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Decertifying the Iran Nuclear Deal: What’s at Stake?

PUBLISHED October 18, 2017

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA — the formal name for the Iran nuclear agreement — was far from perfect. Still, the agreement was the product of many months of excruciating negotiations and appeared to meet the minimum objectives of all parties involved. For the United States and its allies, the pact prevented Iran from going nuclear for at least 10 to 15 years. For Iran, the deal meant the lifting of severe economic sanctions that crippled the economy and undermined the regime’s legitimacy. For both sides, the JCPOA removed the danger of sliding into a war that nobody wanted. By deciding not to certify the JCPOA, U.S. President Donald Trump has made a complicated situation even worse.

Trump’s decision can only be explained by an analysis of both domestic and international considerations. First, and most obvious on the domestic front, he sought to please his political base — keeping his word that he was not going to support “the worst deal ever.” With problems looming on every front, Trump needs to deliver on some campaign promises. His statement’s vague references to issues extraneous to the nuclear deal, such as Iran’s destabilizing regional role and support for terrorism, also fly well with Trump’s right-wing supporters (and many of his opponents). The president has to demonstrate that he is making good on his pledge to undo the “wrongs” that were done under the Obama administration, which can earn him considerable political mileage among his base and those right-of-center quarters that do not support him.   

Second, failing to certify the deal was the easy way out for Trump since his administration is not prepared to scrap the deal completely. His secretary of defense, secretary of state, joint chief of staff and other senior members of the administration have advised him that maintaining the deal is in the U.S. national interest. Ending the deal would allow Tehran to resume its work to build a nuclear arsenal while putting the blame on the United States.

Third, the president’s certification to Congress every 90 days that Iran is in compliance with the nuclear agreement is a requirement not of the JCPOA, but of the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act.  By decertifying the pact, Trump has passed responsibility to the legislature, which has 60 days to decide if it wants to re-impose sanctions on Iran that the JCPOA had lifted. If Congress does not act within those 60 days, the status quo continues. Decertification also opens the door for Republican hardliners to push for additional sanctions on Iran, citing alleged Iranian violations of restrictions imposed by the U.N. Security Council on Tehran’s missile program. In fact, Congress was already working toward additional sanctions in anticipation of Trump’s decision to decertify.  

The main international reason for decertification is that it is a way to try to counter Tehran’s efforts to exploit the growing instability in the Middle East and enhance its position in the region. Iran has been supporting the regime in Syria and using its proxies to spread influence throughout the region, notably: Shiite factions in Iraq, Lebanese Shiite Islamist movement Hezbollah (which Washington considers a terrorist organization), and the anti-Saudi Houthi movement in Yemen. Decertification sends an indirect threat that Iran could face further sanctions for these actions and for its pursuit of a ballistic missile program, which the United States finds unacceptable. In short, the move is thus a warning shot to Tehran that it should stop undermining the interests of the United States and its allies in the Middle East and restrain its regional appetite.  

Decertification also sends a strong message of support to America’s traditional allies in the region — Israel and Saudi Arabia, in particular — who are engaged in their own confrontations with Iran. While neither Israel nor Saudi Arabia will be fully satisfied short of a total dismantling of the JCPOA, each ally is likely to find Trump’s action a large step toward its ultimate goal.  

However, there are severe drawbacks to Trump’s decision, especially if it is perceived as the first step toward Washington’s pulling out of the deal. First, decertification has already upset the U.S.’ European allies — Britain, France and Germany – who have declared in a joint statement that regardless of Washington’s actions, they “stand committed” to the JCPOA because it is “in our shared national security interest” to do so. Second, Iran has made it very clear that it is not willing to renegotiate the deal, which it signed after 10 years of diplomacy.  Amidst of speculations regarding Trump’s decision to decertify the deal, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif stated that Tehran would not renegotiate the nuclear agreement under any circumstances.

Even if the United States withdraws from JCPOA, Tehran will most probably continue to adhere to the deal if the other signatories remain committed to carrying out their obligations under the agreement. However, if the United States pressures its European allies and forces them to put off lifting sanctions and engaging in normal trade relations with Iran, then Tehran could jettison the deal because of Washington’s non-compliance.

This last outcome is not very likely in the short run. However, Trump’s decision increases the possibility of Iran’s pulling out of the deal and blaming the United States. The Trump administration’s rhetoric condemning the JCPOA could, over time, give the deal’s Iranian hardline opponents enough ammunition to persuade the Supreme Leader to overrule President Hassan Rouhani and withdraw from the agreement as well as from the non-proliferation treaty. This would make it easy for Tehran to resume enriching uranium to weapons grade and, eventually, to manufacture nuclear weapons.

The United States, under pressure from Israel, Saudi Arabia and domestic forces excited by Trump’s anti-Iranian rhetoric, could then attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. The worst-case scenario in the Middle East could then unfold, with Iran and its surrogates launching attacks on U.S. and allied targets in the region and on U.S. forces deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. The war against Daesh, in which Iran and the United States are de facto partners, would have to be abandoned. The Middle East could descend into chaos that would make the Syrian civil war look like child’s play.  

The negative implications of the United States’ undermining confidence in the JCPOA, even if not withdrawing from the pact altogether, have been clear to most analysts. What is not as obvious is that the deal has immense potential to break down the barriers between Tehran and Washington erected in 1979. It could have been, and still can be, used as a means to establish normal relations between two countries that have many common interests, including decimating Daesh and fighting Sunni jihadism in all its forms. This is why it sounds strange that Trump blames Shiite Iran for being the chief supporter of terrorism, when the major terrorist threat to the United States and its allies comes from Sunni extremists — hybrid products of Wahhabi ideology who are also mortal enemies of Iran.

Good relations between the United States, the premier world power, and Iran, the pre-eminent regional power in the Persian Gulf, are essential for the construction of a stable and legitimate security order in that energy-rich and volatile region. Trump’s actions are eliminating the potential benefits to Washington and Tehran — and the Middle East as a whole — that harmonious implementation of the JCPOA would have brought.

Even though the president has pulled the trigger and plunged the deal into uncertainty, his administration can still prevent matters from unraveling. Quick and easy changes to the nuclear deal are unlikely — given the massive complications involved. Therefore, as it continues to work on improving the efficacy of the nuclear agreement, the White House should focus on using the current situation to initiate talks with the clerical regime on the other regional issues wherein Tehran’s actions undermine American interests.

Not only will Iran be interested in such discussion, the U.S. would gain the support of all our western allies. In this way, we can prevent Russia and China from exploiting the issue of Iran to advance their own interests. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has already had his first meeting last month with his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session in New York. The Administration should build upon that first contact and use diplomacy in an effort to curb Iran’s pursuit of ballistic missile technology and its regional ambitions that could exacerbate matters in an already chaotic Middle East.

Mohammed Ayoob is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Policy. He also is a University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of International Relations and Political Science at Michigan State University (MSU). The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP. 

Image Courtesy: World Economic Forum

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