All this Republican party fighting over the Iran nuclear deal, it’s almost enough to forget that it’s America’s greatest foreign policy achievement in years. At least that’s what the Trump administration has seemingly acknowledged. In a statement released late Tuesday evening, they certified that Tehran continues to comply with its end of the bargain. The statement also says Trump has directed a National Security Council-led interagency review of the Iran deal that will evaluate whether America’s sanctions relief obligations outlined in the JCPOA are vital to U.S. national security interests. Now that Trump publicly acknowledges “the worst deal ever negotiated” is actually working, does he no longer want to “tear it up”? Looking ahead, we see three key takeaways.
First, it is ostensibly standard practice for new administrations to review existing policies during their first few months in office. The Obama administration conducted an Iran policy review in early 2009. The key difference here is that Trump’s specific review of the Iran deal makes zero sense from a practical policy and security perspective. The vast majority of American officials who negotiated and constructed the JCPOA are career government officials who transcend political parties, not Obama administration political appointees. Every aspect of the deal has repeatedly gone through a rigorous interagency review conducted by those same career government officials before, during, and after its approval.
The only difference today: A group of political appointees with long track records of opposing the JCPOA – and diplomacy with Iran, more generally – now sit in the White House surrounding the president. Thus, despite yesterday’s good news, the Trump administration still runs a severe risk of politicizing and damaging the most rigorous nonproliferation agreement ever negotiated without a viable Plan B.
Second, yesterday’s certification of Iran’s JCPOA compliance might not prove the best indicator of where the Trump administration will land in its aforementioned review. In some respects, certification of Iran’s compliance was preordained. The reason has to do with the underlying legislation: Under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, the president is required to provide certification of Iran’s compliance to Congress every 90 days. Failure to do so triggers certain legislative procedures and the potential re-imposition of the sanctions lifted under the nuclear accord.
In other words, if the Trump administration failed to make the required certification, it would have triggered the re-imposition of sanctions on Iran and its review of the JCPOA would have been effectively preempted. While many are understandably interpreting Tuesday night’s move as evidence that the Trump administration will respect the JCPOA, that might be reading too much into it: the State Department was clear that the administration is in the process of reviewing the nuclear accord, including whether it lies within U.S. interests to continue the JCPOA’s lifting of sanctions. Undoubtedly, certification of Iran’s compliance complicates the picture for an administration keen on unsettling the deal – as it will frustrate efforts to build an international consensus in support of the re-imposition of U.S. sanctions – but JCPOA proponents would be wise not to over-interpret Tuesday night’s certification and assume that the Trump administration has come to its sense regarding the merits of the accord.
Third, Trump’s certification of Iran’s JCPOA compliance is not inconsistent with the approach being advocated by Iran hawks to kill the deal. Indeed, if the administration intends on successfully undermining the JCPOA, its most likely approach is to take action that aggravates Iran, nullifies Iran’s economic benefit, and causes Iran’s defection from the nuclear accord. In the weeks and months ahead, the Trump administration will have several opportunities to render the deal defunct.
For instance, Congress is likely to present a new sanctions bill for the president’s signature that will contradict U.S. commitments under the JCPOA – dissolving the modicum of trust that was built between the two countries – and provide the political cover necessary for the White House to aggressively ramp up sanctions against Iran. The Trump administration will regard these sanctions as consistent with the JCPOA, insofar as they will be imposed for reasons separate and apart from Iran’s nuclear program, and will thus seek to nullify the benefit to Iran of its nuclear bargain. In doing so, the Trump administration can kill the nuclear accord without launching a frontal attack on it: Iran’s compliance will be certified and the lifting of sanctions will continue, but the JCPOA will be undone regardless.
To his credit, Trump has now officially acknowledged that the Iran deal is working and Tehran is fully living up to its end of the bargain. Thus, following through on promises to tear up the accord or renegotiate it make no sense from the perspective of American national interests or global security. Looking ahead, the current crisis with North Korea over its nuclear weapons program is a sobering reality that shows Trump what will likely happen if Washington doesn’t uphold its JCPOA commitments. He’s now learning that it’s easy to snipe at the deal from the sidelines, but the burden of governing reveals what some of us have long argued: Diplomacy or war – choose one. Yesterday’s affirmation has not fully quelled concerns that he may still stumble into the latter.