U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (L) exits after attending a meeting of the parties to the Iran nuclear deal during the 72nd United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., September 20, 2017. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

October 26, 2017

Congress, Trump should work to improve Obama's flawed pact

Originally published in Sacramento Bee

President Trump has not killed the Iran nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA. He has asked Congress instead to identify its most important flaws and help solve them. Congress can — and should — work with President Trump to redress the gaps in U.S. policy toward Iran inherent in the deal without violating it.

Defenders argue that the U.S. should not mess with the deal because it’s “working” and Iran is complying with its obligations. But the president’s de-certification of the accord was not based solely on a claim of Iranian non-compliance.  The president found, instead, that relieving the nuclear sanctions imposed on Iran is not proportional to the security benefits the United States receives from the deal, and that this question requires serious consideration.

The agreement is fundamentally flawed because it lifts meaningful constraints on Iran’s non-nuclear malign activities in the region, without requiring any concessions from Iran outside of the nuclear portfolio. The JCPOA lifts important international restrictions on providing advanced and offensive weaponry to Iran in just three years. The deal also provides Iran with significant financial relief without any constraints about how the money can be used. The JCPOA does not limit Iran’s ballistic missile program. UN Security Council Resolution 2231 “calls on,” but does not require, Iran to refrain from strengthening its ballistic missile program in particular ways. It does not mention the activities of Iranian proxies and armed forces throughout the region.

The deal’s concessions to Iran would not be such serious threats to U.S. national security if Iran were a responsible regional actor, or had begun to moderate its non-nuclear harmful behavior. Indeed, the Obama administration apparently intended for the nuclear deal to lead the Iranian regime to voluntarily change its approach to regional activities. Iran, however, has not indicated it will roll back its adventurism or its support for terrorism. It has only increased its involvement in regional conflicts, especially in Syria and Iraq, with the deployment of its own conventional forces and tens of thousands of proxies, including Lebanese Hezbollah. Today, the U.S. must confront and roll back an increasing Iranian aggressiveness throughout the Middle East. Fear of undermining the deal must not stop America from doing what’s right.

Nonetheless, immediately withdrawing from the deal would be unwise. The ideal outcome for the U.S. is one that retains the restrictions on the Iranian nuclear program, while adding pressure to roll back Iranian negative activities. This is feasible. The deal does not constrain the U.S. or the international community from imposing additional sanctions or other pressure on Iran’s ballistic missile program and regional activities. Iranian claims that new non-nuclear pressures violate the deal should not deter the U.S. from imposing them.

Congress must work to extend restrictions on Iran’s procurement of advanced weaponry well into the future. It should also develop additional forms of pressure to isolate Iran. Most important, Congress should conduct these efforts in concert with our European allies. The U.S. and its allies will need all the help they can get — the centrality of Iran’s ballistic missile program to its national security doctrine, as well as its reliance on a network of proxy militias and partners make it unlikely that Iran will willingly agree to meaningful restrictions on these program or militias without substantial coercive measures.

Any solution to the shortcomings of the Iran deal most likely will entail an international effort to compel Iran to capitulate on some of its non-nuclear bad behavior. American national security will be best served by recognizing — and acting upon — the reality that the nuclear deal as written will not resolve the threats posed by Iran.