Between now and October 15, the fate of the Iran deal rests in Donald J. Trump’s hands. Well not completely. Congress will have 60 days to decide what to do with Trump’s recertification of the deal or lack thereof. Trump also has the capability to force a crisis at the UN. There is also the chance Trump could swallow his ego and do the right thing and recertify the deal, in which case the world could breathe easy for another 90-days.
It’s important to first understand the context of the October 15 deadline. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is the UN’s nuclear watchdog organization and is responsible for certifying Iran’s compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or the Iran deal.
In 2015, Iran agreed to halt its nuclear weapons program in exchange for UN and international sanctions relief. Thus far, the IAEA has certified Iran has maintained its end of the deal. The agreement does not include anything unrelated to the development of weapons-grade uranium. This means Iran’s activities in the region are not a “material breach” of the deal or violate the “spirit of the agreement.”
That is not to say Iran’s activities- its support for Hezbollah in Syria/Lebanon, the Houthi rebels in Yemen, or the Shia Militia groups in Iraq- are not destabilizing factors in the region. At the time, the Obama administration could not press the Iranians on these other activities. The only way the US could get Iran to the table was to focus on Iran’s nuclear program.
There’s an added bit of US legislation attached to the Iran deal, the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA). This requires the president to appear before Congress every 90-days to recertify Iran’s compliance with the deal. This reporting requires three questions to be answered by the president. First, that Iran is implementing the deal. Second, that Iran is not in material breach of the deal. Third, that Iran has not taken any action to advance their nuclear weapons program.
On the campaign trail, Trump railed against the Iran deal and promised to rip it up and negotiate a “better” deal. Trump liked to state the deal was too one-sided in Iran’s favor. In fact, Trump appeared at the “Rally against the Iran deal” with “Little” Marco, when the deal itself initially sat before Congress.
There are a few problems with Trump’s wish to dismantle the deal, namely that none of the other signatories to the deal are with him, key figures within his administration have come out against him, and it will only take a few Republicans to defect to block Trump’s plan. Not to mention, Trump does not have much an argument for not recertifying the deal, as the IAEA has confirmed multiple times that Iran is complying with the deal. Moreover, no intelligence agency has found any evidence to the contrary. There is also the added bonus that Trump’s unnecessarily aggressive behavior might give Iran the moral high ground in the eyes of the international community.
Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Zarif asked Europe to defy US sanctions should Trump scuttle the deal on October 15. Zarif also stated that Iran would continue to follow the deal if the other signatories upheld it. This would mean the UK, France, Germany, Russia and China would all need to remain committed to the deal and defy the US; otherwise known as the P5+1 excluding the US.
The EU foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini affirmed at the UN last month that the EU parties to the deal are not interested in revisiting the agreement. That essentially leaves a deadlock at the international level. The reason the Iran deal materialized was international support from US allies.
Should this be the sequence of events, Trump could further cause problems by holding a UN Security Council vote on whether or not the UN sanctions should continue being paused or allowed to continue. The US alone could reinstate the UN sanctions with a simple veto triggering the ‘snapback’ clause of the deal. This would put the other signatories in a bit of a dilemma between adhering to international law or rejecting a bad policy decision on the part of the US.
On the US side of things, there is Congress’ decision to factor into the equation. If Trump were occupying the presidency immediately after the Iran deal was struck Congress would have more than likely reinstated Iran’s sanctions and scuttled the deal. Now, that is not a sure bet, and only a few Republicans are needed to block Trump. Even Democrats that were originally against the deal want to keep the deal in place. There are also more than a few fence riders that could vote in the direction of maintaining the Iran deal.
That brings us to Trump’s cabinet, where one would assume everyone in the administration is on the same page. On Tuesday, Secretary of Defense Mattis sat before the Senate Armed Services Committee. During his time before the committee, Mattis stated it was in the best national security interests for the US to remain in the nuclear agreement, because Iran has maintained its end of the bargain. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford reinforced Mattis’ statement by stating Iran’s nuclear program had been delayed by the Iran deal.
Both of the statements before the Senate committee by Mattis and Dunford echoed the support from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Treasury Steve Mnuchin. Thus far, the only two members of the Trump administration to voice their support for backing out of the Iran deal are US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley and CIA Director Mike Pompeo.
Lacking general support at the international level would ruin US national security interests by demonstrating the US is not a reliable partner or negotiator. The end result could be a nuclear-armed Iran. At home, Trump lacks support from Congress and from cabinet members that matter the most.