After Trump Decertifies Iran Deal, Congress Must Decide its Future

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President Donald Trump delivers remarks announcing the result of the administration’s strategic review of the policy toward Iran, October 13, 2017, in the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House. Credit: White House/D. Myles Cullen

In fulfilling a key campaign pledge, President Donald Trump announced in a White House speech Friday he decertified the Iranian nuclear deal as part of a new and tougher approach towards the Islamic Republic. The move brings a new level of challenges and uncertainty in handling one of the most complex international agreements in recent years.

“We cannot and will not make this certification,” Trump said. “We will not continue down a path whose predictable conclusion is more violence, more terror and the very real threat of Iran’s nuclear breakout.”

Proponents of the deal fear dismantling it could lead Iran to restarting its nuclear weapons program, while also undermine U.S. leadership and credibility. Opponents, including Trump, believe the deal doesn’t go far enough in addressing Iran’s ballistic missile program and regional behavior.

“President Trump’s Iran speech set the U.S. on the right path to fix a nuclear accord that members of his administration have rightly called ‘fatally flawed,’” Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told JNS.org.

“The president’s framing of decertification matters just as much as the decision itself,” he said. “By placing Iran’s problematic behavior under the accord in the broader context of the non-nuclear threats the Islamic Republic poses, as well as the decades-old enmity Tehran has harbored against the West and the U.S., Trump reminded audiences why the Islamic Republic remains a rogue regime.”

According to Trump, the new strategy to deal with Iran will include working with allies to counter Tehran’s “destabilizing activities and support for terrorist proxies in the region,” as well as addressing the “regime’s proliferation of [ballistic] missiles and weapons that threaten its neighbors, global trade and freedom of navigation.”

Trump also blamed his predecessor, President Barack Obama, for lifting sanctions on Iran right before “what would have been the total collapse of the Iranian regime.”

“As I have said many times, the Iran deal was one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into,” the president declared.

Punting to Congress

While the decertification stops short of pulling out of the agreement, the move sends a decision to Congress regarding whether to reimpose sanctions originally lifted in 2016.

“It remains to be seen what Congress will decide, but ultimately, I think there will be support for the president to deal with then non-nuclear sources of Iranian aggression,” Ben Taleblu said. “While some may see the decertification as akin to a withdrawal from the JCPOA (the Iran deal’s formal name), that would be a mistake.”

Under the 2015 nuclear deal, which was negotiated along with the U.K., France, Germany, Russia and China, U.S. law states that the Trump administration must certify every 90 days whether it believes Iran is in compliance with the agreement. While international nuclear inspectors and U.S. intelligence agencies say Iran has been in compliance, the Trump administration has argued Tehran violated the spirit of the deal through ballistic missile testing and its regional aggression. In accordance with the law, Congress now has 60 days to decide whether or not to reimpose the sanctions.

President Donald Trump, shown on screens, addresses the United Nations General Assembly Sept. 19. Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten.

The Trump administration has been working with Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) to devise a plan for legislation that would set new conditions for U.S. participation.

“We have provided a route to overcome deficiencies and to keep the administration in the deal,” Corker told reporters during a conference call Friday. “And actually make it the kind of deal that it should have been in the first place.”

According to The New York Times, the Trump administration is asking Congress to establish “trigger points” that would prompt the U.S. to reimpose sanctions. This could include continued ballistic missile launches by Iran, a refusal by Iran to extend constraints on its nuclear fuel production or intelligence that Iran could produce a nuclear weapon in less than a year.

Congress will also seek to address the so-called “sunset clauses” in the agreement, which allow Iran to have a pathway to the bomb no later than 2030.

Nevertheless, Trump said he would cancel the deal if Congress does not come up with a solution.

“In the event we are not able to reach a solution working with Congress and our allies, then the agreement will be terminated,” he said. “It is under continuous review and our participation can be cancelled by me, as president, at any time.”

While Republican leaders seemed open to the idea of renegotiating the Iran deal, senior Democrats, even those who opposed the original 2015 accord, denounced Trump’s move.

“I strongly disagree with the President’s reckless, political decision and his subsequent threat to Congress,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement. “Despite his assertions to the contrary, the President’s rhetoric and actions today directly threaten U.S. national security and damage our credibility and reputation on the world stage.”

Iran’s reaction

Shortly after Trump’s speech, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said the American leader could not decide the fate of the deal on his own.

“This is an international, multilateral deal that has been ratified by the U.N. Security Council. It is a U.N. document. Is it possible for a president to unilaterally decertify this deal? Apparently, he’s not in the know,” said Rouhani.

Ben Taleblu said that “the most important Iranian reaction to the deal remains Foreign Minister [Mohammad Javad] Zarif’s September commentary calling the debate over decertification an ‘internal procedure.’”

The impact on Israel

Prior to Trump’s address, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reportedly called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been a strong critic of the deal, to update him on the contents of Trump’s strategy.

In an address to the United Nations General Assembly last month, Netanyahu urged the world community to “fix or nix” the nuclear deal.

Netanyahu said Friday that Trump had “boldly confronted Iran’s terrorist regime.”

“If the Iran deal is left unchanged, one thing is absolutely certain—in a few years’ time, the world’s foremost terrorist regime will have an arsenal of nuclear weapons,” he said.

Netanyahu said Trump’s actions have led to an opportunity to fix “this bad deal, to roll back Iran’s aggression and to confront its criminal support of terrorism.”

Europe’s view

The European Union’s top diplomat, Federica Mogherini, said the Iranian agreement was “working and delivering” and that Trump did not have the power to terminate it.

Meanwhile, the leaders of the U.K., France and Germany, who were all involved in the 2015 agreement, said in a joint statement that they remain committed to the deal.

British Prime Minister Theresa May, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel said they “encourage the U.S. administration and Congress to consider the implications to the security of the U.S. and its allies before taking any steps that might undermine the JCPOA, such as re-imposing sanctions on Iran lifted under the agreement.”

Nevertheless, Taleblu said most European leaders understand the threat that Tehran poses and the deficiencies in the nuclear agreement, and believes now is the time for the U.S. to engage in diplomacy with Europe.