With Donald Trump threatening to invade Venezuela and start a nuclear war with North Korea, his stated intention to refuse certifying Iranian compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – the nuclear deal between America, Iran, Europe, Russia, and China – has fallen from the headlines. However, the gravity of how he appears to be moving toward that end could spark a policy crisis. To hear his allies outside of government tell it, Trump’s plan to kill the Iran deal is the same one he uses to produce Trump suits and neckties: Outsourcing. Two key points highlight this scheme.
First, Trump’s failure to certify Iran’s compliance would give the Republican-led Congress ultimate decision-making powers over whether to stick to the nuclear deal. The reason for this is evident in the underlying statute – the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA). Under INARA, the President is required to provide a “compliance certification” to Congress every 90 days, which verifies Iranian adherence with its JCPOA commitments.
Trump has reluctantly agreed to certify Iran’s compliance twice now, but has promised to refrain from doing so in future. His failure to re-certify, however, would trigger a legislative process under which Republican leaders in Congress can re-impose any or all U.S. statutory sanctions lifted pursuant to the JCPOA. Moreover, such a move would almost certainly be insulated from any opposition, as the legislation would be entitled to expedited consideration – and thus likely preempt any organized pushback from legislators, the policymaking community, and the general public.
Effectively, this means that even if Trump wanted to de-certify Iran’s compliance but nonetheless refrain from re-imposing the sanctions lifted under the agreement – the so-called “middle ground” approach – he would not have control over that decision. In other words, Trump would be totally reliant on Congressional restraint to implement his “middle ground” approach – not the best of bets when it comes to a Congress that has a long-standing track record of passing Iran sanctions legislation with vote totals ranging from 100-0 to 98-2.
No responsible White House would outsource its power over a decision as momentous as whether to kill a nuclear deal supported by the most powerful nations in the world – unless it viewed the so-called “middle ground” approach as a Trojan Horse for withdrawing from the JCPOA entirely and re-imposing on Iran all of the sanctions lifted under the agreement. This highlights the second key point: Public revelations regarding internal White House deliberations provide further evidence of Trump’s intent to sow doubt regarding America’s future compliance with its JCPOA obligations – and thus undermine the benefit to Iran of sanctions lifting.
Deal opponents have long undertaken efforts to limit Iran’s economic benefit from the JCPOA, viewing such endeavors as a precondition to any eventual U.S. withdrawal from it. Those efforts appear to have now gone from the fringe to center-stage, as Trump himself was reported to have urged G-20 nations to end commercial ties with Tehran. This is part and parcel of his team’s “middle ground” approach to the nuclear deal – intended to foment uncertainty regarding America’s commitment to the JCPOA, thereby increasing hesitation amongst Iran’s presumed trading partners and pushing Iran to respond in kind.
Less discussed, however, is how these efforts run counter to America’s express obligations under the JCPOA. For instance, Paragraph 26 of the JCPOA commits the U.S. to “make best efforts in good faith…to prevent interference with the realization of the full benefit by Iran of the sanctions lifting.” Paragraph 27 commits America “to support the successful implementation of this JCPOA including in their public statements.” And Paragraph 29 commits Washington to “refrain from any policy specifically intended to directly and adversely affect the normalization of trade and economic relations with Iran inconsistent with their commitments not to undermine the successful implementation of th[e] JCPOA.”
It stretches the limits of plausibility to read these sections of the deal and argue anything other than Trump is placing the U.S. in violation of the JCPOA in order to poke and prod Iran to take responsive action. Those who believe Washington should remain faithful to its international commitments should not only be warning off the Trump administration from withdrawing from the JCPOA, but also be urging the White House to act consistent with U.S. obligations under that agreement. Failure to do so could lead to a dramatic escalation in tensions between the U.S. and Iran, particularly if Tehran feels that it must respond with counter-measures to Washington’s failure to live up to the deal.
It’s no coincidence that those advocating the so-called “middle ground” approach is the same cast of characters that has been pushing for war with Iran. They know they cannot trick or strong-arm the rest of the world into erroneously deeming Iran non-compliant with its JCPOA commitments. Instead, by outsourcing the decision, they seek to kill the deal and obfuscate the blame. Washington is filled with smart people who have no excuse to fall for this ruse. Those same people now have an opportunity to prevent the same kind of willful ignorance that led to the Iraq war.