Stephen Herzog who is a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow on Managing the Atom of the Harvard Kennedy School says in an exclusive interview with ILNA news agency that the US presidential election in November will have significant ramifications for US–Iranian relations, as will Iran’s presidential election next year. Stephen Herzog is a PhD candidate in political science at Yale University and previously worked for the US Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration and the Federation of American Scientists.
Here you can read his full interview with ILNA news agency:
Q: The United States has sought to activate snapback sanctions against Iran despite having left the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). How would you assess this behavior by the Trump administration?
A: I think this unilateral decision by the Trump administration is a sign of desperation and a clear indication of how badly the policy of “maximum pressure” has failed. Iran’s oil exports increased in September, and Tehran has improved its ties with China and Venezuela while building up its stockpile of enriched uranium. These activities are the direct result of the Trump administration’s refusal to participate in the JCPOA and attempt to deny Iran access to the global economy. Because the United States withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018, the Trump administration isn’t on the firm ground suggesting that UN Security Council Resolution 2231 allows it to impose snapback sanctions. Resolution 2231 enshrines the JCPOA and lists its parties, but the United States is no longer among them. Other Security Council members, including US allies still party to the deal, have continuously rejected snapback sanctions—just as they did when Washington sought to extend the conventional arms embargo against Iran.
It’s also important to remember much of this may be driven by US domestic politics in an election year. The JCPOA remains polarising in the United States, with Republicans from President Trump’s party opposing it and Democrats from former Vice President Joe Biden’s party supporting it. A lot of Donald Trump’s behavior strikes me as posturing to appear “tough on Iran” with American voters.
Q: Could this illegal unilateral action on sanctions lead to war?
A. In the short-term, the answer is decidedly “no”. The attempt to impose snapback sanctions on Iran will be a diplomatic defeat for Trump. The international community has shown they will not accept this initiative. It will only contribute to the further decline of Trump’s credibility as a negotiating partner.
Polling I conducted last year for the US magazine “The National Interest” with my co-author David M. Allison also showed that when tensions between Washington and Tehran are high, the American public seeks to avoid war. My understanding is that the Iranian public strongly prefers peace as well. For this and other reasons, my view is that Trump would eventually like to achieve a deal with Iran he can claim did more for stability and nuclear non-proliferation than the administration of Barack Obama.
In the long-run, however, war could inadvertently occur if Iran continues to reduce its breakout time to develop nuclear weapons. I do not believe that leaders in Iran seek nuclear weapons and think reversals on the JCPOA are probably meant to convey the risks of leaving the deal to the United States. Yet, if Iran goes too far down this road, even if legally entitled under Article IV of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the risk of aggression from the Trump and Netanyahu governments will increase.
Q: If Trump is victorious in the upcoming US presidential election, will European countries succumb to his demands and destroy the JCPOA?
A: The US presidential election in November will have significant ramifications for US–Iranian relations, as will Iran’s presidential election next year. Biden and Trump have very different visions for the relationship with Iran. The Democratic National Committee of Biden’s party has listed returning to the JCPOA in its electoral platform. Biden was, of course, Obama’s Vice President when it was negotiated and will surely seek this as a policy, but it isn’t guaranteed. Iran will need to show in both words and actions that it will return to the deal. I cannot envision a Biden government returning to the JCPOA while Iran is installing gas centrifuges at the Fordow and Natanz facilities and amassing uranium enriched above 3.67% of isotope U-235 content. Fortunately, such actions should be somewhat easily reversible. But the United States also needs to assure Iran, perhaps with new legislation, that the next president won’t just exit the deal again. It is vitally important for US foreign policy experts to consider what such assurances might look like and for Iran to clearly communicate what would be acceptable as reassurance.
With Trump, the picture is more complicated. Even though “maximum pressure” and the snapback sanctions ploy appear to have failed, I don’t believe Trump will relent. If he is re-elected, I would expect further pressure including increased US secondary sanctions against firms from Europe and other regions conducting business with Iran. If Iran seeks to avoid greater economic and conflict risks, it will need to be willing to negotiate over not only the nuclear programme but also over its ballistic missiles and support of militia groups the United States has labeled terrorist organizations. But Trump and his allies in the US Congress need to understand Iran isn’t going to negotiate until treated as an equal partner and “maximum pressure” is brought to an end. If Trump is victorious, and Iran and the United States cannot find common ground, the JCPOA will be in peril. It will be up to Iran and European parties to make sure it survives. I understand that when the Europeans do things like activate the JCPOA dispute resolution, the Iranian government feels its partners aren’t living up to the spirit of the deal. However, if Iran continues nuclear activities prohibited by the JCPOA, it becomes increasingly difficult for the Europeans to preserve the deal. Put more simply, Iranian noncompliance with the JCPOA makes it more likely that Europe will side with Trump against Iran. I want to re-emphasis that Trump would perhaps like nothing more than to personally take credit for bringing peace to the Middle East, so his willingness to make a deal might surprise decision-makers in Tehran. But the deal will have to go beyond parameters negotiated by Obama’s team.
ILNA: Do you think Trump will emerge as the winner over Joe Biden?
A: Well, national and state polls in the United States give Biden the edge at present. Trump has gravely mishandled the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in the deaths of over 200,000 Americans and the banning of travelers with US passports from most countries around the world. He continues to disparage the use of face masks that slow transmission of the virus. He has chastised the movement demanding justice for systemic racism against Black Americans and is presiding over a struggling economy. Yet, I still believe Trump has at least a 50-50 chance of being re-elected for three reasons.
First is strong foreign election interference. I cannot stress enough how Russian meddling in the US election to support Trump harms Iran and shows Russia isn’t a friend to the Iranian people. US intelligence agencies have assessed that Russia is yet again using widespread psychological manipulation techniques on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms to support Trump among the US public. From a Russian interest perspective, this makes sense since Trump is pro-Putin, skeptical of NATO, and sympathetic to Russian positions on Crimea and Syria. However, this means Russia is increasing the odds that a president who seeks confrontation with Iran will be re-elected.
Second, are potentially illegal efforts by Trump to sway the election in his favors. Many US states have for years allowed voters to cast their ballot by mail, which is more important than ever given the pandemic. Trump has stated without evidence that this may constitute massive voter fraud and attempted to cripple the US Postal Service that handles ballots. He has also suggested he wouldn’t peacefully accept a transition of power if Biden is elected. These actions are all the more notable given the recent death of US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Some commentators fear Trump will try to rapidly push through the appointment of her successor to favors him in legal matters over a disputed election.
And the third is complacency. Polls have been wrong before, as in 2016 when every survey showed former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would resoundingly defeat Trump. Because of Trump’s controversial policies, there can sometimes be a social desirability bias wherein his supporters are embarrassed to tell their friends and family, or a pollster, they plan to vote for him. If voters believe Biden will easily win, they may be inclined to stay home and not vote if they don’t have access to a ballot by mail. Biden would bring a period of rebuilding in US domestic and foreign policy—a return to normalcy—but he is less inspiring to his supporters than Trump is to his own supporters. Since Trump is critical of face masks and pandemic public health and safety precautions, his supporters will probably on average be more enthusiastic to go to a crowded polling station on Election Day than will Biden’s.
ILNA: For our readers in Iran observing the US election from afar, what should they take away from your analysis?
A: Peace between the United States and Iran is possible, regardless of whether the next US president is Joe Biden or Donald Trump. But the terms to negotiate that peace will be different in each case and much more difficult under a second Trump administration.