President Trump’s Decision to Decertify the Iran Deal

In the coming days, President Trump is expected to announce his decision to “decertify” the Iran nuclear deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).  The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action known commonly as the Iran Deal or the Iran Nuclear Deal, is an international agreement on the nuclear program of Iran reached in Vienna on July 14, 2015 between Iran, by the P5+1 China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States; plus Germany — the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. The deal was negotiated over the course of the Obama administration’s two terms as president.

President Trump’s positon as it pertains to this agreement is that he believes the arrangement isn’t in the best interests of the United States. Since the November 2016 election the world has been patiently waiting and many nations bracing for Trump’s decision. The President has repeatedly ridiculed and expressed contempt for the Iran accord even using such words as describing it as stupid, a loser deal, and one of the worst he has ever seen — obviously due to his predecessor who he also has claimed handed him a heck of a mess, particularly with regard to foreign policy and national security.

However, even the United States decertifying the deal won’t kill the accord automatically. It is much more complex and complicated than that. In order to better understand what is at stake, we must look at the both the internal dynamics of the accord, as well as what is at play both domestically and internationally. Again, as previously noted, it must be understood that there are 5 other countries (P-5+1 nations) that are signatory to the agreement, there are verification aspects and processes that come into play that must continue, and there are international business aspects that are also integrated into the process, particularly and critically important to the other nations that do billions of dollars of business with Iran. All of these will continue to remain engaged with Iran and will continue, albeit unfortunately allow the continuation of the agreement to be carried out..

So of course the question that is continuously asked is why does Trump want to decertify the Iran Deal? By all accounts, Iran has complied with the terms of the deal — U.S. officials have said so; and the European allies have agreed. The United Nations watchdog organization tasked with monitoring compliance has visited Iran several times and certified that the country is dismantling its nuclear program, per the terms of the deal. Last week, the U.S. defense secretary and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff expressed qualified support for the deal before Congress. Of course, there is legitimate reason for that – but those remains at the extremely classified level. The President knows that and understands their reasoning and rationale for making those claims before Congress. All things considered, justifiably so. There is strategic context for this that most will not and never understand. To put it plainly; it is strategic brinksmanship, interlaced with clandestine and covert deception, diplomacy and shadowy tradecraft.

Nevertheless, President Trump and many advisers within his administration say Iran is not following the spirit and intent of the accord, which they see and described as what they call ‘de facto noncompliance.’ Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and others have said that Iran has not positively contributed to regional and international peace and security, an “expectation” embedded in the deal’s preamble. They noted that Iran still supports militant groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, and backs militias in Iraq and Syria, in Yemen and recently in the Horn of Africa nation of Djbouti. Similarly, Iran continues to infiltrate destabilizing forces regionally. On an equally significant scale, Iran has also continued to test its medium and long-range ballistic missiles capabilities, something that significantly concerns the U.S., even though such tests do not constitute a violation of the agreement. Likewise, Iran has repeatedly stated that its nuclear program and their ballistic missile program have nothing in common or related.

So what does “decertification” actually mean and entail? The President is required by Congress to certify every 90-days that Iran is honoring and complying with the terms of the deal. President Trump has done so twice; with his next deadline being October 15th. Administration officials say Trump will announce that he has decided to decertify the deal, arguing that it’s not in the U.S.’s national security interest to remain in the agreement. For the U.S., decertifying the deal on its own won’t mean much. If the U.S. doesn’t impose new and stiffer sanctions, it’s not technically in violation of its obligations under the agreement. It is more than likely however that President Trump will hold off on recommending that Congress do so.

Interestingly, the administration could have chosen to kill the deal on its own, without Congress’s help. Every 120-days, the administration issues waivers to keep old sanctions from being re-imposed. Skip that step, and the administration could have restarted sanctions unilaterally come January 2018. The president chose not to do that. To better explain this, consider it a maneuver toward “a middle ground of sorts between Trump, who has long wanted to withdraw from the agreement completely, and many Congressional leaders and senior diplomatic, military and national security advisers, who say the deal is worth preserving with changes if possible.” Those entities of course, particularly the military and intelligence community look at it from the standpoint of maintaining access in Iran for the purpose of continued verification, intelligence collection and maintain that entry and access. They realize that if the U.S. withdraws complete, we lose much of that capability, which makes it harder to ensure we know what’s going on within Iran’s nuclear weapons development program.

So why is the U.S. and President Trump maneuvering this way, the reason to delay in order to ensure we have back-up processes in place to ensure we maintain the critical access, monitoring, and intelligence collection which must continue to ensure Iran complies, as well as to observe other efforts underway by Iran. Staying engaged with the deal the affords the U.S. opportunity to insert critical capabilities into Iran unimpeded for the most part to take advantage of the benefits of granted access, monitoring, and capability to collect intelligence that would otherwise be much more difficult to accomplish and to maintain as a result of pulling out of the agreement. Regardless, we still must be able to monitor Iran’s intent and actions. Staying engaged with the deal allows for that, but also results in albeit tacit and a continued process to determining certification and preventing the eventuality of Iran getting a nuclear weapon without any consequences for Teheran.

Also remember, that if President Trump decertifies the deal, Congress will have 60-days to decide whether to re-impose sanctions on Iran, the ones that were suspended in exchange for that country’s freeze on its nuclear weapons program. For the most part, that seems relatively unlikely, since Congress would need only 51 votes to impose those sanctions. But it doesn’t seem as if Republicans have the support they need to push something through. As of this week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY.) does not want to add another contentious issue to the legislative calendar, especially not with midterm elections right around the corner. Republican Senators Jeff Flake (AZ.), John McCain (AZ) and Susan Collins (ME) have all said they’re not sure how they would vote on sanctions. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY.) and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Edward R. Royce (CA) have indicated they don’t think President Trump should retreat from the deal. And Democrats seem universally opposed to new sanctions and heavily favor the deal and are more favorable to the deal as implemented by the Obama administration.

With the Congressional ramification being as they are, it’s hard to imagine the Republicans mustering the votes they need to impose any serious new sanctions. So, then, what might President Trump try to accomplish? Many proponents of decertification don’t think the U.S. needs to re-impose sanctions. They Contend that the Trump administration can use the process as a way of persuading European allies to join the U.S. in advocating for a stronger Iran deal. In a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations last week, Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) laid out a plan of what that might look like. He has called for a bill that would eliminate “sunset clauses” that lift restrictions on some Iranian nuclear activities after several years. He would also like to see tougher inspections and serious new curbs on Iran’s ballistic and cruise missile programs.

The other contention is with our European allies. It’s impossible to know for sure, but early indications suggest and indicate that if the U.S. backs-out of the deal, it will do so alone. Of course the Trump administration knows that all too well as previously noted.

The other P5+1 parties involved in the deal and the UN watchdog organization tasked with monitoring compliance say things are working. “We will not follow the United States in reneging on our international obligations with this deal,” European Union officials have stated in press conference in their respective countries late last week. Further, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said that, “It is very important to preserve it in its current form, and, of course, the participation of the United States will be a very significant factor in this regard.”

As of this writing, it’s not totally clear how the international community will respond to President Trump’s likely decertification. However, one thing is anticipated and all but certain: If the U.S. backs-out of the Iran Nuclear Deal, while it will isolate us from some of our allies, it will put the onus and pressure on those nations to ensure Tehran’s compliance and accountability.

President Trump and the U.S. must lead the way in creating a new coalition to replace the one which ended up rubber stamping the current flawed agreement. We should call for and work toward imposing new sanctions on Iran in response to its nuclear and ballistic missile program, its sponsorship of terrorism and its belligerent meddling in Iraq and Syria and across the region. In addition, the U.S. should impose unilateral sanctions on Iran “outside the framework of the Security Council Resolution 2231 so that Iran’s defenders cannot water them down.

In order to accomplish and implement such efforts to counter Iran for its ongoing support international terrorism. This can be accomplished by the following including:

  • Ending all landing and docking rights for all Iranian aircraft and ships at key allied ports
  • Ending all visas for Iranians, including so called “scholarly,” student, sports or other exchanges
  • Demanding payment with a set deadline on outstanding U.S. federal-court judgments against Iran for terrorism, including 9/11 support
  • Announcing U.S. support for the democratic Iranian opposition
  • Expediting delivery of bunker-buster bombs
  • Announcing U.S. support for Kurdish national aspirations, including Kurds in Iran, Iraq and Syria
  • Providing assistance to Balochis, Khuzestan Arabs, Kurds, and others as well as to internal resistance movements within labor unions, students and women’s groups
  • Actively organizing opposition to Iranian political objectives in the U.N.

President Trump would be wise to utilize strategic and regional, economic and to ensure all parties to the agreement stop enabling the extremist and dangerous Iranian regime to wreak havoc throughout the world. Accountability, pressure and verification across the board of Iran’s actions and intentions must be the primary focus tied to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

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