The Art of (Decertifying) the Deal: Trump’s Iran Strategy and the Nuclear Agreement’s Future

President Trump’s decision to decertify the Iran nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) throws both the present and the future of the multilateral nuclear agreement into confusion. While the president’s decision does nothing formally to abrogate or terminate US participation in the JCPOA at this point, it opens the door to such a move down the road, roils US relations with the Europeans, and heightens security concerns in the Middle East. But it also presents an opportunity to fix the flaws of the nuclear deal and launch a more vigorous response to Iran’s destabilizing regional policies.

Trump’s Moves on Iran—What Did He Do?

In remarks at the White House on October 13, the president stated that his administration had completed a comprehensive strategic review of US policy toward Iran. Pursuant to this review, Trump announced that he would refuse to certify that continuing to suspend US sanctions against Iran remained “appropriate and proportionate” to the specific, verifiable steps Tehran has taken to end its illicit nuclear program. In this connection, he alleged several Iranian violations of the provisions of the JCPOA. He also outlined measures to combat Iran’s malign activities, singling out support for terrorism and destabilizing activities in Syria and Iraq, suppression of the Iranian people (although he avoided mentioning the words “human rights”), as well as certain historical transgressions such as the taking of the US embassy in 1979 and the holding of American hostages.

The president then laid out a four-point program to counter Iranian aggression. First, he said the United States will work with allies to confront “the regime’s destabilizing activity and support for terrorist proxies in the region.” Second, the administration will promulgate additional sanctions to block Iranian financing of terrorism. Third, the United States will work to block Iranian missile proliferation and other “weapons that threaten [Iran’s] neighbors, global trade, and freedom of navigation.” Finally, Trump said, the United States “will deny the regime all paths to a nuclear weapon.” Specific measures the administration plans to undertake include, in addition to decertification of the nuclear agreement, financial sanctions on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps by the Department of the Treasury; working closely with Congress and allies to address Iran’s missile programs, especially with regard to Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs); terminating US participation in the JCPOA if this cannot be achieved; and addressing the “sunset clauses” that allow important restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities to expire after 10 years.

On the subject of the regime’s domestic repression, which Trump raised as one of the Iranian government’s major transgressions, the president had little to say beyond asserting that the United States stands in “total solidarity” with the Iranian people.

None of this was a surprise. As a candidate for president, Trump made no secret of his disdain for the nuclear deal or his intention to dismantle it if elected, and was particularly critical of the financial windfall the regime received after sanctions were lifted under “the disastrous deal with Iran.” In his speech to the UN General Assembly on September 21, he affirmed that “the Iran Deal was one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into. Frankly, that deal is an embarrassment to the United States….”

For some weeks, Trump’s key national security advisors had been dutifully foreshadowing the president’s decision, despite ample evidence that many favored remaining in the deal and argued vigorously with the president in private. (The president’s announced strategy may represent a compromise between his own hardline views and his advisors’ purported willingness to give diplomacy a chance.) Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told a closed meeting of the principal parties of the JCPOA (the EU, P5+1, and Iran) at the UN in September that lifting sanctions under the agreement had enabled Iran’s bad behavior, later stating publicly that Iran was not meeting the agreement’s “expectations.” At the same time National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster told CNN that the JCPOA was “fundamentally flawed” and that the president would make a decision based on a “holistic” approach. “What’s different about the President’s approach is he didn’t just look at the Iran deal—he placed his decision on the Iran deal on broad context of how we protect American citizens, American interests, how we protect our allies and partners from Iran’s broad range of destabilizing behavior,” McMaster added.

Over to You, Congress

Trump’s announcement will not immediately cause the demise of the nuclear deal, but will put it on perilous ground while shifting responsibility to Congress. By law (the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, or INARA, of 2015), Congress will now have 60 days to reimpose sanctions that were lifted following adoption of the JCPOA. A bill to do so may be introduced in the House and the Senate only by the leadership—the Senate and House majority leaders—and will be fast-tracked in a streamlined legislative process that requires just a simple majority to pass. Under the INARA, such a bill cannot impose new sanctions; the draft legislation must specify which of the previous sanctions are to be reimposed. Congress may, but is not required to, reimpose all of them. Congress is also free to consider doing nothing.

Halfway between doing nothing and reimposing all US nuclear-related sanctions is another course open to Congress. Senators Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) and Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) plan to introduce legislation to “fix” the Iran deal by amending the INARA to reimpose US sanctions if Iran violates certain restrictions, including establishing a one-year “breakout” period to construct a nuclear weapon. The new legislation would remain in force indefinitely, “effectively ridding the JCPOA of its sunset provisions as they apply to US sanctions.” It would also bolster International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspection and verification powers and limit Iran’s centrifuge program.

One Option: Blowing Up the Deal in the UNSC

If congressional action proves unsatisfactory, the administration could take even more drastic action: turn to the United Nations to destroy the nuclear deal once and for all by initiating action in the UN Security Council (UNSC). Security Council Resolution 2231 of 2015 endorsed the JCPOA and laid out a demanding program for monitoring and implementation. But, under paragraph 11, any member of the UNSC may notify the Council when it believes there is an issue that constitutes “significant non-performance of JCPOA commitments” by Iran. This requires the Council to vote on a new resolution within 30 days, affirming that UN sanctions on Iran imposed between 2006 and 2015, which were lifted pursuant to paragraph 7 of Resolution 2231, should remain in abeyance. If the resolution fails for lack of a majority or is vetoed by a permanent member (such as the United States), UN sanctions would automatically snap back into place. As a result, paragraph 13 of Resolution 2231 duly notes, Iran would regard this “as grounds to cease performing its commitments under the JCPOA.”

Such a course does not appear to be under consideration for now.

International Ramifications: Europe

President Trump’s decertification of the Iran deal will likely have immediate consequences for the United States’ relations with its European allies, and more subtle but unmistakable medium- to long-range effects throughout the Middle East.

For Europe, US decertification of the JCPOA is a blow to US credibility and reliability as a partner, particularly with regard to international arms control regimes; in addition, worry abounds that the Iran setback may have negative consequences for efforts to manage the North Korea nuclear crisis. The EU has made clear on numerous occasions that renegotiation of the deal is a nonstarter and, absent a material breach of the JCPOA by Iran, the agreement will continue to be regarded as valid by the international community. Asked about this by Judy Woodruff of the PBS Newshour on October 11, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini stated that “the rest of the international community will continue to stick to the agreement, as we have done so far,” pointing out that the IAEA has repeatedly verified Iranian compliance with the accord. “There is no technical nor political space to renegotiate this deal,” she asserted.

In response to Trump’s announcement, the EU rejected the decision, and the leaders of the UK, France, and Germany issued a joint statement affirming support for the JCPOA. EU member states also plan to intensify their lobbying on Capitol Hill in support of the deal and to move to safeguard and expand European business access to Iran.

At the same time, however, in an attempt to mollify the Trump Administration and help keep the deal intact, the EU will explore measures to intensify pressure on Iran’s ballistic missile program and destabilizing regional activities. The EU might also probe Iran’s willingness to amend the JCPOA around the edges, for example by getting Tehran to agree to IAEA inspections of military facilities (which were not included in the original agreement), or extending the JCPOA’s “sunset clauses” for a period of years. French President Emmanuel Macron, for one, has signaled his interest in talks on these matters. But the success of such an approach, either with Iran or the United States, is far from assured.

Iran’s Reaction and Next Moves

Iran reacted to Trump swiftly and sharply. President Hassan Rouhani said Iran will stick to the deal and angrily denounced Trump and his alleged ignorance of the JCPOA. “The Iranian nation is not a nation that will easily retreat in the face of a dictator,” he added. The Iranian Foreign Ministry promised a “crushing response” to the American designation and sanctioning of the IRGC as a terrorist organization under US Treasury Department regulations, but provided no specifics.

For its part, Iran is likely to see some short-term political benefit from the Trump announcement. Tehran will be able to play the victim internationally, exploit the rift between Europe and the United States to try to gain economic advantage from the EU, and appear reasonable while hyping international condemnation of the United States with charges that Washington itself has violated the JCPOA. On a more concrete level, as Rouhani suggested in his September 20 speech to the UN General Assembly, if the United States pulls out of the deal, Iran might also resume uranium enrichment on a larger scale. And if reimposition of US—and especially UN—sanctions occurs, Iran may invoke its statement under paragraph 13 of UNSCR 2231 to withdraw from the nuclear pact altogether. But this would present a problem: backsliding on enrichment or abrogating Iran’s nuclear commitments could make already skittish European investors even less likely to jump into the Iranian market, especially considering the potential threat of US sanctions on EU-based firms under the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act of 1996 and its successors.

In any case, Trump’s broad-based accusations will lead Iran, correctly, to see threats to its various interests in the region beyond just the nuclear deal’s possible unraveling, and will respond accordingly.

Tehran will move to shore up its position in Iraq by boosting its political allies there with an eye on Iraq’s national elections in 2018. Iran will also work harder to bolster the standing of pro-Iran militias in the Popular Mobilization Forces, some of whose leaders, such as Qais al-Khazali of the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, may stand as candidates in the elections. Building the military capabilities of allied militias will be even more of a priority now, both because of rising tensions with the United States and the armed confrontation with the Kurds over Kirkuk.

Overall, the United States must prepare for an upturn in Iranian regional activism of the very type that Trump condemned—such as ballistic missile activities and naval harassment of American warships in the Gulf—as Tehran pushes back against the United States, a rational defensive strategy from Tehran’s point of view.

Worries for the Gulf…

The initial Gulf reaction to Trump’s remarks was positive, in keeping with the longstanding regional rivalry between the GCC, led by Saudi Arabia, and Iran. Both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates issued statements announcing they stood by Trump and would work closely with Washington to confront Iranian aggression.

However, the Gulf states—which were opposed to the nuclear negotiations with Tehran before they reluctantly endorsed the deal—will be in an uncomfortable position. If, as expected, Iran ramps up its aggressive activities in the Gulf region, potential threats to Gulf states’ interests will multiply, especially in Yemen, but possibly including terrorist and other security threats in their own backyards. The Gulf states may seek closer military ties with the United States and additional infusions of advanced US weaponry to counter the threat, fueling a regional arms race. Down the road, moves by Tehran to advance its nuclear program could spur proliferation concerns throughout the region.

…and Israel

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu similarly welcomed Trump’s move as a “courageous decision” that provides an opportunity to “fix this bad deal” while confronting Iranian militancy and support for terrorism. But Israel undoubtedly harbors some misgivings about the move. The JCPOA, after all, provides a verifiable pause in Iran’s nuclear program, a major worry for Tel Aviv. With the agreement’s future in doubt, Israel’s security environment will become markedly more complicated.

How Russia and China Stand to Gain

The major beneficiaries of Trump’s decision are Russia and China, both of which were parties to the negotiations on the JCPOA as permanent members of the UN Security Council. Both strongly back Iran’s position regarding US decertification and are against any renegotiation of the agreement.

Russia has worked hard over the last several years to expand and solidify its position in the Middle East, a key linchpin of which is defense of the Assad regime in Syria in close coordination with Tehran. Iran will likely move quickly to deepen its military relationship and political coordination with Moscow.

China is Iran’s biggest trading partner, and both sides place a high priority on further expanding economic relations. Iran, which has touted its “strategic partnership” with China, is an ardent supporter of Beijing’s “One Belt, One Road” development strategy designed to establish economic and transportation connections between China and other Eurasian countries, Iran included. Tehran will likely press for expanded political, economic, and security ties to counterbalance increasing pressure from the United States.

The Get-Tough Policy on Iran—Not a Bad Idea

While President Trump’s new approach toward Iran may have significant consequences for the fate of the nuclear deal, the other elements of the strategy he described are in fact long overdue. Iran’s support for terrorism, threats to the security of US allies, and destabilizing activities throughout the region have been causes for deep concern for decades. For example, under the Obama Administration few practical efforts were made to counter Iranian influence in Iraq, especially as the United States prepared to withdraw by the end of 2011—even though the IRGC Quds Force was instrumental in building up Shia militias and instigating attacks on US forces. Similarly, the oppression of Iran’s people by the regime, a calamity that Trump also highlighted, was largely swept under the rug by the Obama Administration as it sought to secure the nuclear deal. A vigorous effort to highlight Iran’s human rights violations and support its people’s desire to choose their own leaders would be a most welcome break from the past.

The Trump Administration’s heightened willingness to confront Tehran affords an opportunity to blunt Iran’s efforts to advance its dreams of regional hegemony. But the administration should bear in mind that the JCPOA, for all its flaws, strengthens Washington’s diplomatic hand as it tries to counter Iran’s actions in the region. So far, it has also achieved the important objective of pressing the pause button on Iran’s nuclear program, which is no small strategic success. The Trump Administration would do well to try to mend the deal’s flaws without ending it altogether.