Donald Trump mulls a ploy to get out of the Iran nuclear deal
His distaste for Barack Obama’s accord could make the world a more dangerous place
WHEN he was running for the presidency, Donald Trump described the agreement that constrained Iran’s nuclear ambitions in return for the relief of sanctions as “the worst deal ever negotiated”. He has yet to find a way out of it. But he gets a chance to do so every 90 days—and the next opportunity is coming up.
The Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA) of 2015 obliges the administration to certify to Congress every three months that Iran is verifiably and fully implementing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the Iran deal is formally known; that it has not broken agreed limits on its stockpiles of various nuclear materials; that it has not taken any action that could advance a nuclear-weapons programme; and that continued suspension of nuclear-related sanctions is vital to America’s national security. If the president does not confirm all this the issue is thrown back to Congress, which after 60 days can vote to reimpose sanctions.
Mr. Trump first certified that Iran was meeting its obligations in April. When he did so a second time, in July, he reportedly lambasted his national-security team, and in particular his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, for failing to provide him with a case proving Iran’s bad faith. When the next review comes up in October Mr. Trump will be furnished with such arguments, however specious. The administration will have difficulty withholding certification on the first three grounds. Though Nikki Haley, America’s ambassador to the UN (pictured, right), has said that Iran is guilty of “multiple violations” of the JCPOA, her assertion does not bear scrutiny. The International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN’s nuclear watchdog, which is responsible for monitoring Iran’s compliance and inspecting its nuclear facilities, said earlier this month that everything was in order and that its inspectors were able to go where they wanted “without making distinctions between military and civilian locations”.
The reference to the sites was in response to complaints by Ms. Haley and others in the administration that Iran is not allowing routine access to some military bases. This is true: but the JCPOA does not require it to. Some sites may be visited only after an (admittedly cumbersome) procedure involving submitting evidence of banned activities to a joint commission of the JCPOA signatories (America, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and Iran). If the Iranians have no satisfactory explanation and continue to deny access to the site in question, the UN Security Council would then be asked to vote on restoring international nuclear-related sanctions.
There is thus no evidence that Iran is doing anything which would merit decertification. But the fourth condition INARA imposes—taking a view of what is or is not in America’s national-security interest—is essentially subjective. Mr. Tillerson, James Mattis, the defence secretary and the national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, all believe that sticking with the JCPOA is in the national interest. But other figures may think otherwise. The CIA director, Mike Pompeo, when a congressman, was a fierce critic of the deal. In taking a hawkish line, Ms. Haley may be positioning herself to replace the lacklustre Mr. Tillerson.
In a speech to a conservative think-tank on September 5th, Ms. Haley indicated that Congress should be allowed to debate the issue. “If the president finds that he cannot in good faith certify Iranian compliance, he would initiate a process whereby we move beyond the narrow technicalities and look at the big picture.” That picture sees Iran, through its “destabilising” behaviour in the region (see article), its support for terrorism and its ballistic-missile tests, as flouting the “spirit” of the JCPOA.
This is to misunderstand the JCPOA. It is true that Barack Obama expressed a hope that relations with Iran might improve over time as relief from sanctions allowed Iran to open up its economy. But the deal itself was never presented as anything other than a highly technical arms-control agreement. It was designed specifically to make it impossible for Iran to produce a nuclear weapon for at least 15 years and, thereafter, to make it prohibitively difficult for it to do so without being exposed.
The JCPOA’s critics say they want a “better deal” in which the entire nuclear infrastructure is dismantled and Iran stops throwing its weight around in the region. But they have no plausible account of how such a thing might be brought about. If Mr. Trump blows up the JCPOA, Iran, free of constraints, could crank up its enrichment programme and take a chance on developing nuclear weapons. Iran’s leaders might reasonably calculate that the prospects of Mr. Trump rebuilding the international coalition on sanctions painstakingly put together by Mr Obama would be slim.
America could wage a preventive war to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear-armed state. But most military experts agree that air strikes to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities would only slow its path to a bomb by a year or two, and would strengthen the regime in the long-term. Only a war to bring about regime change would suffice. The example of Iraq, a much weaker country, is not encouraging.
It is more likely that the JCPOA, which is strongly supported by the other signatories, will limp on, weakened but not killed by Mr. Trump’s decertification. The last time the Senate voted on the JCPOA in 2015 its critics had a 58-42 majority; a Democratic filibuster saved Mr. Obama from exercising his veto. But Robert Einhorn, a former State Department adviser on arms control now at the Brookings Institution, questions whether there would now be a Senate majority for reimposing nuclear-related sanctions if the administration’s arguments are as feeble as they seem to be.
Regardless, decertification on its own would do damage to America’s already shaky relationship with its European allies. It would delight Iran’s hardliners who need America as a bogeyman. Iran’s non-nuclear adventurism would continue unchanged. And Iran would from then on be able credibly to blame America if it were at some point to call time on the JCPOA.
Decertifying could have an outcome typical of Mr. Trump’s presidency. Mr. Trump would feel good about honouring a pledge; an achievement of Mr. Obama’s would be threatened; and America’s reputation overseas would be further diminished. The JCPOA itself might survive. On the other hand, Mr. Trump’s assault on it could be the first step towards Iran becoming a problem like North Korea. He might reflect that one of those is quite enough.