By Kambiz Foroohar , Nick Wadhams , and Steven T. Dennis
Donald Trump has been complaining about the Iran nuclear deal, struck in 2015 after countless late nights and serial missed deadlines, since before he became the U.S. president in January. As a candidate, he promised to scrap or renegotiate the agreement, in which Iran agreed to curb its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of sanctions related to it. Recently, Trump has suggested that he won’t certify to Congress that the Iran deal is in U.S. national security interests in advance of an Oct. 15 deadline to do so.
- What’s the certification process?
Notably it’s not part of the agreement with Iran, which was negotiated with China, France, Russia, Germany, the U.K. and the U.S. Rather, it’s part of a law passed by the U.S. Congress, the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015, according to which the president must certify to Congress every 90 days that Iran is complying with the terms of the agreement and that waiving nuclear-related sanctions serves U.S. national security interests. Although Trump has taken that step twice since January, he signaled in a July interview with the Wall Street Journal that he wouldn’t do so again.
- Has Iran stuck to the accord?
Assessments by the International Atomic Energy Agency since the deal took effect have found Iran sticking to its obligations. In October 2016, Iran slightly surpassed a limit on its stockpiles of heavy water, which is used in medical imaging and can also fuel reactors that produce plutonium, a weapons material. But it addressed that within weeks by shipping the surplus to Oman.
- So what’s Trump’s argument?
Trump says that Iran hasn’t “lived up to the spirit” of the agreement because it has a ballistic missile program and supports terrorism. Those issues, however, are not part of the nuclear agreement, and Iran remains under separate U.S. sanctions related to them. The deal’s critics say the exclusion of those issues is a shortcoming of the accord, thereby making it contrary to U.S. national security interests.
- What’s the point of decertifying but staying in the deal?
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis recently told congressional committees that it’s in the U.S. interest to stay in the Iran deal but said the certification issue is separate. Declaring Iran in breach of the agreement would allow Trump to distance himself from the accord without immediately scuttling it. The administration would also push European allies to agree to changes such as tightening the agreement’s inspections regime, though it’s not clear any of them will go along.
- What are the risks?
Declaring Iran non-compliant could allow Congress to try and reimpose the nuclear-related sanctions that were lifted so Iran could rebuild its economy. The nuclear agreement states that Iran would regard such an action as “grounds to cease performing its commitments.” Iran has said it would resume enrichment of uranium to 20 percent, banned under the deal because such material can rapidly be further enriched to weapons-grade material, if another party breaches the agreement.
- Would Congress do that?
Republican Senator Tom Cotton, a foreign policy hawk and longtime opponent of the accord who is close to Trump’s national security team, has suggested that instead of re-imposing nuclear sanctions, Congress would work with the president to “lay out how the deal must change and, if it doesn’t, the consequences Iran will face.” However, Republicans have only a narrow majority in the Senate and Democrats will be loathe to help Trump undo what the Obama administration viewed as a significant achievement. In short, it’s not clear that Congress would take any action at all.
- How do other signatories see the agreement?
They remain committed to it. U.K. Foreign Minister Boris Johnson said it’s important to “keep it alive.” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has said that upending the accord would be a blow to efforts to limit nuclear proliferation and “we’re trying to convince President Trump of the pertinence of this view.”
- How has Iran responded so far?
The pressure from the U.S. has put Iran in a bind. It sees U.S. actions, such as a broadening of non-nuclear sanctions in August, as an infringement of the agreement, and hardliners in Iran have pushed for a strong Iranian response. Yet delivering one risks allowing the U.S. to blame Iran for any subsequent collapse of the accord. Iran insists it won’t fall into a “trap” set by the Trump administration by being the first to walk away. So it has sought a balanced reaction. For instance, parliament in August approved the outlines of a bill that would increase funding for the country’s missile program — which Iran considers essential for its defense — and the Revolutionary Guards, the premier security force. Under Trump, the U.S. has expanded sanctions on both.
The Reference Shelf
- A QuickTake explainer of the Iran deal.
- A guide to the Iran nuclear deal by the Belfer Center
- Federation of American Scientists overview of the effectiveness of applying sanctions on Iranian nuclear facilities.
— With assistance by Ladane Nasseri, and Golnar Motevalli