The president wouldn’t be blowing up the nuclear agreement—at least not right away.
Carlos Barria / Reuters
Earlier this month, two U.S. senators gave starkly different speeches one day and one mile apart in Washington, D.C. In an address to the Council on Foreign Relations, the Arkansas Republican Tom Cotton outlined how Donald Trump could begin rectifying the “dumbest and most dangerous” deal in American history, in which Barack Obama had placed the revolutionary zealots in Tehran on a path to a nuclear-weapons capability that would make North Korea’s look tame. In a speech to the Center for American Progress, the Connecticut Democrat Chris Murphy argued that, actually, the deal was the main thing preventing Iran’s sprint for nuclear weapons, and undermining it was what would put Iran back on the path to the bomb. The president’s “most outrageous act” might be coming soon, Murphy said, in the form of a “catastrophic self-imposed wound” that when paired with the North Korean nuclear crisis, could potentially inflict a “mortal” wound on “millions of global citizens.”
The senators were talking about the same topic: the Trump administration’s expected decision this week to not certify the nuclear deal that the Obama administration struck with Iran and other world powers. So how can one move generate such divergent interpretations? What specifically would happen next if the president declines to certify the accord in the coming days? Here’s a primer.
What Certification Means
In 2015, around the time that the Obama administration was finalizing an international agreement to restrict Iran’s advancing nuclear program, Senators Bob Corker and Ben Cardin helped pass bipartisan legislation requiring the president to certify certain things about the deal to Congress every 90 days. The bill was basically a way for skeptical lawmakers to assert some control over an accord that Obama hadn’t negotiated as a treaty, which would have required Senate approval.
Trump, who has denounced the deal and views Iran as one of America’s fiercest enemies, has twice heeded the advice of his foreign-policy advisers and grudgingly certified the agreement. But he’s suggested that he won’t a third time, when an October 15 certification deadline will coincide with the conclusion of the Trump administration’s broader review of its Iran policies.
Reports indicate that if Trump doesn’t certify, it won’t be on the grounds that Iran is violating the terms of the agreement, which deals narrowly with Iran’s nuclear program and not other potentially threatening behavior. Trump’s own government, United Nations inspectors, and the other parties to the deal all agree that the Iranians haven’t substantively breached the accord and that the Iranian nuclear program has been mothballed for the time being.
Instead, Trump may cite a provision of the Corker-Cardin law, officially known as the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA), which asks whether the lifting of sanctions imposed in retaliation for Iran’s nuclear program is in America’s national-security interests. The Trump administration would essentially be saying it’s not—because of flaws in the Iran deal, because Iran has continued testing ballistic missiles that could theoretically carry nuclear weapons, and because Iran has persisted with aggressive policies that the United States abhors, including propping up Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria and supporting groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah that the U.S. considers terrorist organizations.
Declining to certify the stipulations of INARA is a procedural move with no direct or immediate impact on the nuclear deal.
Critically, however, declining to certify the stipulations of INARA is a procedural move under U.S. law with no direct or immediate impact on the international nuclear deal with Iran. It’s not synonymous with ripping up the agreement. It would not make the United States non-compliant with the accord. What it would do is punt the Iran debate to Congress, where the consequences could be much greater.
Scenario #1: Congress Sinks the Iran Deal
If Trump were to not certify, the minority or majority leaders in either house of Congress would have 60 days to introduce legislation to reimpose nuclear-related sanctions on Iran. These could include the kind of severe measures against the country’s banking system and oil exports that helped force the Iranians into nuclear negotiations during the Obama administration. If such a sanctions package were to get through Congress, there’s very little chance Trump, who set the whole process in motion, would veto it.
Reinstating these sanctions would put the United States in breach of the Iran deal and could lead to the unraveling of the agreement in a matter of months. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has said that, in the event Trump doesn’t certify, his government “will wait for Congress to make its decision” and that Iran could choose to remain in the deal even without the United States. This would depend on whether Britain, France, and Germany, who are also signatories to the accord, decide to join in the renewed punishment of Iran or to resist it—and each of these countries has expressed support for keeping the deal. (China and Russia, the other parties to the deal, are much less likely to take America’s side in any dispute over the future of the Iran deal.)
How Europe would respond to the United States reimposing nuclear sanctions is a live question. David O’Sullivan, the European Union’s ambassador to the United States, recently suggested that the EU might try to legally shield European companies doing business with Iran from having to comply with American sanctions, but acknowledged some uncertainty in an interview with my colleague Krishnadev Calamur. “I don’t think anyone, frankly, has thought through what they would do if one of [the Iran nuclear agreement’s] signatories said they consider themselves no longer bound by the deal,” O’Sullivan told him. Joe Kaeser, the CEO of the German conglomerate Siemens, which struck several infrastructure deals with Iran following the lifting of sanctions last year, seemed more resigned when I spoke with him this month. “If the world believes that Iran doesn’t play by the rules and imposes sanctions, then we’ll follow them whether we have an opinion about it or not,” he said.
But many former Obama administration officials, who were involved in the nuclear talks with Iran, believe the Iranians would stop complying with the deal and ramp up their nuclear program if the United States were to reverse course on sanctions relief. Philip Gordon, Obama’s top Middle East adviser, envisions Iran removing caps on stockpiles of enriched uranium that could be turned into weapons-grade nuclear material, reinstalling centrifuges to enrich that uranium, and reconstituting a heavy-water reactor that could produce weapons-grade plutonium. “We would be right back to where we were in the first place when we agreed to this deal, which is to say Iran step by step getting to the point where they’re on the verge of a [nuclear] weapons capability,” Gordon has said. “The choice for the United States becomes clear and binary, which is to say: Accept that they develop a nuclear capability or bomb them to prevent them from having it.”
In his speech last week, Murphy forecast additional fallout from the United States walking away from the Iran deal by reimposing sanctions, arguing that it would further fray U.S.-European relations and dash hopes, however remote at the moment, of a diplomatic resolution to the standoff over North Korea’s rapidly developing nuclear-weapons arsenal. “If the U.S. pulls the plug, despite Iran’s compliance, just because we’re idiots,” it will “shred our credibility and isolate the United States from our partners and allies just at the moment when the North Korean crisis commands us to be rallying the globe to meet this new threat,” he said. “Why would [Kim Jong Un] have any reason to believe that we would uphold our end of the bargain?” The upshot: A devastating war on the Korean peninsula would grow more likely.
Cotton, who has been closely consulting with the Trump administration on its Iran strategy, claimed that Iran’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal could be managed, even if that involved initiating another bout of instability and military conflict in the Middle East. The Trump administration could respond by inflicting an all-out trade and financial embargo on Iran that “will likely create economic chaos and destabilize the regime” within the estimated 12-month timeframe it would need to build nuclear weapons, he argued during his appearance at the Council on Foreign Relations. And if not, the economic pressure would at least “buy time” for the United States to launch “calibrated strikes” against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. “If they choose to rebuild it, we could destroy it again, until they get the picture,” Cotton vowed.
Scenario #2: Congress Seeks to Improve the Iran Deal
Despite the roadmap offered by the INARA legislation, there is good reason to believe that congressional leaders will refrain from immediately reimposing nuclear sanctions if Trump refuses to certify the Iran deal. The president isn’t expected to explicitly call for Congress to reinstate sanctions. Trump, in fact, has the authority to withdraw the United States from the nuclear agreement without any help from Congress. He could have declined to waive nuclear sanctions against Iran, which are technically still in force absent the waivers, when they came up for review in September. But he didn’t. And even if Trump were to urge the Republican-controlled Congress to snap back sanctions against Iran, it’s unclear that he would have the votes, especially in the Senate where Trump’s party has a slim majority. Several GOP senators, including Rand Paul and Susan Collins, have expressed reservations about quitting the nuclear deal. Then there’s Bob Corker, who despite being an architect of INARA is now Trump’s newly minted nemesis.
Instead—as part of a plan reportedly hatched in H.R. McMaster’s National Security Council—Cotton and his allies in Congress could use Trump’s decertification, and its implied threat of reimposed sanctions and U.S. withdrawal, to put Iran on notice and coerce the other parties to the agreement, especially the Europeans, into a new round of negotiations.
Lawmakers who share Cotton’s misgivings about the Obama-era agreement could codify their demands for a stronger deal—making the deal’s current 10- and 15-year restrictions on certain Iranian nuclear activities permanent, establishing restrictions on Iranian missile development, granting inspectors greater access to Iranian nuclear and military sites—into legislation, perhaps a new law or an amended version of INARA. (Reports suggest that the 90-day reporting requirement in INARA could also be modified so that Trump doesn’t have to go through the political ordeal of certifying a deal he hates four times a year.) At the same time, the United States could ratchet up the heat on Iran by slapping it with an array of non-nuclear sanctions—against Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, for instance—that wouldn’t violate the nuclear agreement.
There’s preliminary evidence that this pressure campaign could yield results; the British ambassador to the U.S. recently acknowledged that the Trump administration’s tough stance on Iran has “changed the climate already” in Europe, where officials are now more intensely discussing ways to address deficiencies in the nuclear deal without abandoning it.
Such an approach could involve “weeks or perhaps months of serious, hard negotiations with our European partners, our Arab allies, Israel, [on the] course of diplomacy against Iran,” Cotton predicted. “If it’s obvious by the end of that 60-day period that the course of action I’ve recommended will not work, then perhaps we will have to reimpose sanctions then. But I’m also willing to give the administration and our allies in Europe and the Middle East more time than just 60 days to try to get a better deal.”
The problem with this plan, as the former Obama administration official Colin Kahl has put it, is that a “better deal” may well be a myth. As he notes, referring to the nuclear deal by its formal name, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA:
Although European leaders have suggested that they are open to considering “supplemental” arrangements to address issues not covered by the nuclear accord, they are adamantly opposed to renegotiating the JCPOA itself. China and Russia are even more skeptical of doing so. …
Thus, even if Trump’s gambit to decertify and threaten the JCPOA did some harm to Iran, the international reaction would produce far less net economic and diplomatic pressure on Iran than existed before the JCPOA was finalized. And it is literally insane to believe that it is possible to produce 150 percent of the current deal with 50, 70, or even 99 percent of the leverage the United States possessed in 2015. It simply ignores the laws of diplomatic physics. …
Any realistic prospect of extending the life of the JCPOA’s nuclear constraints … will require a “more for more” approach that puts positive incentives—such as providing Iran with access to the U.S. financial system to conduct dollar transactions or completely lifting the U.S. primary embargo—on the table, not just additional sanctions and threats.
If a better deal does indeed prove elusive—if the Europeans and Russians and Chinese refuse to renegotiate, if the Iranians reject harsher terms without corresponding concessions, if Rex Tillerson’s vacancy-bedeviled State Department can’t pull off this towering diplomatic feat—that could return Trump and his partners in Congress to Scenario #1.
“They decertify so as to destabilize, and then they have the tools to at any moment—in a month, in a year, in two years—say, ‘OK now we’re done [with the nuclear deal]. And by the way we had some help from Congress in authorizing our right to do that,’” Jake Sullivan, a top State Department official in the Obama administration, has argued.
Scenario #3: Congress Does Nothing
Trump’s move to decertify could end up the way his push for health-care reform did—with a whole lot of posturing and debate and false starts in Congress, and little to show for it. It could amount to Trump head-faking to a campaign promise and making a political statement about the folly of his predecessor without actually undoing that predecessor’s policy.
(The gambit could also backfire in the opposite direction—by blowing up the Iran deal even if that’s not what Trump wants. The elaborate Cotton-style decertification plan “suggests an elegance of plotting that the administration has given little evidence of possessing,” Kori Schake writes in The Atlantic. “Congress is unlikely to trust the president enough to make a brave choice—which remaining in the agreement after the president decertifies it would be—they suspect he would then publicly castigate them for.” Once you toss the Iran deal to 292 Republicans, many of whom opposed Obama’s negotiations with Iran and have been burned by Trump in the past, you simply don’t know what will happen.)
But if decertification ends in a whimper, it’s a very risky step to take for that payoff. The decision not to certify will lead to a prolonged period of uncertainty among America’s allies. It could make European banks and companies more reluctant to do business with Iran, which could harm the Iranian economy and increase opposition to the deal among Iranians. It alone could send a signal, as Murphy warned, “that American presidents cannot be trusted to uphold deals done by prior presidents.” All this might not kill off the Iran deal at once. But it could, as Sullivan put it, spark a series of minor tit-for-tat provocations by the Iranians and Americans—an inglorious death of the agreement “by a thousand cuts.”