President Trump is expected to announce Friday that he will abide by an international nuclear deal with Iran for now, but ask Congress to attach new caveats that could either strengthen the deal or lead to its rupture, outside advisers and other people familiar with the planning said.
Trump is expected to set his dissatisfaction with what he sees as gaps and failures in the agreement within a larger reframe of U.S. policy toward Iran. He plans to withdraw presidential “certification” or endorsement of the agreement negotiated by his predecessor, but will not recommend that Congress immediately bust terms of the agreement by reimposing U.S. sanctions on Iran, those people said.
The president’s decertification is, on one level, meaningless. It does not immediately change the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nor signal our intent to leave it. It is a political maneuver designed to assuage the president. The risk is that Iran will seize the high ground, China and Russia will support Iran in refusing to enter new negotiations and, when the January deadline for Trump to waive sanctions comes up, he will refuse to issue the waiver, which will activate sanctions and likely spell the end of the deal.
Meanwhile, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) has been working in concert with responsible players in the White House and Republican senators, according to a Corker news release.
In a conference call with the media this morning, Corker said he began talking to the White House on Feb. 2 and that Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and now Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) have been working with him as well. Corker said he has also been discussing the matter with Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, but underscored that Democrats will have to be “brought along” and will want reassurance that our European allies are supportive. He said the process would follow “regular order” (apparently leaving open the possibility of a filibuster). Corker also said he has talked to allies, asking them “to look at the glass half-full.” In other words, at least for now, the president isn’t leaving the JCPOA.
His aim is to come up with a way to both keep the president within the JCPOA and to enhance the JCPOA. In response to my question as to whether Congress would want reassurance that Trump would not withhold his waiver, Corker said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had said it was the president’s intention to remain in the JCPOA. (Democrats, one can imagine, would want more than Tillerson’s word on this.)
In a fact sheet put out by his office, Corker set out a plan to amend the Iran Agreement Review Act to define what would constitute a material breach under the JCPOA that would trigger reimposition of sanctions.
Most importantly, it would reimpose sanctions if Iran went under a one-year “break-out” period. It would also impose sanctions if Iran refused inspections and/or proceeded with prohibited, advanced research and development. Within 10 days of a breach the president would notify Congress, which then would have 30 days to vote to reimpose sanctions. Our European allies are not expected to take issue with this because the amended IARA would not impose any requirements on Iran that are not already in the JCPOA; it merely cements the requirements and the sanctions triggers in U.S. law. Corker stressed that he believed the material breaches defined in the IARA amendment are “in no way changing . . . in no way violating the JCPOA.” On this Iran may well disagree. Pressed as to whether his legislation would seek to extend the JCPOA to cover intercontinental ballistic missile testing, he acknowledged this would be a matter for consideration.
The IARA amendment would also set a marker at the end of the 10-year sunset provision, threatening reimposition of sanctions. That would put us potentially in conflict with allies — 10 years and the letter of the JCPOA from now. The time period for certification, which the president dreads, would be extended to 180 days. Corker said the legislation if passed would make the certification process “far less relevant.”
The ensuing debate would likely raise concerns from both Democrats and Republicans alike that the president could, if he gets it into his head, choose to withhold the waiver of sanctions in January, effectively wrecking the JCPOA. Democrats could, for example, insist that, in exchange for their support for the amended IARA, lifting the waiver be subject to congressional approval.
The president’s “fit” over certification and his refusal to certify at a time when Iran is in compliance with the JCPOA contains four major risks, of which Corker and other constructive Republicans are certainly cognizant. (Corker hinted that his preference was not to go the decertification route. However, he said, his job is to “deal with circumstances as they are.” In less diplomatic terms, he is trying to maneuver around a president who for emotional reasons wants to be seen as getting out of the deal.)
First, Iran could declare that we have committed an anticipatory breach, seek U.N. sanctions and/or attempt to isolate the United States diplomatically. It is unlikely, however, that Iran would accelerate its nuclear program, which would risk reimposition of sanctions and/or military action by Israel or the United States.
Second, Russia and China could certainly side with Iran, refuse to return to negotiations and go full speed ahead with financial investment and aid for Iran. That would in essence thwart the attempt to improve/change the JCPOA and also humiliate the United States.
Third, and most worrisome, this president whom we have come to see as erratic, unhinged and reckless could provoke Iran, provide ample evidence for the claim that we are the international scofflaws and, yes, put us on track for a military faceoff with Iran.
Fourth, with some justification, Democrats could refuse to go along with the amendments to the JCPOA and publicly challenge the president to fish or cut bait (i.e. live up to the deal as is or pull out in January by allowing sanctions to be reimposed). Their attitude could well be that they will not save the president from his own destructive unilateralism; if he wants to wreck the JCPOA, it will be on his head. That’s a dangerous game of chicken but not an impossible result of Democrats’ building anger over Trump’s attempts to destroy just about everything associated with the Obama administration without offering constructive policies of his own (e.g., the Affordable Care Act, Paris climate agreement, DACA).
In a perfect world with a competent and sane president, we would leave the JCPOA in place and move aggressively on non-nuclear items to pressure Iran, improve our regional alliances and gather support to fend off Iran’s regional aggression. Instead, because of Trump’s emotional meltdown, we are in a position in which everything must fall perfectly in place — Trump must control his impulses, Congress must act in bipartisan fashion, Iran must not get the diplomatic upper hand, etc. — to get an improved JCPOA even as there is a very significant risk this will unravel the entire JCPOA and set up a second nuclear confrontation. If, for example, Trump tomorrow fired national security adviser H.R. McMaster and/or other key players who “contain” the president, does anyone have confidence this strategy would not blow up the JCPOA?
Corker was asked if he thought the president had his mind set on exiting the JCPOA despite this entire process. He did not answer directly. “We have provided a route to overcome deficiencies [in the JCPOA] and to keep the administration in the deal.” To be fair, no one can say what the president will do an hour from now, let alone in January.
Elections have consequences, and we now see that they can be potentially catastrophic.