has attacked Yemen, severed ties with Qatar, and is now threatening Lebanon. If the US is to withdraw from the JCPOA, Saudi Arabia – which is undergoing radical change supported by an Israeli-American alliance under the new prince – will certainly work hard to achieve nuclear weapons in order to gain the upper hand against Iran and its indigenous missile program.
Turkey is another regional power of which post-JCPOA relations with Iran can be explained using “the Shadow of the Future” concept. “The shadow of the future” is a basic game theory concept essentially expressing the idea that we behave differently when we expect to interact with someone repeatedly over time (and hence expect to be able to punish and be punished for misbehavior.)
Now that Iran has taken up a more aggressive foreign policy, it will try to increase its influence in Syria and Lebanon.
According to this concept, Turkey, despite its current good relations with Iran, is not going to sit by and watch Iran become the regional superpower. Turkey, despite facing a number of failures in its foreign policy vis-à-vis Iran since the start of the so-called Arab Spring, will not stay silent against Iran’s increased influence and presence in Syria and Lebanon, and will try to counter Iran’s rising power. It is true that Turkey and Iran share many interests, for example, in Qatar, in Lebanon, and even to some extent, in the Syrian crisis. The two countries have a shared view toward developments in the region, but the history of relations between the two countries shows that their relationship has always been bumpy. Meanwhile, Turkey will try to keep track of the arms race that has started in the region. All of this will lead to potential tension in Turkey’s neighborhood.
Israel is another actor that wants to discompose the current order and makes every effort to change the balance of power in the region. Israel, like Saudi Arabia, feels that the current order and increased regional influence of Iran are serious threats to its interests. Israel tried desperately to prevent the nuclear deal. It sees a golden opportunity in Trump, and its powerful lobby is doing its best to make the US push further against Iran. Israel, along with Saudi Arabia, will take more measures to influence Lebanon in order to limit Hezbollah’s power. Meanwhile, faced with more threats and no nuclear deal in place, Iran, as mentioned above, will increase its presence in Syria and Lebanon. It will do so through deterrence; however, on the other side, Israel and Saudi Arabia will not sit idly by and will want to change the balance of power. The two countries, with the support of Washington, will do their best to make a difference in this vein. For this, they will ask Iran to leave the two countries, something that Iran will not agree to, because its presence in Syria and Lebanon acts as a deterrent.
The International Level
Sanctions and negotiations related to Iran's nuclear program spanned over a decade before the signing of the JCPOA. The Iran nuclear deal could have set a precedent for solving similar global crises. But, since Donald Trump came to power, doubts have been raised about the success of such a model for resolving other global crises. The failure of the US administration to meet the commitments incorporated in the deal has not only wasted over a decade of effort in resolving one of the world’s most complicated global security cases, but other countries have lost their trust in the negotiation mechanism and diplomacy in part due to this failure.
In a similar case, North Korea is the most obvious example today of how other countries have shown their reluctance to use non-military mechanisms. The reality is that almost all of the great powers, except the current US administration, believe that Iran’s nuclear negotiations can be both a role model and the best approach for resolving the North Korea crisis. The EU, Russia, and China have already signaled that a similar strategy for North Korea could yield positive results. A possible US withdrawal from the JCPOA may persuade North Korea and its leaders not to rely nor trust the West’s incentives and proposal for talks. Given its alleged nuclear capability, North Korea can create a global tragedy in case it decides to use atomic bomb against its neighboring country or its arch foe which is U.S. Today, the country is at loggerheads with the United States over its atomic program. While American nuclear weapons experts as well as European leaders believe that the Iranian model can be a good example for resolving the North Korean crisis and that reaching an agreement is the only way out of stalemate, the US manner of dealing with Iran's nuclear deal will prevent North Korea from engaging in any kind of dialogue and negotiation with the international community. On the contrary, given what is happening to the JCPOA, North Korea is not likely to ever accept the risk of limiting its nuclear capability as the US government does not seem to be a trustworthy partner in such an agreement. As in the case of Iran, the US might break its promises and seek a regime change in North Korea as well.
Saudi Arabia puts Iran at the top of its list of ‘perceived threats.’
Furthermore, increased violence and conflict in the Middle East can have additional consequences and spillover effects. Given the fact that the EU countries are already struggling to cope with the migration crisis, new conflicts and an arms race in the Middle East will spark further waves of immigration from the region to Europe, which may cause further trouble within the EU. The continuous conflicts and tensions in today’s Middle East can be seen as a new phase of exporting terrorism to Western and European countries. This may lead to fresh instability in Europe.
The balance of power in the Middle East has been changing in favor of the Islamic Republic of Iran since the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the US-led coalition that overthrew Saddam Hussein’s government. This external factor (foreign powers’ presence in the region), along with Tehran’s smart acts during the regional crises of Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, the Arab Spring, and the fight against ISIS, have put Saudi Arabia in a much weaker position against Iran. Riyadh’s radical and reckless policies have always deviated from Tehran’s prudent and smart steps, and this has tilted the balance in Iran’s favor. Such being the case, Saudi Arabia and Israel now consider Donald Trump to be the one who can undo Barack Obama’s policies regarding Iran and the Middle East. They have asked for more US pressure on Iran, but this will make the situation in the region even worse. US adventurism might lead it to permanently get stuck in the Middle East quagmire. At the same time, more US involvement will not be in the US’ national security interests and will only provoke more conflicts with the international powers involved. Saudi Arabia and Israel will try to enter into an arms race so that they can grab the opportunity to change the balance of power in the region in their favor, a change, which based on Kenneth Waltz’s theory, only arises from military conflict. On the other side, Iran will not be willing to surrender to pressure from the US but, in contrast, will embark on a radicalized foreign policy. Under these conditions, the voice of the moderates in Iran that demand real Saudi-Iran détente will be weakened more than before, and the real possibilities for dialogue and reconciliation in the region will fade away.
 Laura Rozen, “Trump punts fate of Iran deal to Congress,” Al-Monitor, 13 October 2017, https://almonitor.com/pulse/originals/2017/10/trump-punts-iran-deal-congress-jcpoa.html
 Elana Schor, “Corker in talks with Cardin on Iran nuclear deal,” Politico, 25 October 2017, https://www.politico.com/story/2017/10/25/iran-nuclear-deal-bob-corker-ben-cardin-244163
 Javier E. David, “US-Saudi Arabia seal weapons deal worth nearly $110 billion immediately, $350 billion over 10 years,” CNBC, 20 May 2017, https://www.cnbc.com/2017/05/20/us-saudi-arabia-seal-weapons-deal-worth-nearly-110-billion-as-trump-begins-visit.html
 James D. Fearon, “Bargaining, Enforcement, and International Cooperation,” International Organization, Vol. 52, No. 2 (Spring 1998), pp. 269-305, http://www.columbia.edu/itc/sipa/S6800/courseworks/bargaining_enforcement.pdf
 “A New Arms Race in the Middle East?” The Brics Post, 21 February 2017, http://thebricspost.com/a-new-arms-race-in-the-middle-east/#.WiEfPrT1VbV
 Bruce Stokes, “The Immigration Crisis is Tearing Europe Apart,” Foreign Policy, 22 July 2016, http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/07/22/the-immigration-crisis-is-tearing-europe-apart/
 Tim Arango, “Iran Dominates in Iraq After U.S. ‘Handed the Country Over,’” The New York Times, 15 July 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/15/world/middleeast/iran-iraq-iranian-power.html?_r=0
 Kenneth N. Waltz, Man, the State, and War: A Theoretical Analysis (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001).