WASHINGTON — With US President Donald Trump set to announce his broad strategy for confronting Tehran this week — which is expected to include him decertifying the Iran nuclear deal — Iran experts and members of Congress debated potential courses of action on Wednesday, with most participants, including fierce opponents of the deal, expressly stating that exiting from the pact would weaken America’s capacity for dealing with the challenges posed by the Islamic Republic.
“Walking away from the deal is not going to result in a better deal,” said James Jeffery, a former deputy national security adviser to George W. Bush and US ambassador to Iraq and Turkey, during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing Wednesday morning.
Jeffrey, who is now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, has been a vigorous critic of the accord struck under former president Barack Obama that provided Iran with sanctions relief in exchange for rolling back its nuclear program.
Likewise, Rep. Ed Royce, a Republican from California who is chairman of the panel and vigorously opposed the deal, said that the US should continue to work from within its contours.
“As flawed as the deal is, I believe we must now enforce the hell out of it,” he said in his opening statement. “Let’s work with allies to make certain that international inspectors have better access to possible nuclear sites, and we should address the fundamental sunset shortcoming, as our allies have recognized.”
The “sunset provisions” that the California congressman referenced are clauses in the deal that allow restrictions on Tehran’s ability to enrich uranium and build a nuclear weapon to expire in 10 to 15 years’ time.
On Thursday, the House panel Royce leads will mark up the Ballistic Missiles and International Sanctions Enforcement Act. That legislation is designed to target Iran’s ongoing testing and development of ballistic missiles and impose fresh sanctions on its non-nuclear provocations.
Since President Trump last certified Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal in July, he has strongly indicated that he won’t do the same on the October 15 deadline.
Last week, The Washington Post broke news of the administration’s plans to refuse to certify that Iran is abiding by the accord, as it is required to do under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, a deal struck between Obama and Congress in 2015 that mandates the White House report to Congress every 90 days on whether the Islamic Republic is honoring its commitments.
Decertification would not actually abrogate the accord, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. But it would force Congress to undertake a 60-day review period to decide whether to reimpose sanctions that were in place before the nuclear deal was implemented.
Many analysts, however, have interpreted such a move as signaling Trump’s intention to ultimately back out of the deal, as he repeatedly said he would as a candidate.
Others have also criticized what that action would mean for American credibility, when International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors and top US officials have all said Iran is not violating the terms of the deal.
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.
“I wouldn’t substitute the judgment of any of us for the combination of the IAEA, the United States intelligence community and the Israeli security establishment — all of whom have said Iran is complying with the deal,” said Jake Sullivan, a former national security adviser to vice president Joe Biden and director of policy planning in the State Department. He was also a top foreign policy adviser in Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
One of the Iran specialists who testified Wednesday did encourage decertification but not subsequently leaving the accord. “I don’t think we should leave the deal, we should fix it,” said David Albright, the founder and president of the Institute for Science and International Security.
The terms of the deal that Albright and other panelists said the United States would be justified in trying to alter include placing limits on Iran’s ballistic missile development — which is a violation of UN resolutions but not the JCPOA — and allowing IAEA inspectors to have access to Iran’s military sites, such as its complex in Parchin.
At one point during Wednesday’s hearing, Rep. Brad Schneider, a Democrat from Illinois who opposed the deal, asked the panelists if withdrawing from the deal would “help or hurt our goals” of stopping Tehran from getting a nuclear weapon and thwarting the regime’s malign regional designs. All three said no.
“You can walk out of the agreement and, frankly, I think the Iranians and the Europeans and Russia and China would continue with it,” Jeffrey said. “If you walk out of the agreement and try to impose [sanctions] and the snap-back provision bring back all the UN resolutions, then Iran would move toward being three or four weeks from having a nuclear devise very quickly and that’s the risk.”
Albright — who was the most hawkish of the participants — said he did not want the US to go that route but articulated an argument that is being made for it.
“Let’s say you just abrogate the deal, I personally believe that’s not the best way forward, but there is an argument for those who say abrogate the deal that you can actually deal with this situation again,” he said.
“You can repair relations with the Europeans after you reimposed all the nuclear sanctions and put them in a dilemma: Do you want to do business with Iran or the United States? And then you would have a free hand to do whatever you want with Iran. I personally don’t want to go down that path, but I think it’s something the administration has certainly been considering.”
Sullivan, who helped negotiate the interim nuclear agreement during his time at the State Department, countered back to the rationalization for leaving the deal that Albright offered.
“I think [leaving the deal] would put us in a materially worse position with respect to the Iranian nuclear capability and I would just reinforce that anyone who says we can just casually tell the Europeans and the Chinese and the rest of the global economy, either trade with us or trade with Iran … it is not nearly as simple as that. And I don’t think the sanctions architecture would come back.”