WASHINGTON — With White House officials disclosing this week that US President Donald Trump intends to decertify the Iran nuclear deal, the most consistent dissent has centered around what the move would do to American credibility.
Shortly after The Washington Post broke news of the administration’s plans on Thursday, a senior aide to a top-ranking Senate Democrat told The Times of Israel that Democrats see a Trump refusal to certify Iran’s compliance with the accord as a misguided step toward addressing the regime’s non-nuclear provocations.
“The maximum point of leverage to address Iran’s nefarious activities is now, before [Trump’s] expected terrible decision,” the aide said, “not after, when he undermines America’s credibility to uphold its commitments with our allies and partners.
“Democrats believe the president should make the certification, full stop,” he went on. “Congress already sent him comprehensive sanctions to deal with non-nuclear issues like terrorism, human rights abuses and ballistic missile and other arms violations.”
In July, Congress passed the Countering US Adversaries Through Sanctions Act of 2017, which imposed new sanctions on North Korea, Russia and Iran. Trump signed the legislation into law, but the bill had already garnered enough support to override a presidential veto, essentially forcing his hand.
Nevertheless, Trump sees additional action on the Iran front as part of an overall policy shift toward the Islamic Republic.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters during the daily briefing Friday that he “isn’t looking at one piece of this. He’s looking at all of the bad behavior of Iran, not just the nuclear deal as bad behavior, but the ballistic missile testing, the destabilizing in the region. He wants to look for a broad strategy that addresses all of those problems.”
If Trump does ultimately refuse to certify that Tehran is abiding by the terms of the landmark July 2015 pact — which relieved sanctions against Iran in exchange for rolling back its nuclear program — that will give Congress a 60-day review period to decide whether to reimpose sanctions that were in place before it was implemented.
Decertification would not abrogate the accord, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, itself. Rather, it is part of a separate agreement former president Barack Obama forged with Congress that required the White House to verify every 90 days that Iran is keeping its end of the bargain.
European officials have already begun lobbying lawmakers on Capitol Hill to uphold the agreement, which both International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors and the US intelligence community assert Iran is honoring.
Critics argue that for the US to say Iran isn’t living up to its commitments when, in fact, it is will have long-lasting ramifications.
“Decertification would be a fateful step, not because it puts the JCPOA at risk but because it would put our credibility and relationship at risk,” wrote conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin this week.
Foreign officials have made the same point.
“We do trust America’s word, as Europeans,” David O’Sullivan, the European Union’s ambassador to Washington, told The Atlantic. “But I think this is a question, and I’ve heard this mentioned around Congress as well, that how America proceeds on this issue would have implications for the credibility of US behavior in other situations such as, for example, the North Korea situation.”
Some US officials have suggested that even though Trump wants to decertify Iran’s compliance, he doesn’t want to tear up the deal. Rather, he wants to use decertification as an opportunity to address Iran’s ongoing ballistic missile testing and renegotiate aspects of the deal, most notably sunset provisions that allow restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program to expire.
But the fundamental issue of what decertifying Iran would mean to US credibility has concerned many of Washington’s most eminent foreign policy thinkers, especially when just last week the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, said that “Iran is not in material breach of the agreement” and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that it is in “technical compliance” of the deal.
Veteran Middle East peace negotiator Dennis Ross wrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal last week that essentially gave the White House two potential arguments for decertifying.
Decertification would need to be justified, Ross said, by stating Iranian actions “that could significantly advance its nuclear weapons program.”
That would include saying that the IAEA does not have access to Iran’s military facilities and that Iran’s continuing development of ballistic missiles “seems to make sense only as a way to deliver nuclear warheads.”
Ross also said the administration should make clear — if it does decertify Iran’s compliance — that the move does not amount to its walking away from the deal.