The head of the U.N. agency monitoring Iran’s compliance with nuclear deal said Monday that Tehran is implementing the agreement — but says the ultimate judgment on compliance with the deal rests with the six world powers that signed the pact with the Islamic Republic.
Yukiya Amano of the International Atomic Energy Agency told the 35-nation IAEA board that the terms Iran accepted “are being implemented” — an assessment that comes as members of the U.S. administration argue otherwise.
The U.S. administration has faced two 90-day certification deadlines to state whether Iran was meeting the conditions needed to continue enjoying sanctions relief under the deal and has both times backed away from a showdown.

Frankly, this should come as no surprise. Iran was expected to pocket its millions that had been frozen when sanctions were released but in the near term stick close to the four corners of the deal, called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Even in her well-received speech last week Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley didn’t make a strong case that Iran had defied the JCPOA as drafted. She instead made a convincing case that Iran is violating U.N. Resolution 2231, which relates to its non-nuclear conduct.

The IAEA’s declaration underscores the administration’s dilemma. Iran by and large has held to the deal, but the United States wants to change the terms of the deal (e.g., open up inspections of any facility, remove the so-called sunset provision, address ballistic missiles). If the Trump administration declares Iran in breach, the other parties to the deal (especially Russia) are unlikely to go along, will hold the United States responsible for the broken deal and will be unwilling to cooperate with new sanctions.

The objective for the administration therefore should not be to pull the plug on the JCPOA; it should be to force Iran to curb its non-nuclear behavior and see whether the JCPOA can be strengthened. If the deal is to end, the United States should want Iran, not the United States, to be the party to walk away.

What is the administration’s plan if it were to walk away from the JCPOA? You got me. The administration hasn’t, to our knowledge, being laying the groundwork with the other negotiating partners. It hasn’t produced evidence of any material breach. And, as critics of the JCPOA have pointed out, Iran has gotten sanctions relief upfront, so ending the deal would only mean that Iran reaped the benefits of the deal and got rid of the restrictions the JCPOA imposes.

In reality, the Trump’s objective should be expanding and strengthening the JCPOA. Eli Lake writes:

The idea can be summed up as “waive, decertify and fix.” On Sept. 14, Trump is expected to waive the crippling sanctions on Iran’s banks and oil exports that were suspended as a condition of the 2015 nuclear bargain known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. A law passed by Congress in 2015 requires the president to make a decision on those sanctions every 120 days. Trump waived the sanctions in May and is expected to do so again.

Using the threat to walk away is the administration’s best chance to, for example, extend the JCPOA to cover its ballistic missile program. (“The timing of the waiver and the deadline for certification [Oct. 15] creates a diplomatic window,” Lake writes. “[The] U.N. General Assembly will meet in New York, and Trump is expected to make the case to his counterparts from the U.K. and France to persuade Germany to support re-opening negotiations on the deal.”)

There is no guarantee that our European allies, let alone the Russians, will go along with reopening the deal. Both they and Iran recognize that the United States’ threat to walk away is somewhat hollow insofar as they know we don’t want to be diplomatically isolated. What happens, then, if the Europeans refuse to help out and/or Iran refuses to return to the table? Unless and until there is a plausible answer and an alternative to leaving the JCPOA in place, President Trump will find it hard to get rid of predecessor’s deal.

For now, his best hope would be to negotiate a deal better that President Obama — something that would appeal to his ego and potentially repair the damage he has done to country’s standing around the world as friends and allies alike have come to see him as a blowhard, easily manipulated with flattery and entirely out of his element.