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The art of keeping the (Iran) deal

By Jennifer L. Erickson, nuclear security faculty fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation, and associate professor of political science at Boston College

The Trump administration is currently conducting a review of U.S. Iran policy, including the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the nuclear deal that President Trump threatened to dismantle during his campaign. The results of the policy review — as well as the next round of sanctions waivers needed for continued U.S. compliance with the deal — are both due in mid-July, prompting concern for the fate of the nuclear deal and U.S. Iran policy more broadly.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson acknowledges that Iran is currently compliant with the deal, which supporters argue serves U.S. interests by allowing inspectors unprecedented access to potential nuclear sites and by curbing Iran’s capacity for a speedy nuclear “breakout.” What my research on international agreements also suggests, however, is that keeping the deal will have important implications for the United States’ image as a credible negotiating partner and its ability to make deals with allies and adversaries alike.

But President Trump doesn’t have to take my word for it. His own book, The Art of the Deal, affirms the importance of building and maintaining credibility for making good deals.

‘Credibility is critical’

Early in his career, before President Trump had established his reputation in real estate, he recounts the great difficulties of making deals. Completing Trump Tower brought him the “visibility, credibility, and prestige” that made others want to work with him. Yet he still worried that a reputation for unreliability could upset opportunities for future deals.

In international politics, too, a country’s past actions may affect whether others perceive it as a reliable potential partner. Defense Secretary James Mattis also argues that, despite the Iran deal’s imperfections, the U.S. should keep its word to maintain its credibility. Would-be nuclear powers especially will watch U.S. compliance carefully. While the 2011 Libya intervention might have discouraged them from following in Gaddafi’s footsteps and giving up their nuclear/WMD programs, for example, continued U.S. commitment to the Iran deal could encourage nonproliferation deals elsewhere.

A reputation for keeping a deal will be all the more important as the U.S. contemplates negotiating new trade and climate deals and pushes its allies to contribute more to collective defense. Dropping the nuclear deal absent Iranian violations would contribute to a U.S. reputation for unreliability and undermine its ability to make new deals.

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‘Know your market’

Real estate success rests on designing buildings that cater to the demands of your customer base, whether luxury or low cost. In other words, President Trump advises, “know what the public wants and [deliver] it.”

Deal-making in international politics is less about trends on the street, but public opinion still matters to elected officials. Recent polling shows that U.S. public opinion strongly favors keeping the Iran deal, provided Iran complies with its obligations. Top U.S. officials have also expressed their support. Among the deal’s members, the European Union has “[reiterated] its resolute commitment” to the deal, and the Iranian public opposes renegotiation. The G7 has also expressed its collective support. The United States would therefore be going against the grain should it dismantle the agreement, and it is unlikely to negotiate a better deal.

Beyond Iran, the market for nonproliferation deals is growing. North Korea is expanding its nuclear capabilities. Syria, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and others present proliferation concerns. The United States’ ability to make deals to manage each of these challenges — and others — will rely partly on keeping its commitment to Iran.

‘A deal is a deal’

As a rule, President Trump stated, “I live up to what I’ve agreed to, even if I don’t believe I’m technically obligated by any specific contractual provision.” Honoring your commitment means proving your credibility; walking away from a deal means damaging it. Indeed, a business partner honoring his handshake can make the difference between having views from Trump Tower or lawsuits in Atlantic City.

Just as the president worries about his reputation when he puts his name on a building, so too should he worry about U.S. reputation when its name is on an international agreement. The Iran deal was signed by leaders from seven countries and endorsed by the United Nations Security Council. Information about its implementation will be on public display, and the United States should ensure that its responses to Iranian provocations outside of deal parameters are clearly separated from Iran’s progress on the agreement’s implementation.

Of course, Iran may yet violate its obligations. Just as the president advises “anticipating the worst” in business deals, deals in international politics — like the Iran deal — are designed with worst-case scenarios in mind. Ensuring compliance means offering incentives to comply (such as nuclear-related sanctions relief) as well as making noncompliance costly and easy to detect (for example, with provisions on “snap-back” sanctions and intrusive inspections).

If solid evidence reveals Iranian violations, the U.S. and its partners should swiftly re-impose sanctions and other punishments proportional to its violations. If handled smartly, the U.S. would come off as a tough but credible partner with international support, while Iran would be considered an outcast not to be trusted. Rather than the U.S. reneging on its obligations unprovoked, let Iran be the “bad guy,” face international condemnation, and suffer a return to debilitating sanctions.

Absent Iranian noncompliance, however, the U.S. is best served by holding up its end of the bargain. Not only is reducing Iran’s breakout ability in U.S. interests, but so is ensuring that the U.S. has the credibility to make other good deals in the nuclear realm and beyond. There is art in both making the deal and in keeping it.

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