Washington, D.C. – With Trump set to decide whether to recertify the Iran Deal on October 15, NIAC hosted a briefing for Congressional staff to discuss the potential consequences failing to certify would present. The panel, which was moderated by Jessica Schulberg of Huffington Post, featured Kelsey Davenport, Director for Nonproliferation Policy at the Arms Control Association; Paul Pillar, a nonresident senior fellow at Georgetown University and the Brookings Institute who served in the CIA; and Reza Marashi, Research Director at NIAC.
“I don’t think anyone can say with a straight face at this point that anybody outside of the United States believes that the problem is in Tehran,” Marashi said in regard to Trump’s threats to kill the agreement.
As indicated by Davenport, Trump could fail to certify without claiming Iranian noncompliance but instead based on him asserting that the continued suspension of sanctions is no longer vital to the national security interests of the United States. This would trigger an expedited process in Congress to reimpose nuclear-related sanctions even with Iran fully complying with all of its nuclear obligations under the deal. Davenport argued that this “creates uncertainty about Washington’s ability to enter into a good agreement that all sides are respecting,” and could dissuade other countries, particularly North Korea, from entering into future nonproliferation treaties.
Furthermore, under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA), Trump does not have to offer any rationale for choosing to decertify. However, as noted by Schulberg, top Senate Democrats sent a letter to various heads of government agencies noting that there is no known evidence to justify withholding certification and requesting any additional information ahead of Trump’s decision.
“Trump was furious when he had to certify compliance during past deadlines and he’s put pressure on the intelligence community, on the CIA to come up with some type of rationale to justify taking a different course,” said Schulberg, asking Pillar what message this sends to the intelligence community. Pillar drew parallels to the lead-up to the Iraq War in which “the whole process in which intelligence is supposed to be used as an input to policy decisions was turned upside down.” He detailed a process in which the conclusion is reached first and then pieces of information are “cherry-picked” to support it. Pillar said, he expected some cherry picking but never a straightforward request to the intelligence community from the Trump administration about Iran’s overall compliance with the deal because such evidence would be lacking.
Pillar went on to debunk the criticisms of the JCPOA’s sunset provisions, one of the main justifications the Trump administration has leveled the deal. “So we sit down with the Iranians and say, if you don’t extend those agreements, those deadlines, we’re going to declare the agreement killed and the deadlines will go away right now,” said Pillar, highlighting the lack of leverage for such a demand. The expectation that this deal was meant to exist in perpetuity is an unrealistic ideal from opponents wherein “the United States would get everything that it possibly could have dreamed of getting from the Iranians without giving up anything of its own.”
The Trump administration’s lone efforts to characterize Iran as non-compliant, or at least violating the “spirit” of the deal, have been rebutted by both the Iranian government as well as other parties to the JCPOA. Marashi characterized the Trump administration’s approach and Nikki Haley’s recent UN speech as “gift” to the Iranian government, in that “the Iranian people consider these kinds of speeches more specifically, and this approach more generally, a complete and utter slap in the face.” Iran, whose greatest security concern Marashi points out is the gap between the state and its people, can remain unified on pushing back against what they perceive as unjustified U.S. aggression. Other members of the deal reinforce this perspective, with representatives from Europe, Russia, and China all maintaining that the nuclear deal is good, and that the Iranians remain in compliance.
In the face of this international unity and U.S. isolation, the panelists agreed that Trump administration’s suggestions to renegotiate the deal remain far-fetched. Marashi pointed out that renegotiations require diplomacy, and if the U.S. considers decertifying even though Iran has remained compliant, the Iranian government would see little incentive to engage in further discussion. The Trump administration’s aggressive approach has shifted the onus of the deal onto the U.S., Marashi says, placing the blame of its potential failure onto the Trump administration’s shoulders.
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