WASHINGTON — Since US President Donald Trump certified that Iran was honoring the nuclear deal in July, he has sent strong signals that he does not plan to do the same again come October, leaving experts unsure of his endgame and warning that such a move could mushroom into the disintegration of the entire pact even if Tehran is holding up its end of the deal.
“I think they’ll be noncompliant,” Trump told The Wall Street Journal earlier this month. “I do not expect that they will be in compliance.”
That interview came shortly after a report in Foreign Policy said the president, after grudgingly certifying Iran in July, told his aides to develop a case for why the regime has violated the agreement by the next deadline.
To do so, the administration will likely have to disregard the findings of inspectors with the International Atomic Energy Agency, who are expected to say Iran is respecting the landmark accord with minor lapses when they publish their latest report this week.
“The administration is sort of spinning to find a pathway to satisfy the president’s desire to assert Iran’s noncompliance, but without necessarily erupting a second nuclear crisis,” Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution, told The Times of Israel.
The administration is required to report to Congress every 180 days whether Iran is abiding with the 2015 deal, which curbed the Islamic Republic’s enrichment in exchange for sanctions relief.
Decertifying Iran would have no tangible impact on the deal. The mandate is an agreement former president Barack Obama forged with Congress that is separate from the international accord forged between Iran and world powers.
But it could set in motion a White House quest to undo the deal, said Aaron David Miller, a former State Department official who worked in several administrations.
“To my judgment, this is a willful effort, since most of what the president does is designed to reshape or overturn or undermine the policies of his predecessor, to begin the unraveling of this agreement,” Miller told The Times of Israel.
Trump, he said, wants to create “a cycle of dysfunction that will force the Iranians to respond — and they will respond — and before you know it, the deal will no longer be viable.”
Decertification would enable Congress to reimpose sanctions or impose new ones, which would be a US violation of the pact if Iran is actually honoring its commitments, said James Jeffery, former deputy national security adviser to George W. Bush and US ambassador to Iraq and Turkey.
But Jeffrey, who is now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said it was possible Trump wants to declare Iran noncompliant as a way to address the regime’s regional influence without actually pulling out of the pact. The message, he surmised, would be to shroud potential investors with uncertainty around doing business with Iran.
“I think that’s part of the logic of Trump — to raise questions about whether America will adhere to this deal or blow it up, and therefore put pressure on firms around the world not to deal with Iran, because what Trump doesn’t want is an economically healthy Iran, because the more economically healthy Iran is, the more money it has and the more it puts money into” its nefarious regional activities, Jeffrey said.
In July, it was widely reported that Trump wanted to declare Iran noncompliant, but that various members of his national security team, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, talked him out of it.
Miller predicted those same advisers will likely try to persuade the president from doing so again.
Jeffrey, too, estimated that the White House will ultimately stop short of taking this action — one reason being the reaction from the rest of the P5+1 powers who are members of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the deal is formally known.
“Countries will resist, and if they resist, then everybody else will be trading happily with Iran and we’ll be left out in the cold,” he said. “So I don’t think the administration will do this.”
But if the president does declare Iran noncompliant while the broad international consensus is that the rogue nation is maintaining its end of the bargain, Miller warned the repercussions for the United States could extend beyond the nuclear realm, comparing it to false intelligence that led to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
“This is the other danger that goes way beyond the Iran agreement, that cuts to the core of American credibility and functionality abroad,” he said. “If there’s a perception that the books were cooked on this, that a decision was made for whatever reason — to undermine Obama, to satisfy domestic politics — this will be even worse than whatever consequences and implications there are for the deal falling apart.”
“It’s Iraq redux,” he added. “It’s going to hurt us badly.”