A staff member removes the Iranian flag from the stage after a group picture with foreign ministers and representatives of the U.S., Iran, China, Russia, Britain, Germany, France and the European Union during the Iran nuclear talks at the Vienna International Center in Vienna, Austria July 14, 2015. To match Analysis USA-ELECTION/IRAN REUTERS/Carlos Barria

October 13, 2017

Confusion over the Iran deal

Originally published in AEI

Confusion about the Iran nuclear deal and what President Trump will announce today is staggering. Let’s just lay out a few facts to help contextualize his decision.

  1. Trump is not pulling the US out of the nuclear deal at this time. He is likely to announce that he will not certify that continuing US sanctions relief as mandated by the deal supports US national security interests. Congress requires him to make such a certification every 90 days. By refusing to certify, Trump sends the matter back to Congress, which must decide whether or not to continue the sanctions relief. All of this is US inside baseball turning largely on whether the ball is with the president or Congress to retain the sanctions relief promised in the nuclear deal. It is not a decision on whether to remain in the deal or not.
  2. The president’s decision to continue suspending sanctions while sending the matter back to Congress is a decision to remain in the deal for now. All the legislation authorizing pre-deal sanctions remains in place — sanctions relief is the result of President Obama’s decision to use the national security waivers in that legislation to suspend the sanctions. Refusing to certify that suspending sanctions remains in America’s national security interest does not violate the nuclear deal — reimposing sanctions would.
  3. Trump could withdraw from the deal completely at his discretion without requiring any justification or Congressional approval. The deal is an executive agreement between the White House, Iran, and the heads of state of several European countries. It is not a treaty, and Congress chose not to vote on whether or not to approve it after it had been signed.
  4. Presidential certification under the law does not turn only on Iran’s compliance with the deal. The president must also certify, independent of the question of compliance, that “suspension of sanctions related to Iran pursuant to the agreement is (I) appropriate and proportionate to the specific and verifiable measures taken by Iran with respect to terminating its illicit nuclear program; and (II) vital to the national security interests of the United States.”
  5.  Trump’s announcement today, therefore, reflects a decision to remain in the deal for now as well as an attempt to highlight its weaknesses and force Congress to establish clearer principles and benchmarks by which to evaluate whether the deal serves American interests or not.

There is also confusion about how the deal relates to the Iranian missile program and to Iranian malign activities in the region and around the world. Here are some key points:

  • The deal itself says nothing whatsoever about the Iranian missile program. That program appears only in the United Nations Security Council Resolution approving the deal (UNSCR 2231). But even there, the UN only “calls on” Iran to refrain from advancing its missile program in certain ways — it does not require Iran to do so, and specifies no penalties if Iran continues its missile program.
  • The deal imposes no restrictions on Iranian malign activities in the region — supporting proxies such as Lebanese Hezbollah, Iraqi Shi’a militias, or the (sanctioned) Assad regime. UNSCR 2231 does not mention those activities at all.
  • The deal does, however, facilitate all of those activities, including advancing Iran’s missile program, by lifting all restrictions on providing advanced and offensive weaponry to Iran in about three years. It also helps Iran build its military, support its proxies, and continue its activities against the US and its allies in the region by providing financial relief without even nominally constraining what that relief could be used for.
  • The deal does not in any way constrain America’s ability to impose sanctions or take other actions against the Iranian missile program or regional activities. It requires the US only to lift nuclear-related sanctions, not all sanctions as the Iranians periodically suggest. Imposing sanctions on Iranian entities for the missile program, for proxy activity, terrorism, cyber activity, or human rights violations is not a violation of nor withdrawal from the deal.

The nuclear deal was a deeply flawed agreement from the beginning. It made sense only on the presumption that the Iranian regime would voluntarily change its approach to regional activities, its missile program, and even its nuclear program. All evidence so far suggests that the regime has not changed its approach and does not intend to do so. It is by no means clear, therefore, that the deal is actually in America’s national security interest, let alone that it is valuable enough to continue making the kinds of additional concessions the Obama Administration was willing to make to persuade the Iranians to remain in it.

We must deal with one final myth about the deal as well — that the choice is remaining in the deal or going to war with Iran. President Obama and his team sold the deal largely on that basis, and deal advocates continue to claim that the deal was the alternative to war. Not so. One alternative would be to return to the posture of heavy sanctions and other pressures short of war that coerced the regime to accept this deal in the first place, but this time with the aim of addressing Iran’s other damaging behavior as well. Another would be to put in place a real containment policy aimed at folding the regime in upon itself, as we did with the Soviet Union, until it ultimately changes its nature from within — hopefully peacefully.

President Trump has chosen to remain in the deal for now while trying to focus attention and force action on some of its weaknesses. One can question the timing and details of this decision and, of course, the undisciplined commentary surrounding it. But the decision itself is actually quite moderate and could advance American national security interests if the president and Congress move forward intelligently.