National security adviser H.R. McMaster listens as President Trump speaks to the media during a luncheon with service members at the White House in 2017. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Opinion writer

We argued last year that President Trump’s “decertification” ploy was a  stopgap measure, a means by which Trump advisers could soothe an irate president and prevent him from blowing up the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) at a time when Iran is in compliance and the United States would find itself diplomatically isolated. As we predicted, the European Union reacted poorly to Trump’s move and Congress was loath to take action upon itself that might lead to collapse of the deal with no rational replacement.

Now, with the Friday deadline to continue waiving nuclear sanctions against Iran, Democrats and Republicans in conjunction with some senior Trump advisers are trying to, once again, prevent a disaster. The Daily Beast reports:

According to multiple sources, H.R. McMaster is reprising the role he played last fall: removing a legislative irritant from Trump so that the president can quietly remain in the deal.

This time around, sources told The Daily Beast, McMaster is searching for an agreement, even one just in principle, with the leadership of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to convince Trump that the president’s decision to “de-certify” Iran’s compliance last fall pressured Congress to modify its terms.

It doesn’t exactly work like that—Congress is not a party to the Iran deal, and so all it can do here is place restrictions, or encouragements, on U.S. policy toward Iran. But multiple sources said McMaster considers that an agreement with Sens. Bob Corker and Ben Cardin that took away the congressional deadlines on Iran that Trump hates would be a face-saving way for the White House to accept the deal.

“This would be a coup for McMaster and a bailout for Trump,” said a Republican lobbyist familiar with the talks.

According to my conversations with senior Hill advisers, the president’s team and a substantial group of Republicans will favor continuing to waive sanctions, thereby remaining in the deal. While a few isolated voices are calling for him to rip up the deal, such grandstanding lacks a rational strategy and would risk leaving the United States isolated. After the president waives sanctions, Congress will have the opportunity to ensconce in U.S. law the provisions of the JCPOA that keep Iran at a one-year breakout mark and that provide for snap-back sanctions in the event Iran drops below that level. Congressional action could omit the sunset clause, but that’s a matter of U.S. law with no immediate ramifications. The European Union can conclude that nothing has changed; Trump can crow that he got Congress to act (even in a symbolic way).

Sen. Ben Cardin (Md.), ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has made clear his two red lines — he won’t agree to anything that allows the United States to be the violator of the JCPOA, and he will not support anything to which our European allies haven’t agreed. “All eyes now are on Trump,” says a Senate senior staffer. “He has to [waive sanctions] Friday to build more time for these discussions.” The source adds that “we don’t know what he’ll do, his team doesn’t know what he’ll do, and maybe even he doesn’t know what he’ll do. It’s frightening.” Others are more optimistic that the president will see staying in the deal gives the United States more leverage with Iran, not less.

Moreover, after the waiver is behind us, Congress can move — as critics and supporters of the deal agree — on non-nuclear sanctions. We, along with other critics of the decertification ploy, have repeatedly urged the administration to enforce the JCPOA strictly, start checking Iranian aggression in the region and move forward with non-nuclear sanctions (on human rights, missile testing and Iranian aggression). With the street demonstrations throughout Iran and reports of a regime crackdown, now would be a good time to work with Europeans toward a joint non-nuclear sanctions package. We can “trade” our willingness to remain in the JCPOA for their willingness to step up pressure on Iran’s human rights abuses.

Foreign policy experts, even those critical of the JCPOA, urge the administration to remain in the deal rather than isolate itself. Dennis Ross, former Middle East negotiator, tells me that he hopes Trump’s advisers “understand this is not the time to walk away from the JCPOA.” He explains that “now is the moment to work with the Europeans to raise the costs on the Iranians for their adventurism in the region. Staying in the JCPOA can be used with the Europeans; getting out will be used by them to show how they are sticking with the deal and trying to preserve the relationship, not increase pressure.”

Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institution argues that “as a response to the current volatility in Iran, bringing down the deal would be precisely the wrong step from Washington. It would shift the focus away from the protestors’ courageous efforts to expose the failings of their government and instead vindicate Tehran’s narrative of American treachery.” She says, “The best thing that the Trump administration could do right now is to ensure Iranians’ voices are heard and that their demands from their own leaders are not overshadowed by counterproductive American theatrics around the nuclear deal.”

Perhaps we can dodge a bullet tomorrow, avoid isolating ourselves internationally and manage to sidestep a standoff with Iran over nuclear weapons (as we are trying to confront North Korea’s nuclear ambitions). If so, it will be because Trump listened to McMaster and the sane voices in Congress, not reckless provocateurs who have not thought through the ramifications of tearing up the JCPOA.