Iran deal faces uncertain future under Trump

Iran deal faces uncertain future under Trump
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The Iran nuclear deal faces an uncertain future under President Trump, despite his reluctant decision on Monday to certify Iran’s compliance for the second time in his young presidency.

The Trump administration walked a careful tightrope, balancing the president’s deep disgust with the agreement with the united consensus of his most senior national security advisers that the U.S. should stay in, at least for now.

National security adviser H.R. McMaster and others reportedly had to talk the president into recertifying at the eleventh hour — something Trump would only agree to under certain conditions, according to The New York Times.


It’s unclear what those conditions are, leaving open the possibility that in 90 days, the administration will once again play chicken with the landmark agreement.

“The administration’s strategy on Iran is no different than the rest of their foreign policy — it doesn’t exist,” said Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyTensions running high after gun incident near House floor Democrats float 14th Amendment to bar Trump from office Senate approves waiver for Biden's Pentagon nominee MORE (D-Conn.), who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

It was the second time since Trump took office that he’s had to certify Iran is in compliance with an agreement that he repeatedly called the “worst deal ever negotiated" on the campaign trail.

The first time, in April, the administration coupled its certification with harsh rhetoric about Iran violating the “spirit” of the deal and an announcement about a National Security Council review on whether lifting sanctions is in the national security interests of the United States.

Congress largely agreed Tuesday with the administration’s decision, though staunch opponents fumed.

“I think the certification yesterday was unfortunate and is dangerous,” said Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzBiden leans on Obama-era appointees on climate Ethics complaint filed against Biggs, Cawthorn and Gosar over Capitol riot Hawley, Cruz see approval ratings dip in wake of Capitol riot: poll MORE (R-Texas). 

“I disagree with this certification,” Sen. Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonSunday shows preview: All eyes on Biden administration to tackle coronavirus Senate approves waiver for Biden's Pentagon nominee House approves waiver for Biden's Pentagon nominee MORE (R-Ark.) said in a statement. “Iran is not complying with the nuclear agreement, and granting Iran a full slate of sanctions relief is certainly not vital to U.S. national security.”

Others say the administration had to recertify Iran was in compliance with the deal.

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamTrump selects South Carolina lawyer for impeachment trial Democrats formally elect Harrison as new DNC chair McConnell proposes postponing impeachment trial until February MORE (R-S.C.) said the Trump administration is taking the right approach by levying non-nuclear sanctions and criticizing Iran’s other malign activities at the same time it has to recertify the deal.

Asked whether it is a sustainable approach to repeat every 90-day certification deadline, Graham said, “Yes, I think it’s the right approach."

"The folly of the deal was to disconnect the ayatollah’s behavior from getting sanctions relief. Technical compliance with a nuclear agreement doesn’t get us to where we want to go if they then take the $150 billion and spend it on terrorism," he continued. "So rather than gutting the deal that they may be in technical compliance with, let’s go after the behavior.”

Some national security experts see a pattern in the will-they-won’t-they approach to recertifying.

“We went through this before. It’s a problem that every foreign policy decision this country makes will go through,” said Mieke Eoyang, vice president of national security at the centrist liberal think tank Third Way.

She cited the Trump administration’s wavering stance on reaffirming its commitment to Article 5 of NATO, another instance in which the president professed ambivalence while senior officials claimed commitment.

Further heightening the uncertainty on the nuclear deal, Iran’s foreign minister raised the prospect that Iran might be the one to pull out of the agreement.

“If it comes to a major violation, or what in the terms of the nuclear deal is called significant nonperformance, then Iran has other options available, including withdrawing from the deal,” Mohammad Javad Zarif told the foreign policy journal The National Interest in a Monday interview.

Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerGOP lawmaker patience runs thin with Trump tactics Former GOP senator: Republicans cannot let Trump's 'reckless' post-election claims stand Cornyn: Relationships with Trump like 'women who get married and think they're going to change their spouse' MORE (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said he had breakfast Tuesday with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and suggested the certification was done to buy time as the administration works out a longer-term plan to counter Iran.

“I had breakfast with Tillerson this morning, and I know that they have a longer-term plan about ensuring they never have the ability to enrich [uranium], and they want some time to develop that,” Corker said before heading into an elevator.

For now, the Treasury and State departments have issued a new slate of economic sanctions over Iran’s ballistic missile program, while senior officials continue to lambast Tehran for noncompliance.

The Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, which was negotiated between Iran and the U.S. and five world powers, passed Congress in 2015 and requires the president to certify to Congress every 90 days that Iran is in compliance with the nuclear deal, with the most recent deadline coming Monday.

In a Monday conference call, McMaster reportedly spoke at length about why the agreement is a “bad deal,” arguing that it has not changed Iran’s behavior.

But he left some conservative opponents of the deal with the impression that the administration is not going to comply with one of Trump’s signature campaign promises: dismantling the deal entirely.

“With a decision like this, there seems little doubt the administration is not going to fulfill President Trump’s campaign promise to kill or substantially renegotiate the nuclear deal,” Fred Fleitz, a former CIA analyst and senior vice president at the Center for Security Policy, wrote in an op-ed in The National Review.

Still, the president himself continues to express ambivalence about the deal.

Behnam Ben Taleblu, senior Iran analyst at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, said he expects the next certification deadline to play out differently — because he hopes the administration’s Iran policy review will be finished in the next month or so.

That doesn’t necessarily mean the administration won’t recertify the deal in October, though. Rather, Taleblu said, he expects the administration to by then have a holistic policy on the nuclear deal and Iran’s other behavior.

“Wherever you fall politically on the spectrum, you want the interagency review to be thorough,” he said.

“This administration is not going to excise the nuclear issue from the broader U.S.-Iran strategic competition.”