President Donald Trump announced on Oct. 13 his decision to decertify the July 2015 multilateral nuclear deal with Iran, which he has termed “an embarrassment.” Trump asserted the deal does not serve U.S. national security interests, and Iran has not abided by the spirit of the agreement.
To be sure, Trump’s arguments are not without merit. The deal has obvious and significant flaws, not the least that it is of limited duration, with Iran free to resume its nuclear and possible nuclear weapons-related activities afterward, that it leaves in place most of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and fails to place any constraints on Iran’s burgeoning cruise and ballistic missile programs.
From this perspective, a decision to decertify would send a strong message to Iran and the international community about the administration’s seriousness. Trump likely will turn to Congress to decide whether to reimpose sanctions on Iran, possibly as a means to press Iran to accept a new set of negotiations designed to “strengthen” the agreement.
There is another perspective that argues in a different direction and for which the administration seems unprepared to contemplate.
Iranian spokesmen, including President Hassan Rouhani, have stated unequivocally the Tehran government will not agree to reopen the deal. At the same time, Rouhani almost certainly will be pressed by Iranian hardliners, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, if not to abandon the deal then to at least prepare for the possible resumption of the nuclear program on the pretext the U.S. will continue to agitate against Iran regardless of whether the deal remains in effect.
Trump also will have major challenges from the U.K., France and Germany, the European parties to the agreement. Each of those nations has its own sizable political challenges, and none has any appetite for reopening what inevitably would be a contentious and protracted negotiation. Across Europe, there is broad consensus the nuclear deal, while flawed, is being implemented by Iran.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog charged with monitoring the agreement, has reached the same conclusion. Whether the Europeans and the IAEA are right or not in at least one respect doesn’t matter. Decertification likely would further isolate the U.S. at a time when American support in many places overseas already is at its nadir.
Even more daunting for the U.S. would be the likely enhanced support for Iran from Russia and China if Trump chooses the inevitable diplomatic confrontation resulting from decertification. Under conditions in which Trump seeks Chinese help in confronting North Korea and in which Russia works closely with Iran, Trump could wind up undermining broader U.S. interests.
This is a Rubik’s Cube of policy challenges and one the Trump administration, lacking foreign policy expertise and with a largely ineffective State Department, seems ill-equipped to manage creatively.
Is there a path forward that preserves the essence of Trump’s concerns but does not trigger a diplomatic crisis long before the deal is set to expire? That’s a high bar that may be impossible to surmount but still is worth considering.
First, in his announcement, Trump argued that while he is decertifying the agreement, he is requesting Congress do what it does best: take no action. This will preserve future options as the Europeans at present have no interest in supporting a new sanctions regime.
At the same time, Trump could announce the U.S. is implementing a “watchful waiting” strategy. As part of that strategy, the U.S. after 18 to 24 months of monitoring would call for a “midterm” international conference to assess Iran’s compliance with the agreement. The other parties to the agreement would be hard-pressed to ignore such a proposal. If Iran refused such a meeting, the president could then request new sanctions. By that time, all parties would have a much fuller idea of Iran’s level of compliance.
International support is essential; for better or worse, the multilateral nature of the agreement means little can be accomplished diplomatically by U.S. unilateral actions.