Caught between the simplicity of a campaign promise and the nuance of governing reality, President Trump sought out a third path Friday as he opted not to re-certify the government of Iran’s compliance with the 2015 nuclear accord.
Faced with the choice of unilaterally reimposing sanctions on Iran and risk restarting its unclear program or of allowing a deal he’s long derided as too weak to remain in place, Trump’s non-action kicks the can to Congress to decide the agreement’s fate. It comes as the Trump Administration is looking to take a tougher line against Iran’s fomenting of instability in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere, but could jeopardize a program U.S. officials believe to be contributing to American national security.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the Obama-era deal is known, rolled-back sanctions against the regime in exchange for Iran taking steps to unwind parts of its nuclear program. Trump Administration officials acknowledge that Iran is complying with the agreement, but Trump argued Friday that “Iran is not living up to the spirit of the deal.”
Speaking from the Diplomatic Reception Room, Trump recited a list of Iranian-backed efforts that have resulted in the deaths of American citizens, service-members, and countless others. Iran’s backing of the Assad regime or the terrorist group Hezbollah were not addressed by the nuclear deal, and Republicans have long argued that the diminished sanctions have allowed it to engage in those activities with renewed vigor.
The White House also called on Congress to work to end the so-called "sunset provisions" of the agreement, under which Iran is allowed to resume some nuclear-related work after designated waiting periods.
Trump’s decision stops short of tearing up the accord, and lawmakers on Capitol Hill are not expected to reimpose sanctions. But the uncertainty introduced to a barely two-year-old agreement under which Iran is in “technical compliance” could have far-reaching implications for U.S. foreign policy both with respect to Iran and as it seeks a diplomatic resolution to North Korea’s nuclear program.
“I think U.S. influence abroad will take a hit,” Richard Nephew, senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, told TIME. “The United States is already in a compromised position considering our leadership's reputation internationally. This will feed into those negative dynamics, showing us as a deal-breaker and a bully without much of a plan for what comes after. I think that we'll have a hard (if not impossible) time recreating sanctions against Iran, and I think we'll find it harder to negotiate deals with others.”
The Trump Administration defends its approach as working within the construct established by Congress under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act. The White House expressed support for legislation amending that bill that would effectively end the sunset provisions under the JCPOA. Sens. Tom Cotton and Bob Corker are drafting legislation that would automatically reinstate sanctions on Iran if it is assessed to come within a year of nuclear capability. Critics contend it would amount to a unilateral rewrite of the accord that could provoke non-compliance by Iran.
“The amendment to INARA is something that doesn't require us to negotiate anything with anyone else,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters Friday. “This is purely an internal domestic decision for the Congress, with the President, to make.”
But the governments of the United Kingdom, France and Germany, which negotiated the JCPOA along with the U.S. expressed in a joint statement Friday they were “concerned by the possible implications” of Trump’s announcement. “We stand committed to the JCPoA and its full implementation by all sides,” they said. “Preserving the JCPoA is in our shared national security interest.” U.S. allies have lobbied the administration for months not to pull out of the JCPOA, arguing that the U.S. and its allies should address Iran’s missile program and financing of terror separately from the nuclear issue.
But at the White House, Trump seemed to dismiss their concerns, threatening that he would withdraw from the agreement entirely if Congress and American allies don’t act. “In the event we are not able to reach a solution working with Congress and our allies, then the agreement will be terminated,” he said.
In conjunction with Trump’s announcement, the Treasury Department announced additional terrorism-related sanctions against the Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, its primary vehicle for undermining regional security.
The Iran debate comes as the Trump Administration is searching for a diplomatic off-ramp to North Korea’s far more advanced nuclear missile program, which is now assessed to be able to hit the U.S. with a functional warhead.
Ambassador Joseph DeTrani, former longtime intelligence official and special envoy for Six Party Talks with North Korea, warned last week that moves to undermine the agreement would damage U.S. credibility with the rogue regime.
“If we just pull out of the agreement, I think North Korea would sit back and say, look, even having assurances from the U.S., it doesn’t really mean that much,” he said at a security conference at George Washington University. “But if we complemented the agreement and if we, as we did with North Korea and we talk about missiles and things like that, I think the North Koreans could understand that, enhancing the agreement rather than cutting it.”