Possible Impacts of Trump’s refusal to certify JCPOA
On October 13, US President Donald Trump announced his refusal to certify to Congress Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on the grounds that he does not believe that the agreement the Obama administration and five other world powers reached with Iran in 2015 suspend its nuclear programme was strong enough to benefit “US national security interests.” However, he stopped short of asking Congress to re-impose sanctions on Tehran. The President, in effect, has urged the lawmakers to pass a new law, spelling out conditions under which sanctions could be reimposed as he has directed his administration “to work closely with Congress and our allies to address the deal’s many serious flaws so that the Iranian regime can never threaten the world with nuclear weapons,” and if that approach does not work, “then the agreement will be terminated.”
Trump’s move to send the Iran Deal issue to the Congress and ask them to attach new caveats to the deal is a risky gambit as it will undermine US credibility and the ability of the international community to manage further nuclear developments in Iran, North Korea and other places. The blowback to US national interests, however, goes much further as the move will result, ultimately, in either the collapse of the accord or the straining of relations between the US and its allies in Europe as well as Russia and China. Moreover, it will plunge an already volatile Middle East into greater turmoil.
From his refusal, it becomes absolutely clear that President Trump disdains Iran and the Nuclear Deal, at least in part, because it is a signature accomplishment of the Obama presidency — a legacy perhaps second only to the Affordable Care Act in its symbolic significance. That helps explain why the president has described the Deal as an “embarrassment” and “the worst deal ever,” hyperbole that has only made it more difficult for him to regularly report to Congress that Iran is actually doing its part.
The president prefers to wash his hands of the Deal and let Congress decide its fate. Refusing to confirm Iran’s compliance while laying out a broad case against Iran will, in effect, invite Congress to impose new sanctions. But if other signatories to the Deal side with Iran in declaring the United States in violation and resist US pressure to curtail their business dealings with Iran, all that “decertification” will achieve will be to open a rift between the United States and its European allies, Russia and China. On the other hand, if the United States wins over its allies, the Deal will be dead — and everyone can go back to worrying about war with a nuclear-armed Iran.
The United States is right to worry about Iran’s missile programme, as well as the scope of Iran’s regional influence and the manner in which it asserts that influence. But the course Trump is embarking on will only plunge an already volatile Middle East into greater turmoil, which will consume US attention and resources.
Iranian leaders interpret Trump’s hostility to the Nuclear Deal as proof that diplomatic engagement with the United States is a fool’s errand — that Washington will not abide by any diplomatic agreement and will construe willingness to pursue diplomacy as weakness and an invitation to apply more pressure. Already, the commander of the Revolutionary Guard Corps has warned that Iran would retaliate against new sanctions, in particular the designation of the corps as a terrorist organization, by building and testing more missiles and labelling in kind the US military a terrorist organization — then targeting US bases and personnel.
Iran is not looking for war with the United States. But it is starting to think that it is better to act like North Korea. A recalcitrant, let alone aggressively anti-American, Iran would dramatically change the lay of the land for US foreign policy in the region.
The Nuclear Deal removed the threat of war with Iran. That was an important strategic win given Iran’s size, location and importance to stability in a vast region stretching from Central Asia to the Mediterranean. There were other benefits. The Deal made it possible for Iran and the United States to tacitly cooperate in the fight to roll back the Islamic State’s gains in Iraq. At stake in Trump’s new Iran policy will be the stability of the central government in Iraq and its ability to arrive at a political understanding with the country’s Sunnis and its restless autonomous Kurdish region. It is difficult to see how the crisis generated by the Kurdish referendum for independence could be defused without Iran. It is likewise difficult to envision a quick end to wars in Syria and Afghanistan if those countries become the theatre for protracted US-Iranian confrontation.
In Iran itself, the Nuclear Deal has been the calling card of moderate voices who wish to reform its economy and anchor the country’s future in better relations with the West. Their success in negotiating the Deal has created a constituency for change in Iran.
That constituency gave President Hassan Rouhani a resounding victory and a clear mandate in the presidential election in May. Rouhani ran a campaign built on the success of the Nuclear Deal and the promise of the opening to the West. In August, an overwhelming majority in the Iranian parliament — cutting across reformist and conservative party lines — voted to reconfirm Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, the chief negotiator of the Nuclear Deal on the Iranian side. The Deal has increasingly redrawn political battle lines in Iran along whether to invest the country’s future in engagement with the United States.
There are those in the United States who would welcome the demise of the Iranian moderates; hard-liners at the helm in Tehran would make it easier to array US forces against that country. But America learned in Iraq that it cannot bring change through the turret of a tank.
The United States will be better off if it is Iranians who bring about change in Iran. Yet Washington is falling victim to the same flawed logic that paved the way to the Iraq War. Trump’s Iran policy is not just an attack on President Barack Obama’s foreign policy legacy; it will also define his own. History will not be kind to this strategic blunder.
An Overview of JCPOA and Its Future
What is JCPOA?
Often dubbed as “the Iran Nuclear Deal,” JCPOA is an agreement between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (collectively called P5+1) and the EU to ensure Iranian nuclear programme is limited to civilian use.
The Deal, which was signed in October 2015 and implemented at the start of 2016, followed years of negotiations between the US, represented by then-Secretary of State John Kerry, and Iran, represented by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
What it requires?
The agreement requires Iran to completely eliminate stockpiles of medium-enriched uranium and drastically reduce reserves of low-enriched uranium. The material in its high-enriched form is required to produce nuclear weapons. Iran denies that it has ever had the aim of producing a nuclear weapon. Iran also agreed to reduce the number of centrifuges capable of enriching uranium.
In return, UN sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear programme were lifted, as were some EU sanctions.
The US ended some secondary sanctions against non-US businesses and individuals who engaged in commercial activity with Iran.
Frozen Iranian assets, valued at over $100bn, were also released back to Tehran.
Who ensures Iran abides by the deal?
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has repeatedly confirmed Iran’s compliance with the deal.
Why does Trump need to certify Iran’s compliance with JCPOA?
The Obama administration faced heavy criticism from Republicans, as well as from some members of his own Democratic Party for signing up to the Deal, which they saw as excessively compromising.
Opponents of the then-US president passed legislation requiring US presidents to certify Iran’s compliance with the deal every 90 days.
The Trump administration declared that Iran is complying with the Nuclear Deal in May and July, but threatened more sanctions for breaching the “spirit’ of the agreement.
What impact does a refusal to certify have?
Refusing to certify is not the same as withdrawing completely from the Deal. It would not automatically re-impose economic sanctions on Iran. That is because the requirement to certify Iran’s compliance with the Deal every 90 days is written into US law and is not part of the international agreement.
With two tracks, Trump can do both: continue to attack the Deal without officially voiding it.
The refusal to certify kicks the issue to Congress, opening a 60-day period for debate.
What would Congress do?
Trump’s withdrawal of endorsement means US lawmakers can vote to introduce new sanctions against Iran.
When the Deal was being negotiated, a majority in Congress opposed it. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made an unprecedented appearance before a joint meeting of Congress to denounce the Deal and what he described as the dangers posed by Iran, going around the White House to oppose one of President Obama’s top priorities.
Nonetheless, Congress allowed the Deal to take effect, approving a compromise that included the certification requirement.
Today, opinion is more divided. Even among some lawmakers who have criticized the Deal in the past, such as Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, there is a feeling that sticking with it, however flawed, is far better than blowing it up. The Deal at least sustains control over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, they argue, at a time when tensions with nuclear-armed North Korea are at a fever pitch.
Some say the refusal to certify (often incorrectly described as “decertification”) would be the first step in strengthening the agreement and putting greater controls on Tehran.
Has Trump violated the Deal?
Not certifying the deal is not a violation of JCPOA in itself, however, it does pave the way for Congress to introduce new sanctions, which could be in breach of US commitments under the agreement.
The onus on breaching the Deal would, therefore, be with US lawmakers.
How have US allies reacted?
European leaders have taken the unusual step of publicly calling on the US to abide by the Deal and have affirmed that Iran is upholding its commitments under JCPOA.
The British embassy in Washington, DC took the unusual step of posting an animation on Twitter showing how Iran was complying with the Deal.
French President Emmanuel Macron has told the US that not honouring its side of the Deal could push Iran into producing a nuclear weapon in the future.
European states have enjoyed burgeoning trade ties with Iran since the Deal came into force and experts say US breaches of the Deal would damage its reputation as a reliable partner.