The Trump Administration rolled out a new Iran strategy today, aiming to set up new negotiations to strengthen parts of the 2015 deal that put a hold on Iranian nuclear-weapons development. Among its long-expected tenets: declining to certify Tehran’s compliance with the deal, which will undermine it to considerable degree without exactly setting it on fire.
One prominent arms control inspector acknowledges that the deal could be improved, but he joins others who say that leaving it — or even signaling a willingness to do so — may prompt Iran to restart its nuclear-weapons efforts. The question is: by decertifying, the U.S. taking an unnecessary risk?
The Trump administration, and other critics of the deal, have long argued it merely postpones, to 2030, Iran’s production of a nuclear weapon. And they note that the agreement doesn’t address Tehran’s other undesired behaviors, such as supporting Hezbollah and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, developing ballistic missiles, etc.
But in a conference call with reporters on Thursday night, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson acknowledged what Defense Secretary James Mattis and others have stated: that Iran is “technically in compliance” with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, the deal negotiated by France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Russia, China, Iran and the United States. Still, Trump intends to decertify, launching a 60-day congressional review in which lawmakers may reimpose sanctions lifted as part of the two-year-old deal.
Presidents are required to certify or decertify every 90 days under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, or INARA, set up by the GOP-led Congress to allow congressional oversight of the Obama-administration-negotiated JCPOA. By decertifying, Trump is essentially saying that the deal is no longer in the interests of the United States. That throws the entire U.S. involvement in JCPOA into doubt.
“Our posture on compliance is completely different than the previous administration’s,” said Tillerson.
For example, the Trump administration wants Tehran to allow International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA inspectors, immediate access to any site. The deal allows Iran to make inspectors wait 30 days to certain sites, though it has never exercised that option.
Arms Experts Weigh In
Supporters of Trump’s hard line say that creating doubt about the United States’ commitment to the 2015 deal will help its diplomats negotiate tougher conditions on Iran.
“Trump is effectively telling Tehran that he sets the terms for the nuclear deal because he is not tethered to its success the way Obama was,” writes Jonathan Schanzer, vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “The administration will then have a chance to chart its own Iran policy. As the 60-day INARA review period plays out, Trump can regain U.S. leverage, establish new red lines on Iranian behavior, and (unlike his predecessor) actually enforce them. If he does it right, he can do all of this without exiting the deal.”
But several arms control experts said that if Trump does it wrong, the U.S. leaves the deal — and that would be an enormous mistake.
“The United States should certainly stay in the deal. Decertifying or pulling out would be a major mistake that would isolate the United States from its allies and give Iran an excuse to reconstitute a nuclear weapons development program,” said Hans Kristensen, director of the Federation of American Scientists’ Nuclear Information Project. “Iran is in compliance with the deal, and for President Trump to play election campaign games at the expense of national and International security is downright reckless.”
Arms-control watcher and Middlebury College professor Jeffrey Lewis was even more blunt. “Of course we should stay in the deal — unless you like where we are with North Korea,” he said. “There is nothing that could stop Iran from doing everything North Korea has done, and more, if they choose to do so.”
Vali Nasr, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, wrote in The Washington Post that: “This risky gambit will undermine U.S. credibility and the international community’s ability to manage further nuclear developments in Iran, North Korea and other places down the line for years. The blowback to U.S. national interests, however, goes much further.”
David Kay, a former United Nations chief weapons inspector who ran the Iraq Survey Group, took a more nuanced view. After all, throwing the deal into doubt by undermining the core mechanism for U.S. involvement does afford an opportunity to consider what a more ideal deal would look like.
Kay said that there is some room for improvement in what the Obama administration negotiated. If the Trump administration is serious about curbing Iranian development of a nuclear bomb, there are things it could ask for or negotiate for, said Kay. It could start by pushing for inspections that don’t “sunset,” meaning they would go beyond 2030. That would prohibit Iran from rushing to develop a weapon as soon as the deal’s terms expire, said Kay.
Most importantly, the U.S. could ask for more transparency and wider distribution of IAEA reports to the public, Kay said. That could allow the same level of scrutiny into Iran’s activities that was present in the runup to the signing of the agreement in 2015, when it seemed everyone in the world was talking about how the Iranians were doing. Since the deal went into effect 18 months ago, those reports have been harder for the public—and for Congress—to get. “The IAEA’s excuse has been the Iranians will not tolerate it being made public,” Kay said. “There’s no reason for that.”
Still, Kay said, the deal is essential to U.S. national security, and to any hope for international monitoring of Iran’s nuclear weapons development. So if decertification leads to a process where the U.S. exits the deal, it would be a real loss, virtually guaranteeing quick Iranian development of their nuclear capabilities. “If we were to ever withdraw…who is going to be pressing the Iranians? Is it going to be the Germans? I doubt it. The French? I doubt it. The Brits? Well, certainly not the Chinese or the Russians,” said Kay, referring to the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, and the United States’ partners in the JCPOA. “We have a major role in making sure that the agreement is honored and we can’t play that role if we aren’t in it…We lose all leverage.”