Opinion writer

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at the State Department on Wednesday. (Associated Press/Cliff Owen)

During his “I never thought about resigning” press conference, Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson talked about the upcoming deadline to certify the Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). “We’ll have a recommendation for the president — we’re going to give him a couple of options,” he said. “We cannot let the Iranian relationship be defined solely by that nuclear agreement.” Coupled with Defense Secretary James Mattis’s recent statement that he thought it would be in our best interest to remain in the deal, the administration seems to be searching for a way to justify exiting a deal — for which they have no exit strategy — yet not appearing to back down from the president’s evaluation of the JCPOA as the “worst deal ever.” (That actually would be the Cuba deal, by which we have Cuba diplomatic recognition in exchange for nothing, resulting in a worsening of human rights.)

What is clear is that the administration does not have the Europeans — let alone the Russians and Chinese — on board for a withdrawal from the deal. The Financial Times reported:

Diplomats from France, Germany and the UK, the three European signatories, as well as the EU, are seeking to ensure Congress does not bring down the deal. At least one ambassador from the three countries is on the Hill “every two days” said a European diplomat who is trying to lobby Congress against bringing new legislation. “We have a feeling a decision has been made not to recertify,” said a second European diplomat. “We don’t know what’s going to happen or how Congress would deal with it.”

Indeed, the presence of representatives from the EU openly working to keep the administration in the deal underscores that we would isolate ourselves and empower Iran if we left the deal. The notion that we could certify and just threaten to leave strikes us a risky replay of President Obama’s red line. (If Iran calls our bluff do we retreat or exit without the support of our diplomatic allies?)

Right now it would seem exiting the deal — or worse, threatening to exit without the ability to do so — seems less feasible than it did at the time of the last certification, which Trump did grudgingly. Tillerson and our allies openly acknowledge Iran is abiding by the deal, giving Iran the upper hand diplomatically. That realization has led to some desperate-sounding maneuvers, as CNN reported:

Tillerson and congressional lawmakers are spearheading efforts to amend US legislation regarding Iran to shift focus away from the nuclear issue — a move that could allow the US to stay in the multilateral nuclear deal forged in 2015 and also push back against Iran’s other destabilizing behavior, officials and diplomats said.
“Tillerson has said the problem with the JCPOA is not the JCPOA,” one senior administration official said, using the acronym for the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
“It’s the legislation,” the official said. “Every 90 days the president must certify and its creates a political crisis. If the administration could put the nuclear deal in a corner, everyone could happily get back to work on dealing with everything else that is a problem with Iran.”

Perhaps a straightforward approach would be in order: Acknowledge that in the absence of present alternatives, it is in our interest to maintain the deal. However, also identify the areas in which the JCPOA is defective (e.g. the sunset clause) and areas outside the deal that are of concern. (As Tillerson said, the JCPOA cannot be the sum total of issues between the two countries.) With allies, we can then craft a comprehensive policy to insist on exacting enforcement of the deal and to pressure the regime to desist from aggressive behavior, missile testing, support for terrorism and human rights abuses.

In short, the administration’s extended indecision, the growing wariness among Republicans in Congress concerning re-imposition of sanctions and a public split with allies argue that the not-ready-for-primetime administration should be very cautious about adding new crises to its already overflowing diplomatic plate.