After weeks of tension and buildup, today Donald Trump finally unveiled his new Iran strategy. As with so many of the President’s policy initiatives, he is promising a major new approach to Iran, while delivering very little. But while Trump’s Iran speech was largely an empty, grandstanding gesture, it is a gesture with potentially dangerous consequences.
For weeks now, questions have swirled about whether Donald Trump would refuse to certify that Iran is complying with the nuclear deal. Certification — a stipulation initially placed on President Obama by a skeptical Congress — requires Trump to certify every 90 days that Iran is abiding by the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
As it has twice before, the certification requirement poses problems for the president. It brings the reality that Iran is clearly complying with the deal into conflict with Trump’s personal distaste and distrust for the agreement. On previous occasions, aides were barely able to prevail upon the President to certify Iranian compliance.
This time, unable to do so, they appear instead to have found a loophole. The president got his desire to decertify Iran and denounce the deal. Yet in this case decertification is not based on Iranian compliance, but rather on the grounds that the deal is not in the national interest. Nor did the White House advocate that Congress should re-impose the nuclear sanctions.
In many ways, this whole exercise appears to be an empty, face-saving gesture for a president whose antipathy towards his predecessor’s legacy is legendary. Congress does not even have to vote on sanctions re-imposition. This whole issue could quietly disappear.
Yet the risk exists that Congress will indeed choose to re-impose nuclear-related sanctions. Existing legislation requires only a simple majority vote to re-impose sanctions, effectively withdrawing the United States from the JCPOA, hurting our relations with European allies, and undermining our global nonproliferation goals more generally.
The White House’s proposed path is almost as bad. Senior officials have suggested that Congress instead amend existing legislation, removing the 90-day certification requirement and replacing it with a series of “trigger points.” Given the president’s unpredictability, it might seem that removing the certification requirement would be beneficial for the long-term survival of the nuclear deal.
Yet the “trigger points” create bigger risks. At each point — whether it is further Iranian ballistic missile launches or the simple sunset of various provisions of the nuclear deal — this idea would simply snap back sanctions on Iran, with no further congressional action required.
One such plan has already been proposed by Iran hawks, Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn). This plan would snapback sanctions in cases such as Iranian ballistic missile testing, or if the breakout time for Iran to gain a nuclear weapon dropped below one year. In doing so, it might save the nuclear deal today, while almost guaranteeing that it will collapse in the future.
Congress should be wary of helping the president in his face-saving exercise, and refuse to amend the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA). It no doubt seems reasonable to remove the certification requirement from the hands of our erratic president. So-called “trigger points” may even seem like a reasonable response to congressional concerns about Iranian behavior outside the bounds of the nuclear deal, from ballistic missile testing, to the activities of Iranian proxies throughout the region.
But in reality, such legislation is disturbingly likely to undermine the JCPOA. “Trigger points” undermine the deal by threatening the automatic re-imposition of sanctions even if Iran remains in full compliance with the deal. They are a Sword of Damocles, poised perilously above the JCPOA, ready to destroy it.