On November 11, 2016, US State Department spokesman Mark Toner announced that the United States could unilaterally scrap the Iran nuclear deal if President-elect Donald Trump was willing to walk away from it. This announcement fuelled a heated debate on the viability of renegotiating the Iran nuclear deal and the implications of Trump's hawkish stance towards Iran on the balance of power in the Middle East.
Even though Washington's abandonment of the Iran nuclear deal would probably result in the re-implementation of sanctions against Tehran, Iranian policymakers have been surprisingly sanguine towards Trump since his election as president. The relatively relaxed atmosphere in Iran can be attributed to Tehran's belief that Trump is unlikely to plunge the United States into direct confrontation with Iran. Iranian policymakers also believe they can exploit growing strains in the US-Saudi Arabia relationship to expand Tehran's geopolitical influence in the Middle East and increase Iran's leverage over the outcomes of ongoing conflicts in the region.
Assessing the Likelihood of a US-Iran Confrontation under Trump
Even though Donald Trump has frequently warned that Iran is likely to violate the terms of the Obama administration's nuclear deal, the practical difficulties associated with overhauling the agreement could prevent a radical change in US-Iran relations under Trump. This point was illustrated by a recent position paper authored by two of Trump's leading advisors on Israel, lawyers David Friedman and Jason Greenblatt. In this position paper, the status of Jerusalem, Palestinian statehood and protecting Israeli settlements featured prominently, but Iran was strikingly omitted. Republican Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Tennessee Senator Bob Corker also opposes a unilateral abrogation of the Iran nuclear deal and could act as a moderating influence on Trump.
The contradiction between Trump's bombastic rhetoric and calls for caution from his advisors has eased concerns in Tehran about the trajectory of US-Iran relations. According to political analyst and consultant Mahan Abedin, many Iranian policymakers view Trump as a pragmatic dealmaker who is less likely than neoconservative Republicans to initiate a military confrontation against Iran. A recent pro-Trump essay by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's official news agency arguing that Trump's popularity heralded an "awakening" in American politics underscores the growing sense of optimism in Tehran.
While leaving the Iran nuclear deal intact is probably the shrewdest geopolitical option, there is still a high probability that Trump could cave to political pressure from members of his own party and re-inflame tensions with Iran. During the 2016 Republican primary cycle, Trump's leading rivals, Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Florida Senator Marco Rubio were staunch opponents of the Iran nuclear deal. Trump's approach to Iran is especially likely to resemble that of his former adversaries if former US Ambassador to the UN and hardline neoconservative John Bolton is appointed as Secretary of State. Bolton has repeatedly insisted that military confrontation with Ayatollah Khamenei's and regime change in Iran is the only way to ensure stability in the Middle East.
As journalist Ron Kampeas recently noted, a flip-flop on the Iran nuclear issue could increase the risk of a hardline conservative challenger running against Trump in 2020. Opposition to Obama's grand bargain with Iran is extremely intense amongst the GOP's base. Pressure from conservatives in Congress could force Trump to renegotiate the Iran deal even if his political inclinations suggest otherwise.
In addition, Trump will face pressure from members of his own party to condemn Iran's authoritarian system and human rights abuses. In March 2015, Rubio chastised President Barack Obama's unwillingness to express firm solidarity with the Iranian opposition during the 2009 Green Revolution protests. While it is unlikely that external pressure will cause Iran to liberalize its political institutions, remaining silent on the democracy issue could deepen Trump's rift with neoconservatives and advocates of American normative hegemony.
As unilaterally scrapping the Iran nuclear deal would unnecessarily increase the risk of Iran producing a nuclear bomb, Trump should eschew pressures to completely throw out Obama's normalization framework. Stating his unequivocal commitment to a peaceful resolution to the Iranian crisis will also improve Trump's relationship with European leaders. The EU recently urged Trump to not follow through on his promise to scrap the Iran nuclear deal.
To appease Republicans in Congress, Trump should pressure Iran to scale back its sponsorship of terrorism, hostility towards Israel and destabilizing involvement in Iraq by tightening the snapback provisions of the deal. This policy will ensure that the US avoids a costly military confrontation with Iran and will likely satisfy all but the most hardline opponents of engagement with Iran in the GOP Congress.
The Implications of a Trump Presidency for Iran's Geopolitical Influence
Even though Trump's victory will likely strengthen the alliance between Washington and the Israeli right, many Iranian policymakers are quietly optimistic that Trump's isolationist worldview will give Iran an opportunity to significantly bolster its international influence. Iran's optimism is rooted in Trump's confrontational rhetoric towards Iran's primary regional nemesis: Saudi Arabia.
While it remains unclear whether Trump will actually pressure Saudi Arabia to pay a premium for US military assistance, there are compelling early signs of a sharpened deviation from traditionally cordial US policies towards Riyadh. In contrast to Saudi Arabia's fierce opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Trump has expressed interest in cooperating with Assad. On November 12, Trump argued that overthrowing Assad's government would be a poor decision, as it would risk an unnecessary confrontation with Russia.
Expressing solidarity with Assad and his allies has been a recurring theme of Trump's presidential campaign. In October 2016, Trump stunned Republican establishment figures and openly contradicted his senior foreign policy advisors by praising Iran's role in combatting ISIS. Even though Trump will face considerable political pressure to undo his praise of Iranian involvement in Syria, his pro-Assad leanings could lead to more direct Washington-Tehran security cooperation in Syria.
However, if Iran's geopolitical role demonstrably increases relative to Saudi Arabia's, Trump could face considerable pressure from Republicans to improve the Washington-Riyadh relationship and counter-balance against Tehran. During the 2016 Republican primary campaign, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a staunch Trump ally, endorsed Saudi Arabia's decision to execute Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr. As Peter Beinart noted in his January 2016 article for The Atlantic, Christie's view is indicative of an overarching pro-Saudi bias within the GOP. Rubio arguably adopted the most extreme pro-Saudi position of all presidential candidates by calling for the deployment of US troops alongside Saudi troops in Yemen.
To assuage his Republican critics and still maintain his commitment to cooperation with Russia, Trump will likely continue US arms sales to Yemen while distancing Washington from Saudi Arabia's objectives in Syria. This balancing strategy will prevent Saudi Arabia from defecting completely from Washington's orbit and uphold Trump's willingness to cooperate with the Russia-Iran pro-Assad bloc.
Even though Trump has vowed to crack down hard on Iran, he is unlikely to convert his hawkish rhetoric into concrete policies unless Iran unilaterally violates the terms of the nuclear deal. Trump's scathing criticisms of Saudi Arabia also provide considerable opportunities for Iran to bolster its geopolitical influence. Regardless of the policy course Trump ultimately chooses, he will face a difficult struggle to implement his campaign promises, appease neoconservatives in the GOP and adopt a nuanced position in the Iran-Saudi Arabia struggle for regional primacy.
Samuel Ramani is a DPhil candidate in International Relations at St. Antony's College, University of Oxford. He is also a journalist who contributes regularly to the Diplomat magazine and Washington Post. He can be followed on Twitter at samramani2 and on Facebook at Samuel Ramani.