OPINION | Trump recertified the Iran nuclear deal — now what?
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President Trump allowed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to announce late Monday that Iran is in compliance with the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal. Trump did not want to certify in April or recertify in July but was persuaded on condition his team come back with a new strategy to confront Tehran.

The first draft did not make the cut, reports The New York Times. The second did, and a notice was sent for Congress to continue withholding nuclear-related sanctions against Iran.

Although it’s a close call, Tillerson’s decision is a mistake. And the Iran policy review should result in stricter enforcement of the Iran deal, renegotiation or additional non-nuclear sanctions imposed on Tehran for its ballistic missile testing as well as its state sponsored international terrorism.

Background

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Under U.S. law, the Department of State must notify Congress every 90 days of Iran’s compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal. Monday, July 17, was the deadline. July 18 is a different target date. It is to provide a report to the Congress on Iran’s overall nuclear behavior and decide whether to waive or reinstitute sanctions lifted under the nuclear deal. The report is due 180 days after Jan. 20, Inauguration Day, i.e., on July 18.

Pros & Cons

Bureaucratic politics play a large role in the pros and cons of whether to comply with these deadlines and whether to remain a party to the nuclear deal as it stands. Reports indicate fierce disagreements among the principals. Ali Vaez, a senior Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group, expressed the theme of this column. He said on July 14, “Trump decided to keep the deal in place based on a pure cost-benefit calculus,” writing in The National, an online journal based in the Persian Gulf. While Vaez leans toward the pro side of the equation, this writer comes down on the side with those against certification.

Pros

Tillerson aligns with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Although the State Department has the legal responsibility for certification, both Tillerson and Mattis have prevailed so far with the reasoning that the nuclear deal should not be tied to punishments for activities outside the purview of the deal and any nuclear-related action should await the overall nuclear policy review.

The State Department is understaffed, and several posts dealing with Middle East issues in general and on Iran in particular are not filled by Trump political appointees. A few key Iran officers have retired and have not been replaced. Former assistant secretary of State for Near East Affairs Anne Patterson retired. Her replacement, Acting Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Stuart Jones, may be departing soon.

Because “personnel is policy,” it really makes a difference whether State has the personnel to sit on the many interagency groups that send up to the principals on the National Security Council their recommendations for policy.

Despite the staffing uncertainty at State, Tillerson’s arguments have had an outsized influence so far on the bureaucratic bargaining among the Trump NSC principals. This effect is due in large part to support from outside stakeholders. They include European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and foreign ministers of the 2015 nuclear deal like Sergei Lavrov of Russia and Germany’s Sigmar Gabriel.

Global institutions like the United Nations and the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, are generally supportive of the Iran deal and its certifications by the Trump administration.

With the exception of The Wall Street Journal, moreover, the mainstream print media’s editorial pages reinforce the views of those in favor of the nuclear deal and certifications. Ditto for most of the think tanks in Washington and scholars in universities.

Cons

Officials at the White House, including those tasked with managing Iran policy within the National Security Council, believe Iran should be punished not only for nuclear violations, but also for its support of international terrorism and its development of ballistic-missile technology.

During the discussion of the April certification by Tillerson, key Republicans on Capitol Hill like Sen. Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonOvernight Defense: Austin and Milley talk budget, Afghanistan, sexual assault and more at wide-ranging Senate hearing Cotton, Pentagon chief tangle over diversity training in military Media continues to lionize Anthony Fauci, despite his damning emails MORE, the Arkansas Republican who led congressional opposition to the Iran deal, said in a statement that the administration’s “certification is shaky, and it doesn’t mean that the intentions behind Iran’s nuclear program are benign.”

Four who weighed in on the side of the White House are Cotton, Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzBiden tries to erase Trump's 'America First' on world stage Cotton, Pentagon chief tangle over diversity training in military GOP senators press Justice Department to compare protest arrests to Capitol riot MORE (R-Texas), David Perdue (R-Ga.), and Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioFive years after the Pulse nightclub massacre the fight for LGBTQ+ rights continues Rubio calls on Biden to 'forcefully' confront Iran over movement of war ships Bipartisan lawmakers want Biden to take tougher action on Nicaragua MORE (R-Fla.). They urged noncertification in an April 19th letter to Tillerson, saying that in addition to “violations” of the deal, “Iran continues to wage a campaign of regional aggression, sponsor international terrorism, develop ballistic missile technology and oppress the Iranian people.”

Capitol Hill hawks on Iran buttress the views of White House NSC officials on the Iran desk, where this writer once worked in the Reagan-Bush era.

An influential outsider is Mark Dubowitz, CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He is known to be against the deal, suggesting its revision and the two certifications had been mistakes. He holds that revisions need to be made in the nuclear accord. The views of Dubowitz are widely quoted in the press, as he advises Trump, and has consulted with the Obama and Bush administrations as well as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle on Iran issues.  

The Way Forward

First, certifications that Iran is in compliance should be taken with due caution, lest they send a message to Tehran that it can exploit holes in the nuclear deal and continue to test ballistic missiles because such testing is outside the accord.

Second, the nuclear deal needs to be strictly enforced on the nuclear side and on the sanctions side of the accord, bills that passed the Senate should also be approved by the House to impose new sanctions on Iran and sent to the president for signature.

Third is the Iran review. It should contain key elements that reflect President Trump’s national security priorities of being tough on Iran. He should say that Iran remains “on notice.”

Such active measures would demonstrate resolve when its leaders seize and hold hostage American citizens, have Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps speedboats approach U.S. naval vessels in the Gulf and engage in suppression against Iranian dissidents at home and abroad.

In this respect, the review should explicitly recognize the National Council of Resistance of Iran as a legitimate opposition organization and instruct State and Defense officials to treat it as such. Doing so would reinforce other active measures against Iran.

Dr. Raymond Tanter (@AmericanCHR) served as a senior member on the National Security Council staff in the Reagan-Bush administration and is now professor emeritus at University of Michigan.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.