Iran deal’s moment of truth
In reality-TV style, he chose not to reveal what his decision was, much though his rhetoric seemed to make that obvious. “I’ll let you know,” he said.
The speech raised expectations that by Oct. 15 he will tell Congress that Iran is breaking the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. It was signed by former President Barack Obama, Iran, and six other world powers in 2015. Congress later passed a law requiring the president to certify, every 90 days, that Iran is complying with its terms and that the agreement is in the vital security interests of the U.S.
Not certifying the deal could lead Trump or Congress to reimpose sanctions on Tehran that were suspended when Iran agreed to end its nuclear weapons development program and allow inspectors to check. Trump has held his nose twice to certified Iranian compliance. A third time seems less likely.
Then what? Many observers fear it could lead to Iran pulling out of the deal, stoking tension in the Middle East and upsetting European nations that back the deal and want to keep deriving commerical benefits from it.
National security hawks in Washington feel the wind at their backs and exult that Trump’s speech makes withdrawal from the deal nearly certain.
“I don’t think we know what the president’s decision on the deal is going to be yet,” former Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton, who wants it scrapped, told the Washington Examiner. “But these were very strong comments. And when you say, among other things, that the deal is an embarrassment to the U.S., it’s hard to see how you certify or stay in.“
Other policy experts are not sure. One critic of the deal who is close to the White House said the odds of not certifying the deal are no better than “50-50,” despite Trump’s rhetoric.
This uncertainty reflects a debate unfolding, chiefly in the administration and among a cadre of Republican lawmakers, that will shift policy.
“There are no big fans of the deal within the administration,” said one expert who advises the administration, on condition of anonymity. “The main divisions are, really, what do we do to try to fix the deal?”
Those discussions center on the best way to renew pressure on Iran and how to cooperate with three critical European allies, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, which helped secure the pact. “All pathways run into either a huge roadblock or can be facilitated, basically, with the Europeans,” the Middle East expert said.
European leaders and the International Atomic Energy Agency, which monitors Iran’s nuclear program, say the deal has succeeded in ending the mullah’s quest for the atom bomb and delayed a crisis of the sort that the West is facing with North Korea.
In Washington, by contrast, American foreign policy leaders are frustrated that the Iranians have used some of the money that came with ended sanctions to bolster their military and pursue an aggressive foreign policy in the region. They say the deal allows Iran to maintain significant components of a nuclear program. The fiercest critics of the deal, including some Democrats and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, thus believe Tehran will be close to acquiring a nuclear weapon when the deal expires even if they abide by it. They see no compelling reason to stick with the pact as it stands.
“Once a regime crosses a Rubicon of getting nuclear power, it totally changes the relationship,” Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Ill., told the Washington Examiner. “We’re still on the side where the Iranians don’t have that power, and we need to double down to make sure that they don’t.”
Trump’s speech was consistent with a plan to certify Iranian compliance while also ratcheting up pressure on the regime and European leaders to negotiate improvements. Or, as Bolton said, it could signal a more dramatic policy change.
Either effort could be complicated by the European business community’s strong support for the deal, as well as the worry that Iran will force the West to choose between a costly war and acquiescence to their acquiring nuclear weapons. “I can think of no regional issue that we have with Iran that would not be even more difficult to handle if Iran possessed nuclear weapons,” David O’Sullivan, the European Union’s envoy to the U.S., said last week at the Atlantic Council.
On this, American and European officials agree. But they disagree on how best to avoid that outcome. One of Washington’s fiercest critics of the deal believes he has a plan to thread that needle.
Not certify, then improve
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., has made himself one of the foremost critics of the Iran nuclear deal since 2015. Europeans won’t like his plan, but it’s not the abrupt wrecking of the JCPOA that the deal’s backers most fear.
Instead, Cotton wants the president to decline to certify that Iran is in complying with the agreement. Then, instead of snapping back suspended sanctions, Trump would demand a series of improvements that Congress and European allies could take up in exchange for continued sanctions relief.
Cotton’s proposal derives from the structure of the nuclear deal itself and the tactics Obama used to avoid the Senate voting it down.
As a first-year senator, Cotton wrote an open letter to Iranian leaders observing that Obama’s circumvention of the Senate’s authority to ratify treaties left the deal vulnerable to successive presidents. Under pressure from the president and critics such as Cotton, Congress developed an unconventional alternative to the treaty vote, called the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, which allowed lawmakers to vote against the deal. At the time, this process led to a clear victory for the Obama team, because INARA required a supermajority of Congress to ban implementation of the agreement.
“President Obama made a poor strategic decision,” Cotton told the Washington Examiner. “He went with a simple executive agreement, [and so] it could be unwound at the stroke of a pen by the next president.”
Though INARA first seemed to secure the deal for Obama, it contained a second seed of Cotton’s plan. The legislation stipulates that Trump can issue that certification only if he affirms that the agreement is “vital to [American] national security interests.” Iran’s provocative actions in recent years, such as its ballistic missiles tests, support for terrorists and militias throughout the Middle East, along with its avowed refusal to let international monitors inspect key military facilities, have bolstered the case for such a tactic, Cotton says.
“He can’t be sure they’re complying because they won’t give access to certain critical military sites,” the Arkansas Republican said. “Even if they were complying with every single letter, word, and spirit of the JCPOA, it’s still not in our national security interests. We’ve seen them run wild over the last two years.”
Mere refusal to certify Iran’s compliance with the agreement “does not put the United States in breach of the JCPOA,” Cotton emphasized. That makes a Trump declaration that the deal, as currently written, is not in the national interest a potentially compelling maneuver to overcome the European fear that the Iranians will abandon the deal if pressed.
“What the president should do at that point is outline the parameters of new legislation that he would like to see to greatly strengthen the Nuclear Agreement Review Act, to fix some of the problems with the JCPOA, while also making it clear to Tehran, and to Europe and Asia, that the sword of Damocles of complete economic sanctions hangs over Iran’s regime to be implemented at any moment by him unilaterally,” Cotton said.
That’s a high-stakes play, even for a veteran negotiator such as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson or the retired four-star Marine Corps general who now leads the Defense Department, Jim Mattis.
“We’ll have leverage to do stuff, but it requires a lot of artful diplomacy, as well as effective economic and military hard-power coercion,” the Middle East expert said on condition of anonymity. “I don’t think it’s fully fleshed out to the point that the U.S. principals or the European allies feel comfortable that we’re not going to create a worse mess by doing this. … It would be a colossal screwup to just pull out and then don’t figure out our next step, or we just stumble into our next step.”
That planning process may have been hampered over recent months by the lack of Senate-confirmed Trump appointees at the State Department and the Pentagon. But the source surmised there might be another impediment as well. “I think that because the principals, in general, don’t want to go down this path, they’re not in the mindset to come up with everything, to be frank,” the source added. “There’s kind of a sense of, are we really going to go down this path?”
But Cotton sounded a confident note. “If the president declines to certify the JCPOA under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Act, then I am sure the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, and every other member of his Cabinet will implement that policy,” he said.
Support for the plan
Trump’s team has been trying to convince the president that the deal can be improved without refusing to certify Iran’s compliance, according to a second Middle East source close to the White House. “Now the truth of it is that the president will be lying if he certifies [compliance],” the second source said. “He’s already said that the deal is not in our national interest.”
If Trump does in fact refuse to approve the deal for a third time, Cotton can expect some bipartisan support for his plan. Twenty-five House and Senate Democrats voted against the Iran deal in 2015, with at least some hoping that a future president would revisit the issue.
“[W]e must force modifications of the agreement, and extensions of its nuclear restrictions, before it gets ugly,” Calif. Rep. Brad Sherman, a senior Democratic member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said at the time. “A strong congressional vote against the agreement is the best way to make it clear that the agreement is not binding on Congress, the American people or future administrations.”