National Security

Trump Threads the Needle on Iran

He's decertifying the deal but not exiting it, and there are good reasons for this nuanced approach.

National Security Desk · Oct. 16, 2017

President Donald Trump announced Friday that he will not certify Iran’s compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal (known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action), something that is required every 90 days under the terms of the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015. Having twice gritted his teeth and certified Iranian compliance while his administration was conducting a thorough review of its Iran policy options, the president appears finally to have had enough of people advising him that the United States is better off sticking with a flawed deal than no deal at all.

His senior advisers are themselves split on the issue. Secretary of Defense James Mattis maintains the deal remains in the best interest of the United States. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also reportedly favors keeping the deal even though he has acknowledged Iran’s material breach of its obligations. Meanwhile, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster has called the JCPOA “fundamentally flawed” but has not gone as far as stating the United States should withdraw from it. UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, on the other hand, made the case for decertification. Yet even she said Sunday, “Right now, we’re in the deal to see how we can make it better. And that’s the goal. It’s not that we’re getting out of the deal. We’re just trying to make the situation better so that the American people feel safer.”

The Leftmedia punditocracy wasted no time shifting into maximum outrage mode, with some even offering their views on what Iran should do to out-fox the president. The New York Times opined that withdrawing “would be the rashest, most foolish act of the Trump administration to date.” Others claimed that there were no benefits to withdrawing from the JCPOA.

The three European nations that have been indispensable in the ongoing 14-year effort to block Iran’s nuclear aspirations — France, the UK and Germany — all registered their displeasure, stating bluntly that they support maintaining the JCPOA. On the other side of the fence, Israel and Saudi Arabia both welcomed President Trump’s decision. Israel has long been wary of Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile advances. Saudi Arabia meanwhile has been in a shooting war with Iranian proxies in Yemen for nearly three years, and understands better than most the malign influence of Iran in the Middle East.

Trump unquestionably has sole authority in providing or withholding his certification to Congress. The Review Act calls upon the president to certify four specific issues: Iran’s full, transparent implementation of the deal’s terms; whether or not Iran has committed a material breach of the deal; that Iran is not acting in ways that would advance its nuclear weapons capability; and whether the suspension of U.S. sanctions called for in the JCPOA remains in the best interest of the United States. The last provision is the one most clearly immune to arguments about technicalities of Iranian compliance or what is known about their nuclear weapons program, and it is also the one that opens the door to considering Iran’s overall behavior since the JCPOA took force.

Refusing to certify Iran’s compliance will not by itself take the United States out of the JCPOA. In a must-read examination of the possible outcomes, The Weekly Standard’s Reuel Marc Gerecht suggests that the best-case option could even be to de-certify the deal while continuing to waive sanctions, and then working to influence our European allies to ramp up economic pressure on Iran in an effort to get Tehran to accept modifications to the deal. He also makes a key point often left out of recent discussions of the Iran deal — namely the absolute need for a credible threat of military force as a last resort. Without that threat hovering in the background, Iran probably would think it could weather economic pain and wear down its western adversaries with endless go-nowhere talks. After all, the mullahs successfully ran out the clock on the Bush administration with that approach, and they know that President Trump, like George W. Bush before him, won’t be in office forever.

We fully support the president’s effort either to rectify the JCPOA’s serious deficiencies or to begin the process of withdrawing from it. But no one should ignore the very difficult, focused effort that must be put forth over the coming months and even years to bring about rectification, and neither the president nor the Republican Congress have distinguished themselves of late in the focus department.

Supporters of the JCPOA — and there are many of them — will deny its flaws and argue that it remains the best way to prevent Iran getting nuclear weapons. Our international relations with friends and allies may suffer in the short term. As we said at the time, Barack Obama inflicted a double injury to the United States with the Iran deal, first with the deal itself and second with the need for some future president to undo it and damage our relations with European allies. But whatever the short-term fallout, the Unites States must begin the work of correcting the worst foreign policy blunder of the Obama administration.

North Korea has demonstrated what a determined adversary can achieve, in both nuclear and missile capability, if given enough time. Fourteen years have now elapsed since Iran’s nuclear program came to light. In less than that amount of time many of the JCPOA’s restrictions will come to an end, and Iran will be free to establish an industrial-scale nuclear fuel cycle. So we urge the president and like-minded members of Congress not to let up in their efforts to deal with this problem. Time is not on our side.

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