Day 6

Keep it or kill it? How the protests affect Trump's decision on the Iran nuclear deal

This week, Iran was gripped by country-wide protests and things could get even more tense next week, when U.S. President Donald Trump will have an opportunity to kill the Iran nuclear deal.
An Iranian woman raises her fist amid the smoke of tear gas during a protest driven by anger over economic problems, in the capital Tehran. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

This week, Iran has been gripped by country-wide anti-government protests that have seen at least 21 protesters killed and more than 1,000 detained.

The protests offer U.S. President Donald Trump a new reason to scrap the nuclear deal with Iran later this month — a move Trump's supporters cheer, but that critics warn could be politically risky.

Starting on Jan. 11, Trump faces a series of deadlines by which he must decide whether to continue waiving the economic sanctions against Iran, which were lifted by the 2015 nuclear deal. By law, the sanctions waivers must be renewed every 120 days.

I think the door is then open toward the steady ... slide toward war with Iran in some capacity.- Nader Hashemi, director of the Center for Middle East Studies, U of Denver

Trump and his administration have expressed support for the protesters in statements and via Twitter, and have been exploring other options such as targeted sanctions, and warnings to social media platforms to not comply with Iranian censorship during such protests.

Reports indicate Congress, and some of Trump's top national security officials, are working behind the scenes to preserve the agreement, which Iran negotiated with the U.S. and other global powers for an easing of sanctions in return for curbing its nuclear ambitions.

But those pushing to save the deal are aware that Trump is known to reject the advice of even his own aides, and any move to kill the agreement helps the president deliver on a campaign promise to rip it up.     

University students attend an anti-government protest inside Tehran University as nationwide protest shake Iran. The Islamic Republic increasingly has blamed its foreign foes for fomenting the unrest. (Associated Press)


'Steady slide towards war'

If Trump does decide to scrap the deal, what happens next?

"I think the door is then open toward the steady and I think consistent slide toward war with Iran in some capacity," Iranian-Canadian Nader Hashemi, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver, tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

"It's important to recall that the impetus for trying to reach a nuclear deal with Iran was to halt its nuclear program. Because the belief was that if Iran had continued down the path that it had begun with its nuclear weapons program, that within a short period of time it would have a capacity to produce a nuclear weapon and that would pose a major threat to Western interests in the region," Hashemi explains.

It's not an exaggeration to say that the near totality of the international community, with a few exceptions, supports the nuclear deal.- Nader Hashemi

"And there was a lot of talk that perhaps a military confrontation would then be the next step to take out Iran's nuclear infrastructure. With the deal in place, that conversation has now been shelved, but it'll be reintroduced again if Trump then tears up the deal," he continues. 

"Then Iran will be perfectly within its rights to say that they fulfilled the terms, [but] Trump violated them. They're going to restart their nuclear program, kick out the nuclear inspectors, and then we're basically back into a situation where we were a few years ago with respect to international concerns, sanctions and censure of the Islamic Republic of Iran for pursuing a nuclear program. I think that's the big nightmare scenario that many of us fear."

Though Trump has repeatedly threatened to unilaterally withdraw from the nuclear deal, it's believed his senior national security advisers have thus far managed to convince him that the diplomatic fallout would be far worse than keeping a campaign promise. 

"It's not an exaggeration to say that the near totality of the international community, with a few exceptions, supports the nuclear deal," Hashemi says.

"All the evidence that we have is that Iran has been living up to the terms of the deal. Even Donald Trump's closest foreign policy advisers are advising him to stick with the deal. But there is another smaller group of foreign policy advisers who have a different view and they are of the perspective that Trump needs to distance himself from the previous president, needs to strike out and take bold positions and he needs to tear up this deal, and doing so will be in the best interests of his own presidency and his own career."

U.S. President Donald Trump makes a statement on the administration's strategy for dealing with Iran in October, 2017. President Trump stated that the Iran nuclear deal is not in the best interests for the security of the United States. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)


'Grounds for pessimism'

Trump's recent decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, against the counsel of many in his own administration, could have been a harbinger of things to come, Hashemi notes.

"They'll probably make an argument that it's in the interests of the United States as well — that's a small minority view within the inner circle of the president that he has listened to in the past. The Jerusalem decision was informed by that set of advisers," he says. 

If Trump had one iota of concern for the welfare of Iranians, the first thing he would do would be to lift that travel ban against the people of Iran.- Nader Hashemi

"Also regionally, with respect to the Iran nuclear deal, Trump does have solid and loyal support from several of the major countries, principally Bibi Netanyahu and Israel, the House of Saud in Saudi Arabia, and the monarchy in the United Arab Emirates are very close with the Trump administration. And they also have their own interests in trying to tear up this nuclear deal."

"So if the Jerusalem decision is any indication of what he's going to say next week, then I think there are serious grounds for pessimism that this deal is going to stay intact, and that the the door to war is going to be opened by Donald Trump's decision next week."

Trump's recent tweets ostensibly supporting the anti-government protesters in Iran suggests he could frame a decision to scrap the deal as a move to stand with them, against the regime, by re-establishing sanctions.

"I don't think they really care about what Trump is doing or saying. They're motivated by their own internal crises, rooted in economic grievances and political oppression," Hashemi says. "But I think fundamentally they would want from the international community more sympathy and more support for their grievances."

"I think in previous protests in Iran, there has been a lot of interest in terms of how the international community responds to attempts by the regime to crack down on protesters. So broadly speaking, I think those types of statements in support of the right to protest, and to listen to the grievances of people on the streets, would be welcomed by the people protesting in Iran today."

That said, Trump isn't exactly the leader most Iranians would be looking to for support, Hashemi points out.

"Trump, as you may recall, one of the first things that he did as president was to institute a Muslim travel ban that specifically targeted Iranian citizens," he says. "If Trump had one iota of concern for the welfare of Iranians, the first thing he would do would be to lift that travel ban against the people of Iran. So I think on that measure alone, I think Trump suffers from a massive credibility problem as he tries to express sympathy and solidarity for the people of Iran." 

An Iranian man reads a copy of the daily newspaper 'Omid Javan' bearing a picture of U.S. President Donald Trump in October 2017. Iranians responded with anger and mockery to his threats to tear up the landmark nuclear deal. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)


What's next?

What if Trump goes against type and preserves the 2015 agreement that was negotiated by President Obama?

"I suspect there is still going to be an attempt by Congress, and with the encouragement of Donald Trump, to apply sanctions on Iran — not for its nuclear activity, but for non-nuclear activity," Hashemi says. 

"There's talk now of trying to publicly identify those figures within Iran's ruling apparatus who have been involved in the recent repression of protestors, to put sanctions on their financial activity."

Everything that we have seen from this president on these decisions is that he seems to be beholden to most hawkish foreign policy advisers.- Nader Hashemi

"But broadly speaking, what happens in the the second scenario was that basically what we have right now, the situation that exists today remains the same," he continues. "Most importantly, there will not be an argument for or an opportunity to start another war with the Islamic Republic of Iran." 

"In terms of what happens internally in Iran, you'll still see more of the status quo —you'll see an economy that's struggling to stay afloat, you're going to see the ongoing factional rivalry between the hardline establishment and the reformist government."

"You're going to see gradual and consistent protests from people within Iran who were deeply upset that the promises that they were made by the Rouhani government, that this nuclear agreement will translate into better economic conditions. I think that is going to still be a persistent feature of Iran's internal politics, and things will very much continue as we see them today."

Hashemi, a longtime observer of the region and an Iranian-Canadian himself, predicts Trump will put his own interests first in making a decision on the nuclear deal.

"If I had to bet, I would bet he's going to tear up the agreement. Everything that we have seen from this president on these major decisions is that he seems to be beholden to his closest, most hawkish foreign policy advisers, not the more moderate voices within his cabinet," he says.

"I'd also add that I think the growing crisis that the president is facing internally with the Russian investigation is going to give him a reason to try and distract from his failures and start a conflict with Iran."   


To listen to the full interview with Nader Hashemi, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.