Iran nuclear deal: What Trump’s expected decision to decertify means

 In World

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, left, and German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel speak to the media after talks in Berlin on June 27, 2017. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Later this week, President Trump is expected to announce his decision to “decertify” the Iran nuclear deal, arguing that the arrangement isn’t in the best interests of the United States. The world has been bracing for this decision since Trump won the election in November. He has repeatedly derided the Iran accord as a stupid, loser deal, one of the worst he has ever seen.

But “decertifying” won’t kill the accord automatically. It’s much more complicated than that. Here’s what Trump may do this week and how it might play out domestically and internationally.

Why does Trump want to decertify the Iran deal?

By all accounts, Iran has complied with the terms of the deal. U.S. officials have said so; European allies have agreed. The United Nations watchdog tasked with monitoring compliance has visited Iran several times and certified that the country is dismantling its nuclear program, per the terms of the deal. Last week, the U.S. defense secretary and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff expressed qualified support for the deal before Congress.

But the president and his administration say Iran is not following the spirit of the accord, which they see as de facto noncompliance. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and others have said that Iran has not positively contributed to regional and international peace and security, an “expectation” embedded in the deal’s preamble. They noted that Iran still supports militant groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas and backs militias in Syria and Yemen. Iran has also continued to test ballistic missiles, something that irks the United States, even though such tests do not constitute a violation of the agreement.

What does “decertification” actually mean?

The U.S. president is required by Congress to certify every 90 days that Iran is complying with the deal. Trump has done so twice; his next deadline is Oct. 15. Administration officials say Trump will announce that he has decided to decertify the deal, arguing that it’s not in the U.S. national security interest to remain in the agreement.

On its own, that won’t mean much. If the United States doesn’t impose new sanctions, it’s not technically in violation of its obligations under the agreement. And The Washington Post has reported that Trump will hold off on recommending that Congress do so.

Interestingly, the administration could have chosen to kill the deal on its own, without Congress’s help. Every 120 days, the administration issues waivers to keep old sanctions from being reimposed. Skip that step, and the administration could have restarted sanctions unilaterally come January. The president chose not to do that. My colleagues have explained the maneuver as “a middle ground of sorts between Trump, who has long wanted to withdraw from the agreement completely, and many congressional leaders and senior diplomatic, military and national security advisers, who say the deal is worth preserving with changes if possible.”

Could Congress decide to reimpose sanctions?

If Trump decertifies the deal, Congress will have 60 days to decide whether to reimpose sanctions on Iran, the ones that were suspended in exchange for that country’s freeze on its nuclear weapons program.

That seems pretty unlikely. Congress would need only 51 votes to impose those sanctions. But it doesn’t seem as if Republicans have the support they need to push something through. As The Post reports, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell does not want to add another contentious issue to the legislative calendar, especially not with midterm elections right around the corner. Republican Sens. Jeff Flake, John McCain and Susan Collins have also said they’re not sure how they would vote on sanctions. Sen. Rand Paul and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Edward R Royce (Calif.) say they don’t think Trump should retreat from the deal. And Democrats seem universally opposed to new sanctions.

Given that, it’s hard to imagine Republicans mustering the votes they need to impose any serious sanctions.

So, then, what is the president trying to accomplish? 

Even many proponents of decertification don’t think the United States needs to reimpose sanctions. They reckon that the Trump administration can use the process as a way of persuading European allies to join the United States in advocating for a stronger Iran deal. In a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations last week, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) laid out what that might look like. He has called for a bill that would eliminate “sunset clauses” that lift restrictions on some Iranian nuclear activities after several years. He’d also like to see tougher inspections and new curbs on Iran’s ballistic and cruise missile programs.

Will European allies sign on? 

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