President Donald Trump decertified Iran’s compliance with the nuclear agreement on Friday, saying that the Obama-era accord is not in the national security interest of the United States, despite prevailing arguments by intelligence officials claiming otherwise.
“I am directing my administration to work closely with Congress and our allies to address the deal’s many serious flaws, so that the Iranian regime can never threaten the world with nuclear weapons,” Trump said. “However, in the event we are not able to reach a solution working with Congress and our allies, the agreement will be terminated.”
The decertfication comes just over a week after Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said the United States should remain in the agreement. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) — the body responsible for verifying Iran’s compliance with the deal — Iran has been “fulfilling the commitments it entered into” under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). U.S. intelligence, Israeli intelligence, President Trump’s top military brass, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have all stated that there’s no evidence that Iran has violated the terms of the deal.
Trump did not call for Congress to immediately reimpose sanctions on Iran, and his announcement doesn’t mean the United States is immediately withdrawing. Rather, the deal — which restricts the country’s nuclear program in exchange for limited sanctions relief — now moves to Congress. Under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015 (INARA), Congress will have 60 days to decide whether the United States will re-impose the sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear program. Sanctions would violate the agreement, thus contributing to the deal’s demise.
During his announcement, Trump recommended another pathway towards addressing what the administration sees as weaknesses in the original deal. First, the president proposed that Congress amend INARA to include two key provisions: one triggering immediate sanctions if Iran commits various “destabilizing” activities, which could include things like Iran’s ballistic missile program or its foreign policy, and one addressing various sunset dates within the JCPOA. On a White House press briefing call late Thursday, Tillerson presented the amendments as a middle-of-the-road approach, but according to national security experts, tying “snapback” sanctions to actions outside of the JCPOA would be a direct violation of the accord.
Second, Trump said he would direct the Department of the Treasury to undertake additional actions, in the form of targeted sanctions, to address Iran’s security and military arm known as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) “for its support for terrorism,” adding “I urge our allies to support us.”
Republican Sens. Tom Cotton (AR) and Bob Corker (TN), one of INARA’s original authors who recently clashed with the president on Twitter, have worked with the administration to introduce legislation as part of Trump’s strategy. The proposal would amend INARA to automatically reimpose U.S. sanctions if Iran violates certain restrictions. Cotton, one of the most outspoken critics of the deal, told a live audience last week that even military strikes against Iran are a “credible option.”
Asked if he is concerned about the impression that decertifying will leave on Iranians, particularly given Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s comments in August that the United States “can’t be trusted,” Tillerson replied, “I think they can trust that we’ll never do a deal this weak again.”
Trump said Friday that Iran has “committed multiple violations of the agreement” and has violated “the spirit of the deal” with its “hostile actions.” The President’s strong rhetoric differed from Tillerson’s tone, who said Thursday that “we don’t disagree that [the Iranians are] under technical compliance.”
Tillerson said that decertification keeps the deal in tact and allows Congress to fix it. He said the administration is not suggesting that Congress impose additional sanctions, as such a move would be “tantamount to us walking out.”
Opponents and proponents of the deal alike see Trump’s decision to decertify as an attempt to kill the agreement, without pulling out of it outright or attempting to renegotiate it — actions that the other parties to the JCPOA (China, Russia, the European Union, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany) strongly oppose.
Although President Trump has, since taking office, renewed U.S. sanctions waivers and recertified Iran’s compliance with the deal twice, as part of the terms of the JCPOA, he has simultaneously instituted new sanctions outside of the deal, targeting Iran’s ballistic missile program and the IRGC. The JCPOA does not contain restrictions pertaining to ballistic missiles.
The move to decertify is the result of the Trump administration’s months-long strategy in its efforts to undermine the deal — an approach focusing less on Iran’s compliance and more on Iran’s actions outside of the deal. This shift in focus mirrors the longstanding rhetoric of numerous neoconservative think tanks and war hawks, including former Ambassador John Bolton and right-wing groups like the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, who have the ear of the president and have opposed the deal since its inception.
Over the past few months, the Trump administration has taken much of this rhetoric to heart. Ahead of the U.N. General Assembly meeting last month, Trump met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss “countering Iran’s malign influence in the region” and “Iran’s terrorist activities,” according to a State Department press briefing following the meeting. And during a speech at the conservative American Enterprise Institute last month, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley mentioned Iran’s foreign policy and its human rights violations — things that do not fall under the scope of the nuclear deal — as reasons to renege on the agreement.
It is unclear whether Senate Republicans have the votes to reimpose nuclear-related sanctions against Iran. Tillerson said House and Senate leaders have been supportive of the proposal to amend INARA, but stopped short of saying the plan has bipartisan approval. “This is a bit of complicated issue,” Tillerson said. “I don’t want to suggest to you that this is a slam dunk up there on the hill.”
European parties to the agreement have said they will do everything they can to preserve the deal, but a U.S. withdrawal — or a violation in the form of sanctions — would effectively spell its end.
“If the feeling is the United States no longer supports the agreement, then the political reality is that the deal will be in serious jeopardy and its implementation will be very difficult,” a senior French diplomat told Reuters on Wednesday.