Trump’s big new Iran deal policy is both pointless and incredibly dangerous.
President Donald Trump announced on Friday that he is formally “decertifying” the nuclear deal with Iran under US law. Weirdly, this is not the same thing as quitting the deal — in fact, Trump said in his speech that he plans to stay in it (at least for now).
“The Iran deal was one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States ever entered into … but what’s done is done,” Trump said.
The immediate practical effect, instead, is to set up special legislative rules that allow Congress to quickly reimpose sanctions on Iran, ones that would essentially prevent the Democrats from having a meaningful say in the matter. Yet Trump did not ask Congress to sanction Iran, which would absolutely destroy the deal, but plans to leave the threat looming.
It’s not clear under what conditions Trump would want Congress to put sanctions back on, which means it’s not clear as of right now what would cause the US to unilaterally exit the Iran deal. In essence, Trump is putting the nuclear deal on dangerous footing without outright destroying it.
There is no good policy reason to do this, experts say. Accounts from inside the White House suggest that it’s supposed to be a kind of Goldilocks compromise: a move that would prevent Trump from having to regularly certify that the Iran deal is working, which wounds his pride given how publicly he’s criticized it, while simultaneously avoiding the potentially catastrophic consequences of quitting the Iran deal.
The clearest result of this balancing act, the sole benefit of which is to shelter the president’s ego, will be to undermine international trust in America’s commitment to imposing the Iran deal — creating an entirely unnecessary threat to an agreement that, according to international monitors, is successfully blocking Iran from becoming a North Korea–style nuclear threat.
“Decertification corrodes the legitimacy of the deal,” says Suzanne Maloney, deputy director of the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution. “[It] will slowly collapse.”
What Trump’s announcement decision actually does
The nuclear deal between the US and Iran — or, more precisely, the US, Iran, China, France, Russia, the UK, and Germany — is a very long and technically complicated document. But its basic terms can be boiled down to a very simple transaction: Iran agrees to strict limits on its nuclear program, and in exchange, the other five countries relax sanctions imposed on Iran as punishment for its nuclear activities.
Decertification, on its own, does not put the US in violation of this deal, because it doesn’t reimpose sanctions. There’s nothing in the text of the deal itself (called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) that requires the American president to certify that Iran is complying with the deal’s terms.
That requirement is a matter of US law — specifically a law called the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA), put in place in May 2015 to give Congress oversight over an Obama administration agreement of which many members were skeptical. INARA requires the president to publicly certify every 90 days that Iran is in technical compliance with the deal and, more broadly, that “suspension of sanctions [is] appropriate and proportionate to the specific and verifiable measures taken by Iran with respect to terminating its illicit nuclear program” as well as “vital to the national security interests of the United States.”
The next INARA deadline was October 15, this Sunday, which is why Trump made his decertification announcement on Friday afternoon. In his speech, he cited some of this extremely subjective language as his justification for decertifying it.
“[INARA requires me] to certify that the suspension of sanctions under the deal is ‘appropriate and proportionate,’” Trump said. “I am announcing today that we cannot and will not make this certification.”
The immediate consequence of this is not that sanctions snap back into effect. Rather, it’s that the issue gets kicked back to Congress — giving them a 60-day window to reimpose Iran sanctions suspended by the deal using a special, extremely fast process. What Trump has just done is, in effect, begin a ticking clock: For the next two months, the Republican majority in Congress has a unique opportunity to kill the Iran deal if they so choose.
The expedited INARA procedure blocks members of the House from offering points of order to the sanctions bill, which can be used as a parliamentary delaying tactic. It also specifically exempts this bill from having to go to a cloture vote in the Senate, preventing the Democratic minority from filibustering it.
This means a bare majority vote in both Republican-controlled chambers would be enough to reimpose sanctions. This is by far the most significant immediate consequence of decertification: giving Congress the ability to quickly pass legislation that would cause the US to violate its end of the agreement, providing sanctions relief, which would likely cause the Iranians to stop complying with their obligations.
However, decertifying doesn’t force Congress to hold a vote on new sanctions unless they want to. And the Trump administration opposes the reimposition of sanctions, instead is asking Congress to define conditions (i.e., if Iran cheats its obligations on the deal) under which they’d be reimposed.
“I am directing my administration to work closely with Congress and our allies to address the deal’s many flaws,” Trump said, a line notable because he did not call for new sanctions immediately.
This is an extremely precarious situation. Now that the issue is in Congress’s hands, it’s basically out of Trump’s — it’s not like he’s famous for being able to effectively corral congressional Republicans.
Many congressional Republicans, including some fairly influential ones like Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, loathe the deal, as do a cadre of Republicans grassroots activists. Cotton is already pushing a plan to act on Trump’s request to create an automatic trigger for reimposing sanctions, and his bill might very well force the US to violate its end of the agreement (though since the idea isn’t just a simple reimposition of sanctions, it wouldn’t be quality for the INARA fast-track and thus would likely require 60 votes in the Senate).
The point is that even if Trump and the GOP leadership try to stop reimposition of sanctions, it’s possible they’ll face a revolt from congressional backbenchers and the grassroots base. Decertification does not formally end the Iran deal — but it creates serious threats to its continued existence.
“We are on the very slippery slope that leads to JCPOA collapse,” says Richard Nephew, an expert at Columbia University who worked on negotiations with Iran in the Obama White House between 2011 and 2013.
The plan is a compromise between Trump, who hates the Iran deal, and his aides, who think it’s working
There’s something bizarre about this state of affairs. Trump has just said that staying in the Iran deal is not in the US’s interests — that’s what INARA certification is — so you’d think he would be withdrawing. Yet he’s not withdrawing; in fact, he’s going further, asking Congress not to impose sanctions yet even though giving them the ability to do that is ostensibly the entire point of decertification!
To unravel this weirdness, you need to understand two basic things. First, the Iran deal is working — working so well, in fact, that the US can’t withdraw without creating a giant mess. Second, Trump hates the Iran deal anyway, basically for reasons of personal pride. When you put those together, this principally appears to be a way for Trump to save face withouthaving to suffer the consequences.
“I get to say, if I’m Trump, that this deal is not in the US national interests — which is all I want to say,” as Nephew puts it.
The evidence that the Iran deal is working is deep and very clear.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has repeatedly confirmed that Iran has complied with the deal’s restrictions, such as the requirement that Iran dismantle thousands of centrifuges (devices that can be used to create weapons-grade uranium). This has moved Iran further away from being able to build a bomb, thus avoiding the horrible choice of either allowing Iran to become a North Korea–style nuclear power or launching a bloody war to try to stop it.
“[Trump]’s own administration and the IAEA appear to be unanimous in the assessment that Iran has, in fact, complied with the terms of the agreement,” Maloney says.
What’s more, leaving now would be especially disastrous. Iran has gotten billions in sanctions relief already, much of which the US can’t revoke. Since the deal is working on technical grounds, European powers — which do more business with Iran and thus can impose more painful sanctions than the US can — likely wouldn’t reimpose sanctions if the US unilaterally destroyed the agreement. A US exit would barely hurt Iran and would also give it a pretext to kick out IAEA inspectors and start ramping up its nuclear program again. It would be the worst of all possible worlds.
The majority of Trump’s national security Cabinet members recognize this reality. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson all appear to oppose decertifying Iran. When Mattis was asked during an October 3 Senate hearing whether he thinks staying in the deal is in US national security interests, his answer was simple: “Yes, Senator, I do.”
The last time there was a decertification deadline, this July, these advisers argued unanimously and vociferously against decertification. Their principal opponent was the president himself, who was apparently furious at them.
The Weekly Standard’s Stephen Hayes and Michael Warren report that Trump was “angry” and “irritated” about being pushed to certify by Mattis and Tillerson. Politico’s Eliana Johnson reports that Trump “unleashed a tirade” at his aides during that meeting, and was only convinced to certify Iranian compliance after an hours-long argument that one aide described as “knock-down, drag-out fight.”
Trump doesn’t hate the Iran deal for policy reasons. He’s never offered a detailed public policy case against it, and experts don’t really believe he has one. “I don’t think anyone actually thinks he knows anything about the particularities of this agreement,” says Sarah Kreps, a professor at Cornell University who studies arms control agreements.
Yet Trump has spent years bashing the deal as a disaster, labeling it (among other things) an “embarrassment” and a “catastrophe.” In 2015, he gave the lead speech at an anti-deal rally in Washington, in which he said, “I’ve never seen something so incompetently negotiated.” Being forced to repeatedly certify that his past rhetoric was misleading — that the Iran deal is, in fact, working as intended — is a kind of personal humiliation.
“He seems to genuinely believe that you can get some kind of better arrangement with the Iranians despite the fact that I suspect he doesn’t actually know what’s in the deal,” Maloney says. “Fundamentally, his determination to go after the deal is as much personal as anything else.”
Decertify-and-stay-in-the-deal was explicitly designed by White House aides as a compromise between these two position: a way to spare Trump the humiliation of having to certify that he’s been wrong about the Iran deal while simultaneously avoiding the disaster of leaving it.
“White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster and other senior advisers came up with a plan — one aimed at accommodating Trump’s loathing of the Iran deal as ‘an embarrassment’ without killing it outright,” the Washington Post’s Anne Gearan reports.
In short? This is a deeply dangerous balancing act between Trump’s hurt feelings and the reality of looming disaster if the Iran deal is canceled. It will depend on walking a tightrope with both Republicans in Congress and the leaders of Iran to avoid disaster.
Can the deal survive this in the long run?
Experts are divided on whether the deal can survive today’s announcement. Both Maloney and Nephew are deeply skeptical that the agreement can survive decertification in the long run, even if Congress or the president chooses not to immediately reimpose sanctions.
“If the United States says we’re not willing, even for domestic political purposes, to acknowledge that this deal is still functional, it incites a process that will cause the deal to collapse over time,” Maloney warns.
Some of the other experts I spoke to, like Cornell’s Kreps, were more sanguine.
“If Congress can’t do anything then essentially this agreement perpetuates,” Kreps says. “The status quo, then, continues — and that’s the scenario through which we should not be terribly alarmed.”
What’s certain is that decertification creates a crisis in US-Iranian relations. It’s the first concrete step the Trump administration has taken toward attempting to renegotiate or cancel the nuclear agreement.
The fate of the deal and, perhaps, Middle East stability more broadly will depend on how diplomats and political leaders in the two countries handle the fallout from decertification. Yet US-Iranian relations are rocky at the best of times, given that the two countries have been at odds on issues across the Middle East for decades.
Managing US-Iranian relations going forward is “not going to be easy, and it’s going to require a pretty deft diplomatic hand,” says Michael Singh, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Yet the Trump administration is in a uniquely bad position to pull off this kind of diplomatic feat.
The administration’s attention is split by a pressing, extremely scary confrontation with North Korea. Vitally important diplomatic posts, like the assistant secretary of state supervising the Middle East, are currently unfilled. And the president and the secretary of state are at war with each other, with Trump publicly challenging Tillerson to an IQ testafter reports filtered out that Tillerson had once called the president a “moron.”
Decertification creates yet another foreign policy mess at a time when the Trump administration is preoccupied and ill-prepared to deal with one. And the stakes — preventing the rise of a hostile nuclear power in one of the world’s most unstable regions — are very high.