Three suggested approaches to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) have emerged in recent days from Capitol Hill, the Trump administration and the foreign-policy community. Interestingly, none recommends that the United States declare Iran in breach of the JCPOA and unilaterally pull out. There’s good reason for that– Iran generally has abided by the deal.
One option pushed by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and foreign-policy critics of the JCPOA would entail using the Cardin-Corker legislation (which, ironically, Cotton vehemently opposed). Under that law, the president can “decertify” the deal based on a finding that the JCPOA is no longer in our national interest. However, we would not find Iran in breach. Instead we would use the threat of withdrawal (and new sanctions) coupled with an enhanced military posture to force Iran back to the table to improve the deal. At a Council on Foreign Relations event, Cotton argued:
The world needs to know we’re serious, we’re willing to walk away, and we’re willing to re-impose sanctions—and a lot more than that. And they’ll know that when the president declines to certify the deal, and not before.
Let me reiterate, though, that this certification occurs under U.S. law—not the deal itself. The decision not to certify doesn’t withdraw us from the deal immediately. Rather, it gives Congress a 60-day window to do quickly what we’ve always had the power to do: re-impose sanctions. …
Congress and the president, working together, should lay out how the deal must change and, if it doesn’t, the consequences Iran will face.
The flaw in this plan is obvious: Our threat to leave the deal would be hollow; Iran would know it’s hollow and wouldn’t agree to renegotiate. If we ever did unilaterally withdraw while Iran was in compliance with the terms of the JCPOA, we’d diplomatically isolate ourselves and lose allied support for sanctions. Proponents of the decertification option seem overly optimistic that European allies (who increasingly view President Trump as a reckless clown) would support withdrawal under any circumstances. In essence, Iran would call our bluff and we’d be the odd man out of the international community. (Cotton and others don’t have a satisfying response if, as is likely, Iran doesn’t negotiate or won’t make concessions to change a deal since unilateral withdrawal, as we argue, is an unacceptable gambit.) Moreover, it’s not clear that a negotiation focused merely on fixing the JCPOA’s flaws would be sufficient. Former ambassador Eric Edelman argues that we shouldn’t pursue an approach that ” will leave all the other pieces [of the U.S.-Iran face-off] unaddressed — nuclear activity, human rights, Syria, etc.”
The more sanguine JCPOA critics argue in support of the approach that if Iran was nervous about our willingness to exit the deal, it might be induced to negotiate. This is the “worth a shot” philosophy, although many critics readily concede that Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson would be low on the list of ideal negotiators to finesse this kind of strategy.
A second approach would be to get rid of the certification process altogether. The Associated Press reports:
One would involve Trump grudgingly certifying Iran’s compliance a final time and then persuading Congress to change the law so he wouldn’t have to do so again. Officials say this option is unlikely because no one expects already gridlocked lawmakers to pass anything quickly on so polarizing a topic — even if the objective isn’t to save or destroy the deal, but help Trump avoid the discomfort of the certification process.
A further, even more remote possibility, officials said, is Trump not saying anything in 12 days’ time. His silence would amount to decertification, but would seem to be the least Trumpian course of action for a president who has loudly and consistently railed against the merits of the deal.
Moreover, that tactic does little to address Iran’s missile program or non-nuclear behavior in the region.
A third approach, which we set forth yesterday, is based on this reasoning: Iran is abiding by a deal we find insufficient. Threatening to leave the deal is hollow since we would have a very difficult time carrying through on that threat, as Iran well knows. Former secretary of state George Shultz likes to say his foreign policy was informed by his experience in the military: “I remember the day the sergeant handed me my rifle and said, ‘Take good care of this rifle. This rifle is your best friend. And remember one thing, never point this at anybody unless you’re willing to pull the trigger. No empty threats.’ ” A unilateral withdrawal would harm America’s standing, generate support for Iran and give China and Russia every reason to maintain or even enhance support for the regime.
Instead, we can enhance monitoring of the deal and put new, exacting pressure on Iran, such as new sanctions for the regime’s non-nuclear behavior, including human rights abuses, regional aggression and support for terrorism. Pressure of that type might attract support from allies without giving Iran grounds to complain that we are the lawbreakers. If Iran feels compelled to seek relief from those sanctions, the United States and allies can, at that time, address all outstanding issues — the JCPOA’s flaws, Iranian support for Hamas and Hezbollah, illegal missile tests, etc.
In essence, if we are successful, we achieve the same results without the empty threat to pull out of a deal that Iran is abiding by and without doubling down on the impression that we are an untrustworthy player on the international stage. If Iran chooses to leave the JCPOA because we are enacting sanctions for non-nuclear behavior, so be it; we, however, should not be the ones leaving or threatening to leave the JCPOA.
This third approach takes a page from the Iran playbook — pocket the existing deal and then keep pressuring the other side for more concessions (e.g. end missile testing, extend the deal beyond the sunset period, cease support for terrorist groups). With a long-term goal of regime change (with non-military support for anti-regime elements in Iran), such an approach, from our vantage point, remains the best of our poor options.