De-certifying the Iran nuclear deal: Trump’s credibility at stake

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Ever since Donald Trump’s inauguration, the fate of the Iran nuclear deal has been in limbo. The agreement between Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), set out a gradual rollback of sanctions on the Islamic Republic in exchange for Tehran’s commitment to limit nuclear enrichment and to open up to increased inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

In an October 13, 2017 statement, after months of waiting, Trump ended the suspense over his administration’s approach to the Iran nuclear deal: he wants to kill it. According to the President, it is one of the worst deals in history and he can no longer certify that Iran is in compliance and called for re-imposing sanctions because, “We will not continue down a path whose predictable conclusion is more violence, more terror, and the very real threat of Iran's nuclear breakout.”

The decision is now ultimately up to Congress whether to reinstate sanctions. If that is the case, the United States may be the one to “cheat” on the JCPOA and allow Iran to claim that it is the wronged party, a scenario other parties to the deal and global observers seem inclined to support. But by turning the decision on sanctions over to Congress, Trump is also taking on a political risk himself by further undermining the Republican Party and his own support within it.

Trump’s justifications for de-certifying the agreement include the “radical regime” in Tehran, support for terrorist groups, and regional ambitions. While Trump’s remarks about the JCPOA reflect those of others in the Republican Party and Middle East experts, his motives are also personal. As he has proven elsewhere, Trump’s policies are often motivated not so much by ideology or political objectives but rather by the desire to differentiate himself from Barack Obama. Additionally, Trump’s political persona is tied up in his identity as a dealmaker. Based on this thinking, from Trump’s perspective, he can get a better deal out of Iran than the previous administration.

The potential ramifications of this are both global and domestic. Since it first developed and used nuclear weapons in 1945, the United States has been a global leader in nuclear arms control efforts, to include multilateral agreements such as the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) along with bilateral agreements such as the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) that will reduce American and Russian strategic warheads to 1550. But, in 2002, the United States withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. Withdrawing from the JCPOA would further undermine America’s role as a leader in the global nuclear order and its ability to pursue national interests, such as non-proliferation in the NPT, reining in North Korea’s nuclear program, or concluding additional arms control with Russia. If America backs out of the JCPOA, can it be trusted to abide by future agreements? It would be another step in Trump’s pattern of abdicating “leadership and the moral high ground” in foreign affairs.

In addition to the global ramifications of withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, Trump is also taking a domestic political risk. Congress may not align with Trump’s views and recommendations for the fate of the JCPOA, further undermining his credibility and leadership at home. Trump is already using the agreement as an opportunity to attack his GOP critics: three days before his speech, Trump blamed Republican Senator Bob Corker for concluding the JCPOA during the Obama administration. Actually, Corker voted against the JCPOA but did work with Nancy Pelosi on a bipartisan bill that would give Congress 30 days to review any agreement. Trump’s statement is a compromise with Congress whereby legislators will make the final decision on the agreement. His statement gives them 60 days to re-impose sanctions under expedited procedural rules with a majority vote in both the House and the Senate. So what could happen next?

Domestically, Congress would vote to reinstate sanctions, essentially ending America’s participation in the JCPOA. Alternatively, it could refuse additional sanctions, either by failing to vote or failing to collect the necessary majority of votes. This would be a blow to Trump domestically. Finally, Congress could offer a compromise plan, such as that being developed by Corker and Senator Tom Cotton, which would enhance verification of Iran’s nuclear program among other measures. This, too, could undermine Trump’s credibility in Washington, particularly on foreign policy issues. Globally, if the United States does re-impose sanctions, other parties to the agreement could follow suit or could continue to abide by the agreement. The latter seems the more likely option. While US abdication of its JCPOA commitments would be the most dramatic outcome, Trump’s actions already undermine American leadership and credibility as an arms control partner.

It should be noted that amidst the furor in Washington, the IAEA continues to maintain that Iran is in compliance with the JCPOA. This was confirmed in a statement the same day as Trump’s speech by IAEA Director General Yukiyo Amano who stated that under the JCPOA, “at present, Iran is subject to the world’s most robust nuclear verification regime.”



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