The two-month mark is fast approaching when Congress could reimpose sanctions on Iran, possibly giving leaders in Tehran the right to pull out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, that bars them from pursuing nuclear weapons.
President Donald Trump opened the door to renewed sanctions when he announced on Oct. 13 that he would not certify to Congress that Tehran was in compliance with the deal. He didn’t blow up the agreement. Instead, his decision started a 60-day clock that runs out this week, giving Congress the right to restore penalties lifted by the Obama administration as part of the 2015 deal struck by Iran and the P5+1, the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany.
In essence, he punted to the lawmakers.
Since then, Trump and his advisors have been decidedly ambiguous about what they intend to do about the nuclear agreement. Do they want to tear it up completely, or use it as a bargaining tool to get the Iranians to tone down their aggressive activities in the region? Does Trump intend to complain about the treaty, but still abide by the agreement’s provisions because he knows it is better to have something in place restraining Iran’s nuclear program than not?
Trump seems to be pursuing a minimalist strategy that is the opposite of Teddy Roosevelt’s famous maxim, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” So far, Trump’s style is more akin to, “Yell at the top of your lungs, but brandish a wet noodle.”
Trump’s stated goal—to tear up the Iran nuclear agreement—runs contrary to the consensus of allies, the U.S. national security establishment and the international community, all of whom think the deal is worth preserving and who believe Iran is in compliance. If Trump proceeds in a confrontational manner, he is unlikely to achieve any lasting results that enhance security in the region for the U.S. or its allies.
On the campaign trail, Trump said that, as leader, he would hide his intended action in order to confuse our enemies. He seems to have done that brilliantly, confusing enemies and allies alike.
So far, the response from Iran and America’s allies who helped negotiate the agreement has been largely negative—with the exclusion of French President Emmanuel Macron, who has said that he would be willing to revisit the details of the accord to constrain Iranian adventurism in the region. Further disagreement on the value of the pact could enable Iran to split the U.S. from its European allies.
No Alternatives in Sight
For something that has such profound implications for the success or failure of Trump’s foreign policy, the administration has been painfully slow to offer any enticement that might make Tehran want to renegotiate the deal. Nor has the U.S. suggested any other arrangement.
If Trump believes he can compel the Iranians to the negotiating table by threats and blather, he has something to learn about Iran. Such actions only strengthen the hand of the religious and security hardliners in Tehran. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has said all along that the U.S. cannot be trusted to uphold the agreement, and the Trump administration’s recent talk of decertification plays right into that narrative.
Even though Republicans control both houses of Congress and Trump has attempted to throw the ball into their laps, he cannot rely on them to craft his administration’s response to the JCPOA. The congressional agenda is too full of domestic items.
Besides, the JCPOA is an agreement, not a treaty, and Congress had no role in negotiating or shaping it. Some in Congress may try to reimpose sanctions, under the Iranian Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015. This oversight legislation was enacted before the JCPOA and is intended to be used to punish Iran should it be deemed to be in violation of an accord. If that were to happen, Iran would most likely opt out of the pact.
The stakes are high.
First, a failed agreement probably would signal that no agreement is possible between Iran and the United States, and set both down a path toward potential confrontation. Iran’s leadership most likely will interpret that as a first U.S. step toward regime change in Tehran.
A Short Path Toward Nukes
A break in the agreement also almost certainly would set Iran on a short path toward a nuclear weapon that might, in turn, spur Iran’s neighbors to develop their own means of deterrence. Once tensions escalate to this level, regional conflict becomes more likely.
Another ramification of tearing up the agreement would be its impact on U.S. efforts to tame North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities. Why would Kim Jong Un believe an American offer to negotiate if he sees the U.S. turn its back on the agreement with Iran? His response probably would be to redouble efforts to develop the capability to strike the U.S. homeland as his only insurance against annihilation by America.
Finally, the stakes are high for the architecture of the entire Middle East. New alignments are emerging with Russia and Iran (and Tehran’s proxies in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq) squaring off against a new axis that runs through Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Cairo and Tel Aviv.
Generational shifts in the region, such as in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, may give rise to untested and inexperienced leadership that could have deep consequences for war and peace. Iran seems intent on cementing the gains of its steadfast defense of the Assad regime, and it is determined to spread its influence throughout the region. Ironically, that is a goal the U.S. enabled by removing Saddam Hussein from power.
Trump’s own chaotic leadership style sows chaos in the region while undermining U.S. credibility as an ally and/or a deterrent force. His presidency could not come at a worse time.