White House Seeks Leverage in Decertification of Iran Deal

President Trump and senior military leaders
Photo: Getty Images/Pool

President Donald Trump’s much-anticipated decertification of the Iran nuclear deal would hand the problem off to Congress, setting off a 60-day countdown for lawmakers to decide whether to re-impose sanctions — and leaving the accord in limbo.

Trump will not certify the Iran nuclear deal because the agreement is not in the national security interests of the U.S., according to a Washington Post report on Thursday. But he won’t recommend that Congress re-impose sanctions immediately.

“I think a consensus has finally developed and it’s not to certify at the deadline on October 15, but also not to ask the Congress to re-impose the nuclear sanctions — which, if that took place, would be a deal breaker,” retired four-star General and former Vice Chief of Army Staff Jack Keane told The Cipher Brief.

Instead, the administration’s anticipated approach on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is to use the pressure from decertification to try to rework the agreement, and the dilemma of whether to re-impose sanctions would be left to Congress. That would add another layer of what U.S. officials hope will be pressure on Iran and the other parties to the deal to re-negotiate.

But Iran has said it won’t renegotiate, and other parties to the deal have urged the U.S. to honor it.

The halfway measure is a reflection of the discord within Trump’s national security team, with his key advisors backing re-certification, but Trump demanding his team find a way to renegotiate the deal, senior administration officials told The Cipher Brief. This compromise course of action is meant to create negotiating space without completely walking away from the deal, added a person familiar with the matter. They spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive accord.

The president is expected to deliver a speech on Oct. 12 to announce his decision and to lay out a larger strategy on Iran. White House National Security Council spokesperson Michael Anton would not confirm the decision or if a speech would cover the administration’s long-awaited comprehensive Iran policy review as well as the certification decision.

Brookings’ Suzanne Maloney called decertification “entirely an American domestic political gesture, one that appears to be designed to assuage the president’s ego by enabling him to repudiate the deal without actually precipitating a diplomatic crisis.” It has no direct bearing on U.S. standing under the terms of the agreement itself, she noted, except for sparking a congressional review of the sanctions waived or suspended to implement the deal.

In July, the Trump administration certified — grudgingly — that Iran was technically complying with the 2015 international pact for the second time. The White House, however, emphasized that although the requirements seemed to be fulfilled as written, Iran was “unquestionably in default of the spirit” of the deal and subsequently slapped on fresh sanctions.

Trump’s anticipated October announcement — driven by a U.S. law that requires the administration to notify Congress every 90 days about whether Iran is living up to the deal — opens up several possible scenarios. Members of Congress could introduce legislation to re-impose sanctions or to try to re-work the agreement, the administration might focus on supplementing or reworking the accord in partnership with European allies, or the pact could ultimately unravel if the U.S. withdraws.

The immediate effect if Trump withholds certification of Iranian compliance is that he throws the issue back to Congress. The House and Senate will have a 60-day review period and the party floor leadership can decide whether to introduce a bill to reinstate sanctions.

“I imagine there will be a fair amount of congressional activity even if there is a decision not to reinstate sanctions by the leadership,” said Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and head of its Center on Sanctions and Illicit Finance.

Heavy signaling from White House officials and the president’s backers in Congress suggest the Trump administration is looking to use the leverage and pressure from the credible threat of the U.S. being willing to walk away from the deal to try to fix the agreement.

Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, the only senator to oppose the Iran review bill that implemented the certification requirement, said in an Oct. 3 speech that “Congress and the president, working together, should lay out how the deal must change and, if it doesn’t, the consequences Iran will face.”

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

As Dubowitz put it, “I don’t think you get to the right of Sen. Cotton in the U.S. Congress on Iran, and he has made clear he’s not going to push the leadership to reinstate sanctions right now.”

“[Cotton] will give time for the Europeans to come on board though that time will be measured in months, not years. Given his relationships within the administration, he’s a leading indicator to watch on this and his speech was very much consistent with the administration’s Iran policy,” Dubowitz said.

Testifying before Congress on Oct. 3, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said “absent indications to the contrary” the agreement is “something the president should consider staying with.” When asked if he believed if it would be in the U.S. national security to remain in the deal, Mattis replied, “Yes, senator, I do.”

While many reports suggested that Mattis’ comments contradicted the president, according to Dubowitz it should be read in the context in which they were delivered — as a direct message to Congress.

“Mattis was talking to a congressional audience to say, ‘Don’t reinstate the sanctions and take us out of the deal.’ He has already agreed, and had recommended along with the rest of the principals committee to follow a strategy of decertification, waive, pressure, and fix,” Dubowitz said. “He was emphasizing the importance of keeping the deal for now, and telegraphing to Congress they shouldn’t reinstate the sanctions and take America out of the deal.”

The administration’s goal, then, would be to try to rework the deal in some way with its partners. Under this approach, it would be key to get European signatories on board and then, at an appropriate time, devise some type of supplemental or follow-up agreement. The administration believes that decertifying now makes the threat of the U.S. walking away from the deal completely more credible, giving it leverage to pressure allies to renegotiate.

“Ultimately, they are now realizing if given the choice between Trump walking away from the deal or a European commitment to work with the Americans to strengthen the deal, they will go for the latter,” Dubowitz said.

The multilateral agreement was reached in 2015 between Iran and the P5+1 countries — the U.S., the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, and Germany. European ambassadors to the U.S. recently defended the nuclear deal at an event in Washington, with France’s ambassador Gérard Araud telling the Atlantic Council in late September that reopening negotiations on the deal “is a nonstarter and trying to get it is a dead end.” However, he noted that decertification is a “an American issue” and that “we are not going to criticize the president for certification or decertification. That’s your problem.”

A European diplomat noted that “certification to Congress is a domestic process.”

“If not certifying is part of a larger plan with Congress to stay within the deal, this would not be a direct breach,” the diplomat said, speaking anonymously as a condition of discussing the controversial U.S. action. “However, all the evidence to date is that Iran is in compliance with the terms of the JCPOA. The JCPOA is a hard-fought international agreement that is vital to our security and that of our allies. Our priority is working with the deal and making it deliver for our shared security interests.”

The International Atomic Energy Agency has certified several times that Iran remains in compliance with the deal.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has already said he would not renegotiate the JCPOA. China, and Russia told Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at the U.N. in September that they wouldn’t budge on the deal either, according to The Washington Post.

Brookings’ Maloney said decertification will markedly undercut American influence with our allies on Iran.

“Instead of co-opting the deep European investment in this agreement to generate new partnerships around addressing the real challenges that Iran poses to the region and its own citizens, Washington will have to engage in damage control with our key allies around the deal,” she said, calling decertification “a profound waste of time and, more importantly, of hard-won diplomatic capital.”

If Trump does decertify as expected, it “will almost certainly encourage and expedite the inevitable process of Iranian testing of the boundaries of its own adherence to the JCPOA,” according to Maloney.

Mackenzie Weinger is a national security reporter at The Cipher Brief. Follow her on Twitter @mweinger.

Kimberly Dozier contributed to this report.



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