October 6, 2017 | The Weekly Standard
No Easy Way Out
By October 15, Donald Trump must decide what to do with his predecessor’s nuclear agreement with Iran. He has felt obliged, against his instincts, to recertify the deal every 90 days, per the requirements of the 2015 Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, Congress’s attempt to supervise Barack Obama’s nuclear diplomacy. The president’s senior advisers reportedly gave him no other choice. Since July, the second time he recertified the deal, the National Security Council has been working arduously to give him options. There are only three.
First, the president can do what he has reluctantly done before: certify Iran’s compliance and affirm the accord remains in the interest of the United States. According to the nuclear review act, also called Corker-Cardin after its sponsors, Tehran could be abiding by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action but the president could still find the accord, with its many deficiencies, detrimental to America’s security and thus uncertifiable. The secretaries of defense and state, the chairman of the joint chiefs, and most congressional Democrats want to maintain the status quo. It’s difficult to suss out the truth about where congressional Republicans stand, but it’s a decent guess that in the Senate a majority of Republicans would rather see the JCPOA continue than share the responsibility of downing the agreement and dealing with the fallout. According to the review act, if the president decertifies, Congress has 60 days to restore the sanctions suspended by the nuclear deal by a simple majority vote in both houses. After 60 days, the Senate would need 60 votes to overcome a probable Democratic filibuster to restore the sanctions. The solid wall of GOP opposition to Barack Obama’s accord in 2015 appears to have cracked even though Republicans haven’t found Obama’s outreach to the Iranian regime astute, rarely hesitate to highlight baleful Iranian actions, and often dismiss the nuclear accord as a Trojan horse. If Trump certifies the agreement for a third time, after decrying its fatal flaws, the odds are high that he will keep on certifying. Certainly others, chiefly the Europeans, Russians, and Iranians, whom Trump has spooked with his fierce opposition to the deal, will no longer take Trump’s remonstrations seriously.
Door number two: The president decertifies the deal and quits waiving the statutory sanctions lifted under the JCPOA, effectively killing the agreement. The most punishing of fiscal sanctions, which basically stopped the world’s big banks from handling Iranian commerce and investment, would snap back, derailing President Hassan Rouhani’s dreams of using European investment, technology, and heavy industry to fuel the Islamic Republic’s economic expansion. This option would oblige the president and Congress to prepare immediately for blowback from the Europeans, who really want to put the nuclear issue behind them and get on with trading with Iran. President Trump is hardly enthralled by the Western alliance, and European investment in Iran is trivial compared with European investment in the United States. But the Europeans don’t like being manhandled by Washington, especially by Trump, who is loathed by the Western European political class. Although neither the French nor the British were enamored of the way the Obama administration negotiated with the clerical regime, and the French in particular thought some of Obama’s concessions profoundly unwise, the “EU3” nuclear diplomacy that bound France, Britain, and Germany together against Tehran remains the most momentous diplomatic effort undertaken by the European Union. In European eyes, Trump wouldn’t just be trashing Obama’s legacy by leaving the JCPOA; he’d be trashing their efforts, which started in 2003. Even in the age of diminishing transatlantic fraternity, Washington instinctively would prefer not to quarrel with its oldest allies. Even the Trump White House would prefer to take a path by which it doesn’t have to listen to the Europeans whine loudly.
Far more important, however, would be the blowback from Iran. The White House and the Pentagon would have to be ready for Iran’s possible “asymmetrical” actions—to use the American term that the Iranians like to throw at us—against U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria. Washington isn’t prepared to handle attacking Shiite militias. The war against the Islamic State remains the guiding light of American foreign policy in the Middle East. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and the White House—at least the national security adviser, Lt. General H. R. McMaster, and his staff—have been seriously ruminating on how they can convert a counterterrorism-focused mission into an anti-Iran grand strategy.
It is unclear that they could do so given the confines in which they operate—chiefly, the refusal of President Trump to commit significant U.S. forces long-term in Iraq and Syria with the explicit mission of containing and rolling back the clerical regime. This contradiction in President Trump’s approach to the Islamic Republic—fierce hostility to the nuclear deal but no large, lasting commitment, which must include more U.S. boots on the ground, in Syria and Iraq—is surely in part why Mattis supports the JCPOA even though he is aware that it is deeply flawed. If you accept that American downsizing in the region will continue, if you are scarred from a recent war, fearful that the United States just doesn’t have the staying power for the Arab world, then the JCPOA is an acceptable alternative. Mattis probably believes that President Obama’s new-age hopes about Iran and America and about the need for a smaller U.S. footprint in the Muslim world are twaddle, belied by the return of U.S. forces to Iraq. But he may nevertheless accept, however reluctantly, the idea of American decline and retrenchment. Trump obviously has ingested a big slice of this twilight worldview. Walking away from the deal on October 15 just seems too ballsy for Mattis and Trump, though probably not McMaster.
Hence the appeal of door number three: The president decertifies the deal but continues to waive sanctions as required by the JCPOA, which would allow, at least in theory, the president and the Republican Congress to “fix” the deal through further diplomacy, backed up by the threat of renewed sanctions and military force. If the president chooses this option, which now seems likely, it indicates he prefers not to walk away from the accord, at least not immediately, and might want to explore the possibility of the Europeans, voluntarily or under duress, joining us in an effort to remove the debilitating deficiencies of the nuclear agreement (sunset clauses, permission to do advanced-centrifuge research, continuing long-range ballistic missile development, and a verification regime that doesn’t allow access to military sites and key scientific personnel and paperwork).
Decertification does not necessarily mean that a new round of escalating sanctions is coming. It could well mean, at least in the eyes of the Islamic Republic’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and the head of its Atomic Energy Organization, MIT-trained nuclear engineer Ali Salehi, that Washington isn’t going to do much of anything at all.
Zarif and Salehi have repeatedly shown that when it comes to handling Americans and Europeans, they have clout with the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, whose deep anti-American emotions could get the better of him. Zarif and Salehi have surely already advised Khamenei to ignore all but the most serious of sanctions while waiting to see how Trump’s decision plays out in Washington and Europe. The president could decertify, and keep decertifying, while waiving the most painful sanctions. Treasury and Congress could shower Iran with pinprick designations, giving a certain spiritual satisfaction while not challenging anything fundamental and certainly not setting the stage for a military clash.
The best-case scenario: The president decertifies the nuclear deal and the administration tests the idea that major new executive-branch sanctions aimed at the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which has a commanding position in all the strategic sectors of the country’s economy, can freeze further Western investment in the Islamic Republic, especially in oil and gas. European investment in Iran has so far been more aspirational than real; European banks remain leery of significant transactions with the Islamic Republic. Deflating European commercial appetites will not be hard for the White House. Rouhani and Zarif will surely try to play the Europeans off the Americans, but the Europeans are stuck: American-European ties are continental and a trade war over the unappealing Islamic Republic isn’t going to happen. European Union rules require consensus. Eastern Europe, which still needs the United States as a protector against Russia, will definitely not consent. This is true even if President Trump takes down the $12.5 billion Airbus deals with Iran, which would inevitably happen if he decides to kill the $17 billion Boeing sale to Tehran, because of American parts in Airbus planes. The president would, however, continue to waive sanctions as under the JCPOA, stating clearly that this is a temporary endeavor, that he will allow the full force of American sanctions to return within a year if Tehran does not agree to rectify the omissions in Obama’s nuclear agreement. The president would also make clear that he is fully prepared to use military force to destroy the clerical regime’s nuclear infrastructure.
Republican senator Tom Cotton’s recent speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington in support of decertifying the deal was important precisely because he didn’t run away from the military option. Most Republicans do. If economic coercion is going to work, if it is possible to oblige the Iranians peacefully to give up what Obama allowed them, it will require a credible military threat. Sanctions, for all their utility in a globalized world run with U.S. dollars, cannot guarantee that the Islamic Republic’s economy will crash so as to enfeeble nuclear progress permanently. If Trump isn’t prepared to back up economic coercion and diplomacy with a promise to use the military against Tehran should the supreme leader attempt to accelerate the atomic program, then Washington will be right back where Obama was and abandoning the JCPOA will have made no sense. The odds of Khamenei and the commanders of the Revolutionary Guards buckling aren’t brilliant, but the clerical regime remains fundamentally fragile, as was most recently demonstrated in 2009-2010, when the pro-democracy Green Movement nearly cracked the theocracy through massive street demonstrations. Getting Tehran to forsake its atomic ambitions, which have been at the center of Iranian defense policy since the 1990s, will require the Trump administration and Congress to convince the mullahs and senior guardsmen that a dark future awaits. Threatening our foes with military responses was the bread and butter of America’s Cold War containment strategy. That the Cold War approach seems outdated if not wrong for so many in the political and foreign-policy elite only shows how far America has traveled since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan became long and difficult.
The worst-case scenario with door number 3: The president decertifies but waives sanctions as under the JCPOA, Congress doesn’t force any tougher response, the White House hits Iran with relatively minor sanctions, which Zarif and Salehi persuade Khamenei to ignore, and Trump allows Obama’s license for the Boeing sale to stand, thus also allowing the Airbus deal, too. For the third option to be dissimilar from what Trump has done before—certifying the agreement—he must be prepared to walk away from the deal, which he wasn’t in April and July. Door number three is only fundamentally different from door number one if Trump is primed to pull the trigger, economically and if need be militarily, after a clearly specified period of time. Otherwise, this choice is an invitation to endless negotiations with Iran and the Europeans—and the Iranians, fearful that Trump might bomb them, will probably be willing to engage the United States on supplementing the JCPOA so long as no timeline is given and sanctions aren’t ramped up. Zarif and Salehi aren’t fools: They know the peaceful promise of diplomacy can tie up Westerners endlessly. Needless to say, there would be a large chorus in Europe and in the United States, even perhaps inside the president’s cabinet, thrilled to see Trump’s rebellious option become just a variation of continuous certification.
We will know that Trump is moving in this direction if we see him approve the Boeing deal and ask Republicans in Congress to rewrite the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act so he doesn’t have to certify the agreement at all or only infrequently. Needless to say, Republicans should refuse. Foreign affairs isn’t an easy bailiwick for Congress to work its will. Annoying the executive branch, however, has a long and distinguished bipartisan pedigree. Republicans in Congress have to work up the will to break with Obama’s foreign policy. Trump is right about Iran and the nuclear deal. For him and all those who so strenuously opposed Obama’s nuclear diplomacy, being right, though, isn’t enough.
Reuel Marc Gerecht, a contributing editor, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.