The New York Times cites sources briefed on President Trump’s plans for the Iran nuclear deal who say the president intends to decertify the deal without fully withdrawing from it. This will reignite what the Times calls a “volatile political debate” in Congress and effectively force the legislature to make the next move.
“Mr. Trump’s expected move would allow him to tell supporters that he had disavowed the accord, while bowing to the reality that the United States would isolate itself from its allies if it sabotaged a deal with which Iran is viewed as complying,” writes the Times, judging that Republican representatives have “little appetite” for the debate Trump allegedly plans to drop on them in about two weeks.
One Republican who does seem to have an appetite for debating the nuclear deal is Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR), who is said to be “working closely with the White House to devise its strategy.”
Cotton wants to use the threat of scuttling the deal to drag Iran and the Europeans back to the table to hammer out a better deal. European leaders have been sending signals they will remain with the deal even if the United States pulls out.
The three changes Cotton most urgently recommends are eliminating “sunset clauses” that would automatically erase most of the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program by 2030, beefing up the international inspections regime, and explicitly curtailing Iran’s missile programs.
Refusing to certify the deal is the mildest action President Trump could take. As the NYT explains, he does not have to prepare a legal case for Iranian noncompliance, which would run afoul of International Atomic Energy Agency assurances that Tehran is in technical compliance and has addressed deficiencies brought to its attention. Trump can notify Congress he declines to certify the deal again because he believes it is no longer in America’s national interest, kicking the political football deep into Congress’s end zone. This could also infuriate and mobilize opponents of the deal inside Iran.
Another potential pitfall referenced in the New York Times’ analysis is that some Iranian leaders are unhappy with how various aspects of the deal have worked out. Broadly speaking, they do not think the economic benefits have lived up to projections, in part because the U.S. government has not enthusiastically driven business to post-sanctions Iran. These Iranian critics would probably bring their own complaints to any new negotiations.
CNN scores the Trump plan a political victory for the president at the expense of congressional Republicans: “His expected decision to decertify the agreement would allow him to save face and dent Barack Obama’s legacy. And by handing its fate to lawmakers, he would also limit his political exposure to any decision to kill off a pact backed by US allies.”
Writing at the New York Times, Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute argues that if Trump merely withholds certification of the deal and dumps it on Congress, he would be abandoning his own stated goal of dealing more broadly with Iranian aggression in the Middle East.
“For the president to pass the buck displays neither leadership nor courage,” Pletka charges:
At a minimum, Mr. Trump needs to tell members of Congress what he wants them to do, and then work to ensure the resulting legislation can pass. And whether he decertifies the pact or not, the president must decide by Jan. 12 whether to waive once again the application of one in a broad set of sanctions that existed before the deal was struck and that have been suspended since. It is these waivers, not presidential certifications under the review law, that keep the nuclear deal alive.
Pletka lists Iranian plans in progress everywhere from Yemen and Syria to Iraq and Lebanon, finding Trump strangely reluctant to combat any of them while the nuclear deal is kept hanging by a thread. The great danger lies in the White House taking some minimal action to wave away the political irritation of the nuclear deal without addressing the rest of Iran’s activities, which would be the exact opposite of Trump’s stated goal to develop a broader strategy for Iran that merely begins with removing what Tehran regards as a shield against all serious Western diplomatic and economic pressure.
“If rolling back and diminishing Iranian power is the priority Mr. Trump insists it is, simply dumping the nuclear agreement in Congress’s lap may be the worst possible option. That would be politically easy, but it won’t get the job done,” Pletka warns.
A more optimistic view is that Trump’s threat to scuttle the nuclear deal might already be squeezing a little cooperation from Tehran. Reuters noted on Friday that Iran has “signaled to six world powers that it is open to talks about its ballistic missile arsenal, seeking to reduce tension over the disputed program.”
Although Iran publicly insists it has no intention of slowing ballistic missile research and production, Reuters cites sources in both Western governments and Iran who say quiet overtures have been made to discuss trimming back certain “dimensions” of its missile program – currently among the largest missile programs in the Middle East, and steadily advancing toward nuclear-capable long-range weapons.