Trump Can Confront Iran without Blowing Up the Nuclear Deal
By Josh Rogin
August 6, 2017
President Trump seems
determined to not certify that Iran is complying with the nuclear
deal when that question comes before him this fall. But that would be only the
beginning of the story. He could follow such a determination with actions that risk
blowing up the deal and the U.S.-Iran relationship. Or he could — as some
of his senior national security advisers prefer — adopt a more careful,
There’s a growing push both inside and outside the
administration to craft a way to acknowledge what many see as Iran’s
violations of the nuclear agreement without precipitating a crisis. Many worry
that provoking the deal’s collapse would not only risk an unpredictable and
dangerous escalation but also hamper the international effort to confront
Iran’s regional expansion, support for terrorism and other mischief.
The question is whether Trump’s national security team
can persuade him to take a middle approach to a nuclear deal he campaigned
against and clearly despises.
news conference last week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson laid out
his view that the Iran deal, formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of
Action (JCPOA), must not dominate the administration’s Iran focus. Tillerson
admitted he disagrees with the president on whether the agreement can be
“The JCPOA represents a small slice of the Iranian
relationship,” he said, adding, “We continue to have conversations about the
utility of that agreement, whether it has utility, whether it doesn’t have
“[President Trump] and I have differences of views on
things like JCPOA and how we should use it,” he said.
Tillerson argued for certifying Iran’s compliance when it
came up in April and July. Both times, Trump yielded
to Tillerson’s view. But in an interview with the Wall Street
Journal last week, Trump suggested he won’t again.
“If it was up to me, I would have had them noncompliant
180 days ago,” Trump
said, adding that next time, “I think they’ll be noncompliant.”
The intelligence community believes that Iran’s
violations are minor and do not amount to a material breach. But the
president’s view is that Iran is in violation of the spirit of the deal, a
senior White House official told me. Under the law
Congress passed, the certification is subjective.
It’s also unclear what follows non-certification. Trump
could continue to waive nuclear sanctions on Iran or stop, effectively
reimposing them. The White House admittedly does not know how the Iranian
government would react to new sanctions, the official said.
Congress could also reimpose sanctions if Trump does not
certify compliance. For many Republicans, having new negotiations with Iran
would be nice but is not necessary. They agree with Trump that the deal is
probably not worth saving.
“I don’t think we get much benefit from the deal, so it
collapsing doesn’t trouble me all that much,” said Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.).
“The president’s instincts on Iran are sound.”
Tillerson and national security adviser H.R. McMaster argue
that if Trump decides not to certify Iranian compliance, rather than scuttle the
deal he can work to improve it and increase pressure on Iran in other ways,
according to sources involved in the discussions.
CIA Director Mike Pompeo agrees with Tillerson and McMaster
that Iran’s regional threats are the near-term priority. Unlike Tillerson,
Pompeo has never supported certifying compliance.
McMaster’s team is leading an interagency policy review
that is sure to call for expanding confrontation with Iran in places such as
Yemen, Syria and Lebanon. The Iran deal, if in place, could be used as a
pressure point while upping the ante on those fronts, experts argue.
Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies
and David Albright of Institute for Science and International Security have
offered a middle approach they describe as “waive
and slap,” recommending that Trump not certify compliance but continue to
waive nuclear sanctions while imposing new sanctions on nonnuclear issues.
Skeptics doubt the Trump team can thread the needle,
considering that once Trump declares noncompliance, there’s no way to predict
what Iran will do. Also, tinkering with the deal or reimposing sanctions could
cause new disputes with European allies and other partners, such as Russia and
“Even if they did a great job, it’s serious risks,”
said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. “And
for what gain?”
If Trump is determined to get the United States out of the
Iran deal, nobody can stop him. But if the majority of his national security
team gets its way, Trump will repeat what
he did with Cuba: make minimal changes to the policy, then declare he has
undone Obama’s “terrible deal” and fulfilled a campaign promise.
And if Trump can’t bring himself to certify Iran’s
compliance anymore, he should at least minimize the chances his decision will
cause a diplomatic crisis and distract the United States from the mission of
combating Iran’s other nefarious activities.