5 things to know about Trump and the Iran deal

5 things to know about Trump and the Iran deal
© Getty

President Trump appears poised next week to announce that the landmark Iran nuclear agreement is no longer in the national interest of the United States.

The so-called “decertification” would not be the fatal blow to the Iran deal that Trump promised on the campaign trail, but it would kick the issue back to Congress, which could potentially pull out of the deal entirely. 

Supporters of the move say it could provide leverage to renegotiate the deal or have follow-on deals, and signal to Iran that the United States will not put up with other activities the United States sees as destabilizing but are not governed by the deal.

“Iran has a very high threshold for risk and pain,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior Iran analyst at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. “There’s no reason we shouldn’t exact those risks and exact that pain."


But supporters of the Iran deal say that decertification would lead to uncertainty that could ultimately unravel the accord.

“He will trigger a process that very likely will lead to the collapse of deal,” said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council. “In the last 37 years, the U.S. has only one example in which it has managed to significantly change an Iranian policy … Trump is now backing off the track that has been working and is opting to go down the path that has not worked.” 

Here’s what you need to know ahead of next week’s announcement. 

What is the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action?

Officially called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear deal is a landmark accord between Iran, the United States, China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the European Union.

The deal was reached by the Obama administration in July 2015 after 20 months of negotiations, adopted in October 2015 and implemented in January 2016.

The agreement gave Iran billions in sanctions relief in exchange for Tehran placing limits on its nuclear program. Those limits include cutting its stockpiles of low-enriched uranium and heavy water, capping the level of uranium enrichment to 3.67 percent and limiting uranium-enrichment activities to a single facility using first-generation centrifuges.

Several provisions of the deal eventually expire, including the restriction on the level of enrichment in 2030, the caps on stockpiles of low-enriched uranium 2028 and the limit to a single facility in 2025.

Supporters of the deal say it increases Iran’s so-called “breakout” time — the amount of time it would take Iran to develop enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon — and has successfully limited Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon without requiring the United States to fire a single shot. 

But opponents of the deal say it has several shortcomings. In particular, they fault the deal’s sunset provisions, as well as the fact that it does not address Iran’s other malign activities including its ballistic missile program and its support for terrorist groups and proxies throughout the region. 

What is the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act?

The nuclear deal is not officially a treaty, meaning the Senate normally would not have been able to vote on it.

But to ensure Congress still had a voice in the matter, lawmakers passed the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA) in May 2015. The bill passed overwhelmingly — 98 to 1 in the Senate, and 400 to 25 in the House.

INARA is what allowed Congress to vote on the accord in September 2015, which ended with Senate Democrats blocking a resolution of disapproval and allowing the deal to survive.

The other main provision in the bill is one that requires the president to certify to Congress every 90 days that Iran remains in compliance with the deal and that sanctions relief remains in the national security interest of the United States.

If the president fails to certify, that sets off a 60-day clock on a fast-track procedure for Congress to vote to re-impose sanctions. In that 60 days, re-imposing sanctions would only need a simple majority, meaning Democrats could not filibuster.

During the Obama administration certifications came and went with little to no fanfare. But in the Trump administration, the deadlines have become a lightning rod for questions about Trump’s stance on a deal he once called “the worst deal ever negotiated," as well as on his larger Iran strategy.

The next certification deadline is Oct. 15.

What will Trump do?

Trump has begrudgingly certified the deal twice before, as he and his national security team worked to develop a broader Iran strategy.

But this time around, all signs point to Trump decertifying the deal.

Just last month, Trump called the deal an “embarrassment to the United States,” adding that, “I don’t think you have heard the last of it.”

On Thursday night, he promised that an announcement on Iran would come “very shortly.” 

Several reports late this week said Trump would announce that the deal is no longer in the national interest, part of a broader speech on his Iran policy. But he’ll stop short of pushing Congress to re-impose sanctions, which would likely cause the deal to unravel. 

Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisOvernight Defense: Pentagon chief under investigation over Boeing ties | Trump uses visual aids to tout progress against ISIS | Pentagon, Amnesty International spar over civilian drone deaths Pentagon watchdog probing whether acting chief boosted Boeing Overnight Defense: Judge says Trump can't implement transgender policy | Trump floats admitting Brazil to NATO | Mattis returning to Stanford MORE, Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonPompeo jokes he'll be secretary of State until Trump 'tweets me out of office' Heather Nauert withdraws her name from consideration for UN ambassador job Trump administration’s top European diplomat to resign in February MORE and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford have all said Iran remains in compliance with the deal and that sticking with the agreement is in U.S. national security interests.

Decertifying the deal while not pushing for the re-imposition of sanctions could be a face-saving measure for Trump that keeps the deal in place.

Mattis hinted at the decoupled approach at a congressional hearing this week.

“We have two different issues,” Mattis told the House Armed Services Committee. “One is the JCPOA and one is what Congress has passed, and those two are distinct but integral with each other. As you look at what the Congress has laid out at a somewhat different definition of what's in our best interest, and therein lies, I think, the need for us to look at these distinct but integral issues the way the president has directed.”

What will Congress do?

Even if the administration doesn’t push Congress to snap back sanctions, decertifying the deal will set off the clock to do so. Lawmakers will likely face pressure from Iran hawks to act.

In a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations this week, Sen. Tom CottonThomas (Tom) Bryant CottonSenate rejects border declaration in major rebuke of Trump Hillicon Valley: Doctors press tech to crack down on anti-vax content | Facebook, Instagram suffer widespread outages | Spotify hits Apple with antitrust complaint | FCC rejects calls to delay 5G auction Senate votes to confirm Neomi Rao to appeals court MORE (R-Ark.), one of Congress’ staunchest Iran hawks, argued for decertifying the deal in order to have the threat of sanctions hang over Iran to push it to renegotiate the deal.

“The world needs to know we’re serious, we’re willing to walk away, and we’re willing to reimpose sanctions, and a lot more than that,” he said. “And they’ll know that when the president declines to certify the deal, and not before.”

Still, he added later that he wasn’t necessarily saying sanctions should be re-imposed immediately during the 60-day period, saying that’s not enough to conduct “coercive diplomacy.”

Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerTrump keeps tight grip on GOP Brexit and exit: A transatlantic comparison Sasse’s jabs at Trump spark talk of primary challenger MORE (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relation Committee, was tight-lipped this week about what he thinks will happen, saying Thursday that he’s “way, way, way too close” to the administration’s Iran decision to comment.

On Wednesday, though, he suggested that the Senate might soon be busy with Iran.

“I think that we may well have some legislative opportunities coming up soon relative to Iran,” he told reporters, adding that he “cannot get into details” when asked if he meant sanctions legislation.

Democrats are already railing against Trump’s expected decertification.

“Democrats believe the president should make the certification, full stop,” a senior Senate Democratic aide told reporters on background. “And we are not participating in preemptive negotiations, with no text, based on the assumption that the president is not going to make the certification. The maximum point of leverage to address Iran’s nefarious activities is now, before his expected terrible decision.”

Sen. Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis CardinWarren, Klobuchar call on FTC to curtail use of non-compete clauses Overnight Energy: EPA moves to raise ethanol levels in gasoline | Dems look to counter White House climate council | Zinke cleared of allegations tied to special election Democrats offer legislation to counter White House climate science council MORE (D-Md.), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Thursday that a Wednesday night meeting with National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster made him more concerned about Trump’s plans than before.

Asked what he thinks Congress will do if Trump does not certify the deal, Cardin said that would lead to uncertainty.

“This is unprecedented that he would not certify but yet … he’s not going to repudiate the agreement,” he said. “It’s a counterintuitive move by the president, and it does seed a lot of confusion. So I think the immediate response, if he does that, is going to be, ‘What is he doing?’ And Congress only has a 60-day window, so it doesn’t give us a lot of time.”

What will Iran do?

Iran has said the nuclear deal is not up for renegotiation, and that it could walk away from the deal if the United States does not uphold its commitments.

But it’s also indicated that it understands certification as an internal U.S. debate about INARA, not a debate about the United States withdrawing from the agreement.

“Certification is not a part of the deal,” Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said on CNN in September. “It’s a U.S. internal procedure. It doesn’t absolve President Trump and the administration of the responsibility because the only authority that has been recognized in the nuclear deal to verify is the [International Atomic Energy Agency]."

Taleblu, the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies expert, said he thinks Iran will play a “wait and see game” to watch how the situation unfolds after Trump’s announcement. In other words, whether Congress re-imposes sanctions, whether Europe moves to shore up the deal and other factors will influence how Iran responds.

Parsi, the National Iranian American Council president and author of “Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy,” likewise said much will depend on Europe’s actions following the Trump announcement.

“I think it all depends on how other reacts,” Parsi said of Iran’s response. “If you have a strong reaction by the Europeans that protects the deal, there’s a chance that it could survive. But if the Europeans and others walk out of the Iranian market, then the Iranians are not going to be getting the benefit of being in compliance and that means eventually political dynamics will force Iran to walk away.”