The future of the Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), is likely to take center stage at this week’s United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) gathering in New York – and to feature prominently in U.S. President Donald Trump’s speech before the UN on Tuesday.
Trump, during a photo opportunity with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday, said “you’ll be seeing very soon” what the U.S. plans to do about the deal.
Trump has previously called it “the worst deal ever,” and Netanyahu has referred to it as “terrible.”
The deal – agreed to in 2015 between Iran and the United States, the EU, France, the UK, Russia, China, and Germany – extends sanctions relief to Iran, in exchange for Iran curbing its nuclear program.
The International Atomic Energy Agency had verified eight times that Iran is complying with the deal. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson agreed with this on Sunday, but on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” he said Iran is violating the “spirit” of the deal, by failing to contribute positively to regional and international peace and security.
In an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Monday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said the U.S. will pay a “high cost” if Trump scraps the deal. Such an action would “yield no results for the United States but at the same time it will generally decrease and cut away and chip away at international trust placed in the Unites States of America,” he said.
Last week, Trump extended sanctions relief to Iran, indicating compliance with the deal. It’s a procedural move that must be revisited every 120 days as part of the deal. But in October, Trump must decide whether to certify to Congress that Iran is in full compliance. If Trump decides Iran is not complying with the agreement, Congress has 60 days to decide whether to reimpose sanctions, in effect ending the U.S. commitment to the deal.
The Cipher Brief’s Kaitlin Lavinder spoke with American Enterprise Institute scholar Michael Rubin, who previously worked in the Pentagon and focused on the Middle East and Iran, about the ongoing controversy and who would win if the deal is scuttled.
The Cipher Brief: As the UNGA gets underway, how do you see the ongoing controversy between the U.S. and Iran playing out?
Michael Rubin: Iran’s strategy has always been to divide and conquer, and so I expect to see a lot of Iranian rhetoric, feigning moderation, in order to criticize the United States and reinforce opposition to any strategy which undercuts the idea that JCPOA is working. Let’s face it, mercantilist concerns and a desire to pretend a deeply flawed agreement is working has trumped any desire to actually constrain effectively Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
TCB: Will there be much support from the UN for Trump’s threat to scrap the deal?
Rubin: Very little. Russia, China, and Europe will be united in their opposition to altering the new status quo. Outside the Middle East, many countries might cheer the deal and may not really understand what’s at stake. Israel and some Arab states oppose the JCPOA and UNSC 2231 [the UN Security Council resolution that endorses the JCPOA], but maybe only Israel would speak against it.
TCB: Why would Israel maybe speak against it?
Rubin: Israel has nothing to gain by speaking against it at the UNGA, even if they believe it’s a bad deal, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had made clear. More likely, they will use their platform at the UNGA to lambaste just how irresponsible Iran has acted in the region in the wake of the deal and to castigate the UN for doing nothing about Iran’s bad behavior.
TCB: Who would be the winners and losers in a scrapped deal?
Rubin: The knee-jerk response is that Iran would win and the United States would lose. President Barack Obama and his Secretary of State, John Kerry, structured the deal so Iran would get its rewards upfront. Essentially, what they did was equivalent to giving a toddler dessert first on his promise that he’d then eat his vegetables. They did this to dissuade future administrations from pulling out.
Certainly, there would be a lot of egg on the U.S. face if we pull out. There is a silver lining, however, and that is for future administrations (and both Senators Bob Corker and Ben Cardin, the chair and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, respectfully) to recognize that they can’t bypass the constitutional role of the Senate to ratify treaties by pretending that something that is really a treaty is something different. [The JCPOA is not a treaty, which would have required two-thirds of the Senate to consent to ratification. Rather, it is a nonbinding international arrangement, which required no congressional approval to enact. However, Congress did pass an Iran review bill, which calls for the 90 day certifications.]
Kaitlin Lavinder is a reporter at The Cipher Brief. Follow her on Twitter @Kaitlavinder.