Trump and Iran nuclear deal: Smart chess play could motivate the mullahs

It costs the president nothing, does not wreck the agreement, does not reimpose sanctions, and can be reversed if Tehran proves it is complying.

The Iran pact that President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry touted as a major achievement is being dissected by President Trump and proven to be a failure for the U.S. and a victory for Iran and terrorism.

President Trump’s decision not to certify that Iran is complying with the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal simply acknowledges reality. And if this causes the agreement to collapse, it will be a testament to the political weakness of its principal author.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal was erected on a foundation of sand. Former president Barack Obama had a weak hand with Congress and could not muster the domestic political capital to conclude a durable formal treaty with Iran. So, he cut corners. His team cobbled together an arcane system whereby the White House must issue Iran sanctions waivers every 120 days for U.S. to live up to its end of the bargain. The president has an additional requirement under the 2015 Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, to certify every 90 days that Iran is in compliance with the agreement. Obama had objected to this measure but signed it into law rather than face a certain bipartisan veto override

Presumably if Trump wanted to bring the suspended sanctions back into force he could simply refuse to sign a waiver when that issue arises again in early 2018. Iran would view this, correctly, as the United States breaking the deal. However, by not certifying that Iran is in compliance, the Trump administration is suggesting that it is Iran that has abrogated the agreement, or at least cannot demonstrate that it is complying with it.

The international community is in the dark. The JCPOA has insufficient verificationprotocols, a shortcoming which was noted before the deal was signed. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) now admits that it cannot ensure that Tehran is not engaged in “activities which could contribute to the development of anuclear explosive device.” It is barred from inspecting Iran’s military sites, where presumably this type of activity would be taking place, and Russia is resisting broadening the agency’s inspection authority. So, it would be reckless for the White House to routinely certify Iran’s compliance every four months when there is really no way to know for certain.

This is a prudent decision. Failing to certify Iran’s compliance with the agreement does not abrogate the JCPOA, nor does it automatically engage the “snapback” sanctions mechanisms that are part of the agreement itself. But it does give Congress the opportunity to initiate legislation that would reimpose sanctions on an expedited schedule, if it so chooses. And it may motivate Iran to give greater access to international inspectors before Congress takes action, or before the next deadline for Trump to issue sanctions waivers — or not.

Trump also drew attention to Iran’s destabilizing actions taken outside the purview of the JCPOA, such as Tehran’s ballistic missile program. The Islamic Republic has maintained publicly that its missiles are non-negotiable, but its diplomats have reportedly made behind-the-scenes overtures to discuss limits on the program. The White House is also concerned about Iran’s increasing support for terrorism and itsactivities in Syria, particularly as the civil war in that country draws U.S.-backed forces closer to open conflict with Iranian militias. Any of these issues could be the basis for new sanctions imposed wholly outside the nuclear deal’s framework.

Choosing not to certify Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA was a smart chess move. It costs the president nothing, does not wreck the nuclear deal, does not reimpose sanctions, and can even be reversed in the unlikely event Tehran chooses to give the IAEA the access it needs to know what Iran is up to. Trump is simply using the leverage at his disposal to make the mullahs focus more clearly on the parts of the “incompetently drawn” agreement that need improvement

Iran’s leaders can now take the steps necessary to satisfy the United States and international inspectors that they are meeting their obligations under the deal, or they can double-down on their belligerent rhetoric and face the rapid reimposition of some U.S. sanctions. Iran has previously threatened that if the U.S. made such a move it could restart its nuclear program “in a new manner that would shock Washington,” but that would activate the JCPOA’s Article 37 “snap back” mechanism and bring back all international sanctions automatically. Not to mention raise the risk of counter-proliferation military strikes.

Or Iran could prove to the world it has abandoned its nuclear program — that is, if it really has.

James S. Robbins, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and author of This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive, has taught at the National Defense University and the Marine Corps University and served as a special assistant to the secretary of Defense in the George W. Bush administration. Follow him on Twitter: @James_Robbins.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *