If Trump Won’t Certify the Nuke Deal, He Should Do This Instead
There is a way for the administration to address the agreement’s shortcomings while sustaining its gains.
Despite assessments by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and the secretary of state that Iran is in compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal, along with a public acknowledgement from the secretary of defense that it is in the U.S. national interest to stay in the agreement, President Donald Trump is expected to give a policy speech on October 12 in which he will likely announce that he will not certify to Congress that Iran is abiding by its commitments. Though the administration is not likely to encourage Congress to reimpose all nuclear sanctions, the president’s refusal to certify will jeopardize an agreement that has successfully contained Iran’s nuclear ambitions. However, even if the president pursues this track, which we oppose, there is a way for the administration, Congress, and our European allies to jointly address the agreement’s shortcomings while sustaining its gains.
Some critics of the deal have proposed that the president withold certification, and Congress or the administration reimpose some sanctions, including measures to sabotage the multibillion-dollar civil aviation agreements with Boeing and Airbus that the deal explicitly permits. Then, leveraging the fear among U.S. allies that the United States will utterly abandon the agreement and hammer more foreign companies with sanctions, the United States should force Europe to agree to jointly present Iran with an ultimatum and new conditions Iran would have to meet to keep more sanctions from being reimposed.
This strategy will fail. Iran would walk away over what is clearly a U.S. breach of the deal. Our outraged European allies would not capitulate, and would view the United States as a bully acting in bad faith.
Instead, the United States should pursue an approach based on years of credibility and consensus building with international partners, established by both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations. Together, transatlantic partners crafted a sanctions regime and diplomatic engagement strategy that yielded nuclear concessions by Iran. Now, it will similarly take years to pursue an effective, coordinated strategy to deal with remaining challenges.
Here is how this can be done: While not certifying Iran’s compliance with the deal, Trump should announce a tough strategy to use powerful existing (not reimposed) sanctions authorities and limited military and intelligence actions to counter Iran’s regional actions. This does not mean launching a war, but rather taking limited steps to send a firm signal, such as doing more to expose Iran’s support for surrogates and proxies in the Middle East and interdicting weapons shipments across the region. He should also call for an immediate partnership with Europe to address his biggest concerns with the nuclear agreement.
For their part, European leaders should speak up loudly, as a few already have, clarifying that they will work with the United States, and be flexible, as long as the United States keeps the nuclear deal in place.
A first task for the partners should be the formation of a Europe-United States working group to facilitate European designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization and additional sanctions targeting Iran’s ballistic missile development and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Then, the partners should develop a common strategy to address expiration of key limitations on Iran’s nuclear program in eight to 13 years. This should include steps to coerce Iran into a supplemental nuclear agreement. But as previous negotiations with Iran have shown, coercion by itself is unlikely to work. Successfully negotiating a supplemental agreement will also require offering incentives such as reinstating so-called U-turn transfers for Iran through the U.S. financial system, or cooperation on civil nuclear technology in exchange for Iranian concessions.
Trump can then legitimately claim that he has succeeded in beginning to renegotiate the nuclear agreement as he promised. He can be clear that during this inevitably long and difficult process, the United States will hold steady on the current deal as long as Iran complies.
Congress then has numerous options to advance U.S. interests and do away with the constant cycle of deal crisis. It could amend current legislation so that the president no longer must certify every 90 days that Iran is abiding by the agreement. It could alternatively replace this requirement with a more limited certification that the United States and its partners are making progress in addressing the deal’s shortcomings. The International Atomic Energy Agency and the U.S intelligence community will monitor Iran’s nuclear commitments regardless.
On sanctions, Congress should continue the approach it favored two months ago when it created new missile and terrorism sanctions to counter Iran’s problematic actions, which were intentionally consistent with U.S. obligations under the nuclear deal.
This president-led strategy still involves risks. The president would put European partners in the bitter position of having to make public concessions under threat that the United States will destroy an agreement they care deeply about.
Moscow and Beijing will oppose these moves. However over time a united transatlantic front may be able to build consensus with Russia and China to address long-term nuclear security issues with Iran, if not Iran’s regional actions. This strategy will also cause consternation in Tehran and erode already grudging openness to nuclear diplomacy.
The best strategy for preserving and expanding U.S. credibility, security alliances, economic leverage, and nuclear safeguards lies with the president continuing to certify Iranian deal compliance this month while pursuing the approach we outline. But if Trump will not, this proposal is the best alternative for the United States to set the conditions for generating essential international support to counter Iran’s long-term nuclear ambitions and dangerous regional behavior.
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