Q&A: The State of the Iran Deal

January 8, 2018

By this time next week, we’ll likely know if President Trump has decided to violate the Iran nuclear agreement and withdraw the US from the pact.

We’ve long heard him disparage the deal — and threaten to tear it up. In October, when Trump baselessly chose not to certify that the agreement remained in the United States’ interest, he punted responsibility for the deal over to Congress. Thanks in part to your effective advocacy efforts, Congress heeded the warnings of experts and declined to pass any legislation that would kill the agreement by reimposing nuclear sanctions.

But with several looming deal-related deadlines in the next ten days, the ball is once again in the president’s court.

What’s the first deadline?

There are a few key nuclear deal-related deadlines coming up. First, on January 11, the president once again faces a Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA) deadline to certify to Congress whether Iran is complying with its obligations under the deal, and whether the deal remains in the national security interests of the United States. The president is required to make this certification every 90 days. Last time, in October, he refused to do so — ignoring the recommendations of his own secretary of defense.

By declining to certify, Trump opened up a 60-day window (mandated by INARA) in which the Senate could reimpose nuclear sanctions and kill the deal with just a simple majority vote. But Congress declined to take any such action. Now, the president could de-certify again. Since he’s already de-certified once, no one is certain what the practical consequences of doing so a second time would be.

If de-certifying again does nothing, or just punts the agreement to Congress again, then how can Trump kill the deal all by himself?

This is where the vital second set of deadlines comes in. From January 12-17, the president is required to reissue sanctions waivers in order to sustain US compliance with the terms of the nuclear agreement. If Trump refuses to sign the waivers, that would violate the deal — essentially withdrawing the US from the JCPOA without legitimate cause and setting off a new foreign policy crisis.

How are the widespread protests in Iran impacting the decision and the debate around the agreement?

Over the past two weeks, the world has been closely watching the widespread protests that have broken out in Iran. Beginning in provincial areas among working-class Iranians who have been hit hardest by the country’s economic woes and rising prices, they have spread across the country. While demands and grievances vary, the protests have targeted the Iranian regime and its policies, demanding greater freedoms, equality and economic opportunity.

Dozens of protesters, if not more, have been killed as the regime seeks to crack down without creating an even deeper crisis. As observers around the world express support for the Iranian people, some right-wing neo-conservative pundits and lobbyists are trying to co-opt the protests to advance their own campaign to kill the nuclear agreement. They argue that the US violating the deal now would undermine the agreement and show support for the protesters.

Do these neocon arguments have any validity?

Simply put — no. What’s happening in Iran right now is both complex and encouraging — and any drastic action by the US can only make it worse. The Iran nuclear agreement is extremely popular among the Iranian people, who see it as a much-needed diplomatic opening to the world that could help relieve sanctions, improve the economy and make the country less isolated. By killing the deal now, Trump would play right into the hands of the regime hardliners who hate it — and would use the move as an excuse to redirect public outrage toward the United States.

Moreover, pulling out of the agreement could put Iran back on the path of nuclear weapons development, which could put Iran and the US on the path to war. And while a military conflict with Iran would be disastrous for US interests, the greatest victim would be the millions of Iranian people caught in the crossfire.

As many experts and leaders have pointed out, the best possible strategy for the US right now is “Do no harm.” Even Republican Senator Bob Corker, the Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, told a reporter that the protests shouldn’t impact the fate of the deal and that the US should keep clear of the protests. Corker said: “That just gives them an outside force to focus on and divert people’s interest or interest towards us instead of towards the Iranian government itself.”

Do we have any idea which way Trump is leaning on the waivers decision?

As always with this White House, it’s hard to say. We know that Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have used the protests as an opportunity to slam then-President Obama for allegedly not doing enough to support Iranian protesters in 2009 — and to talk tough about how this time, the US will act. And we know that Trump has spent his entire campaign and presidency railing against the nuclear deal — and against diplomacy in general.

In October, he ignored the recommendations of his own secretary of defense, secretary of state and Joint Chiefs, and made clear that he doesn’t care whether the agreement is serving its intended purpose of blocking Iran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon. He threatened that if Congress did not act to “fix” the agreement, he would end it unilaterally. So there’s strong reason to believe he may jump at the chance to kill the deal all by himself.

At the same time, it’s possible that the national security team could win out with their arguments about the dangerous consequences of walking away from the agreement now. Trump may be wary of facing the full blame for yet another self-created foreign policy crisis — without any cover from Congress.

A senior administration official told the Financial Times on Thursday that while it’s highly unlikely the president would re-certify the agreement, no decision has been made yet on the sanctions waivers. “We haven’t decided what we’re going to do on the Iran deal”.

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