Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is shown during a plenary session at the United Nations building in Vienna in 2015. (Leonhard Foeger/Reuters)

The Post reports:

President Trump plans to announce next week that he will “decertify” the international nuclear deal with Iran, saying it is not in the national interest of the United States and kicking the issue to a reluctant Congress, people briefed on an emerging White House strategy for Iran said Thursday.

The move would mark the first step in a process that could eventually result in the resumption of U.S. sanctions against Iran, which would blow up a deal limiting Iran’s nuclear activities that the country reached in 2015 with the U.S. and five other nations.

As with everything in this administration, the game plan could change. In this case we surely hope so and urge the Trump administration to think through what happens after Trump decertifies. Our allies, as we have pointed out, don’t intend to walk away from the deal. (Russia and China certainly don’t.) And the administration concedes that Iran is essentially in compliance with the deal. What then would be the point of decertifying and threatening to reimpose nuclear sanctions when in reality we cannot unilaterally exit the deal?

Robert Satloff at the Washington Institute explains the best-case scenario. “With adroit diplomacy — a big if — decertification could be the path to reaching agreement with the Europeans that improves or repairs critical aspects of the deal and related Iran-policy issues. It is precisely because the Europeans are so intent on maintaining the deal that they may be willing to do things that so far they have been reluctant to do — on inspections, ballistic missiles, sanctions for Iran’s objectionable behavior elsewhere, etc. — as a way to keep Trump in the deal.” However, he cautions that while improvements in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) are possible, “achieving a good outcome here requires adroit diplomacy, perhaps including the effective input of the president, which has not always been in abundant supply.”

What’s readily apparent is that the administration lacks diplomatic competence and has done nothing to bring its allies on board and develop a mutually satisfactory approach. The Post reports:

None of the three — Britain, France and Germany — believes Iran is in violation, and each has said publicly it will not renegotiate the nuclear agreement.

U.S. imposition of sanctions affecting banks that even indirectly do business in Iran would doubtless influence those countries’ companies, they say, and would be considered an unfriendly act.

“We will not follow the United States in reneging on our international obligations with this deal,” said a second official. “Not the E-3, nor the rest of the 28” members of the European Union.

That lack of basic preparation, plus the gobsmacking feud between President Trump and his secretary of state (who can’t diplomatically deny calling his boss a “moron”), should prompt serious rethinking about a decertification strategy. More bluntly, few people think this president and this secretary of state can carry out what is essentially a bluff. They would have to convince Iran and our allies that we really would leave the deal (or take military action) as a gambit for obtaining leverage to seek a better deal. Decertification would be a fateful step, not because it puts the JCPOA at risk but because it would put our credibility and relationship at risk when Iran does exactly what you’d expect (i.e. refuse to negotiate).

It is incumbent on those pushing this scenario to ask and answer a series of questions:

  • What if Iran flatly refuses to negotiate?
  • What if our allies say they won’t agree to new sanctions so long as Iran is in compliance?
  • What if Russia and China say they will consider our leaving to be a breach of the agreement and threaten to bring the matter to the United Nations Security Council?
  • What if, due to the hubbub created by decertification, our allies get nervous about moving on other fronts that we could otherwise have pursued (e.g. human rights, missile testing)?
  • What if a bipartisan group of senators rules out voting for sanctions that would put the deal at risk?

In each of these situations, the administration would wind up with egg on its face, having threatened new sanctions to obtain a better deal but utterly unable to force Iran to make further concessions. The administration must be able to reassure our allies of a basic level of competence it heretofore has not demonstrated and be able to provide answers to each of the questions above. In essence, the administration needs to show allies a contingency plan that would avoid a humiliating retreat that would make President Barack Obama’s reversal on the red line seem Churchillian by comparison. If it can’t, it should remain in the deal and pursue a comprehensive plan with allies to curtail Iran’s unacceptable non-nuclear conduct. It is not good enough to say that if the United States decertifies, “maybe Iran will negotiate”; the administration must answer the question “What if it won’t?”