US President Donald Trump’s decision not to certify the nuclear agreement with Iran is a failure of leadership, born not of strategic judgement but Trump’s desire to rid himself of responsibility for an agreement whose chief deficiency is that it was negotiated by the Obama administration. Trump, who promised to scrap or renegotiate the Iran deal during the 2016 campaign, was infuriated by Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s advice that the deal be kept intact. Having twice before conceded to his advisors on the matter, Trump decided he could no longer bear the embarrassment of certifying Iranian compliance, especially while his failure to follow through on other campaign promises, like replacing Obamacare, dog him.
There is no disagreement among the parties to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that Iran is compliant with the agreement’s restrictions. Indeed, Mattis affirmed Iran’s compliance at a congressional hearing earlier this month. However, the same legislation that requires the president to report on Iran’s compliance every 90 days permits decertification in the event the president no longer considers the agreement to be in the United States’ national security interest. Trump thus justified his decision on Friday by claiming that Iran is not ‘living up to the spirit of the deal’—whatever that means.
The internal compromise worked out by National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster appears to be that Trump will kick the ball to Congress, which now has 60 days to decide whether to restore nuclear sanctions on Iran. Rather than immediately reinstating sanctions, however, the White House has indicated it would like Congress to legislate automatic triggers for the return of sanctions, including Iran’s deployment of an ICBM, Iran’s refusal to negotiate an extension of the JCPOA, or evidence of Iran’s ability to manufacture a bomb in less than 12 months. Whether or not Congress passes such legislation, Trump can now distance himself from US policy toward Iran.
For supporters of the JCPOA, the good news is that Congress is unlikely to restore sanctions on Iran soon. Republicans would need 51 votes in the Senate, in which they have only 52 senators, and even strident Iran hawks, such as Republican Senator Tom Cotton, have indicated they will not seek to reimpose sanctions immediately. Amending legislation to include automatic triggers would require 60 senate votes and thus the support of some Democrats—a dubious proposition.
For friends of the United States, the bad news is that whether or not the US stays in the JCPOA, Trump’s decertification will damage US standing and interests around the world. The JCPOA has its flaws: restrictions on the number of centrifuges Iran may operate expire after 10 years; the cap on the level of uranium enrichment expire after 15. But there is no chance of negotiating a better deal, especially not one that encompasses Iran’s missile testing.
The JCPOA was the result of steady diplomacy and sanctions cooperation with Europe, China, Russia, and others, who were united in opposition to an Iranian nuclear weapons capability. Some of those, including France, are open to building on the JCPOA to address Iran’s other destabilising behaviour. But Macron told Trump on Friday that Europe would abide by the JCPOA even if the US withdrew. And it was not US sanctions, but those of Iran’s oil and gas customers in Europe and Asia, that were most important to obtaining concessions from Iran. Trump’s decertification will not achieve greater leverage over Iran, but it will fracture the transatlantic unity needed to confront Iran on other issues.
Iranian officials have been ambivalent over whether they will abide by the JCPOA if the US withdraws. The boost to Iran’s economy, though less than was hoped, has been significant. In July this year, Iran signed a US$5 billion agreement with French and Chinese companies to develop the South Pars natural gas field. If, however, Tehran decides their interests would be best served by accelerating their nuclear program, the international community’s will to restrain it will be far less than it was in 2015. Why cooperate with the US when they might tear up any agreement with an ounce of compromise?
In his announcement, Trump decried the JCPOA’s focus on Iran’s nuclear program to the exclusion of other areas of concern, including sponsorship of terrorism and support for the Syrian regime. Of course, one purpose of the JCPOA was to enable the US to tackle Iran’s other behaviour without ‘simultaneously confronting a nuclear regime’. Trump’s own policy toward Iran demonstrates greater myopia. With Trump siding against US ally Qatar in its dispute with Saudi Arabia, Tehran has improved its diplomatic relations with Doha. And this week, the US has stood back as IRGC-backed Iraqi militia forces pushed Kurdish fighters—the most reliable US partners in the region—out of Kirkuk.
Trump has meanwhile made it more difficult to obtain cooperation from Iran in other areas. The domestic political standing of Iranian moderates advocating engagement with the US, such as President Rouhani, will be damaged. Trump’s decision to designate the entire Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a supporter of terrorism will not only have limited practical effect; it will force Rouhani to defend an organisation with millions of members and a prominent role in Iranian society.
Beyond the Middle East, Trump has also damaged any chance of obtaining an agreement with North Korea by demonstrating that the US will not abide by its own agreements and flirting with the language of regime change. Some dealmaker.
Cameron Steer is the United States Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.