Trump will leave Iran deal decision to Congress

Despite the bravado, Trump will leave Iran deal decision to Congress
5 min read
05 Oct, 2017
Comment: The nuclear deal is another situation where Trump hopes to deface one of Obama's key accomplishments, while leaving it to Congress to decide the consequences, writes Marcus Montgomery.
Would Trump's refusal to certify Iranian compliance satisfy his vow to 'tear up' the deal?[Getty]
Critics of the Iranian nuclear deal - formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) - may be nearing the day they see the United States renege on the agreement. 

On or before 15 October, President Donald Trump must decide whether his administration will certify that Iran is in compliance with the landmark deal.

President Trump claims to have already decided on what 15 October will bring, but his administration has thus far been coy. The near-majority of journalists, political pundits, and the rest of the Washington cognoscenti however, are convinced that Mr Trump has every intention of refusing to certify Iran's compliance with the nuclear deal; despite the global consensus that it is in compliance.

So, what does this all mean? Does his refusal to certify Iranian compliance satisfy his vow to "tear up" the JCPOA?

The answers to these and other questions, like most things, are complicated. First and foremost, Trump's refusal to certify Iran's compliance with the nuclear deal does not, in and of itself, mean the United States is no longer part of the deal.

In fact, the JCPOA has no mandate for signatories - which includes the United States and Iran, as well as China, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and the European Union - to routinely certify Iran's compliance.

Instead, this requirement was put in place by a Republican-held Congress after the JCPOA was signed and completed. Under current law, the White House must issue a report on Iran's compliance with the deal every 90 days.

Moving forward, if Donald Trump does not certify Iran's compliance - or if he chooses to issue a material breach report - by 15 October, a 60-day deadline kicks off for Congress.

Members of Congress should seriously consider whether cancelling multilateral deals out of spite is really the best way to temper hostilities

Within those 60 days, Congress will (hypothetically) take time to review the facts and determine if Iran is truly guilty of failing to uphold its end of the bargain. If members of Congress do not like what they find, they can introduce and pass legislation to reimpose one or all of the four sets of sanctions that were waived under the terms of the JCPOA, and do so in an expedited manner that requires only a simple majority of votes in each chamber.

At this point it is likely that President Trump will refuse to certify that Iran is in compliance with the nuclear deal and will punt the question to Congress.

But, is it a foregone conclusion that this GOP-majority would side with the president and reimpose sanctions on the Islamic Republic?

It is certainly not guaranteed that the votes are there for such a move. In fact, some reports indicate that Trump's national security team are actually banking on Congress being unwilling to terminate the deal and reimpose old sanctions. Ultimately, this looks to be another situation where the president hopes to deface one of the Obama administration's premiere accomplishments while actually putting the onus on Congress to decide the consequences.

As Congress reckons with the 60-day deadline, it will be flooded with arguments - for and against leaving the deal - from special interests and foreign governments. Iran hawks will say that all of its non-nuclear behaviour is enough to revoke the deal, even though the architects of the deal made no secret that the JCPOA was singularly focused on addressing the nuclear threat.

Proponents of the deal will argue that reneging on it will isolate the United States from its international partners.

US military and intelligence officials are all adamant that the deal has significantly reduced the threat of securing a nuclear weapon

This is partly true, but there are legitimate reasons that allies may begrudgingly fall in line behind US sanctions, particularly if access to US banking systems is at risk for doing business with Iran. 

What should really be the determining factor for leaving the deal or staying in it is threat perception. Are the threats from Iran now more pronounced than they would be without the JCPOA?

US military and intelligence officials, and even their counterparts in allied countries, are all adamant that the deal has significantly reduced the threat of securing a nuclear weapon.

Yes, support for groups such as Hizballah and the development of ballistic missiles is dangerous and could wreak havoc upon the Middle East. But, objectively speaking, the damage done by Iran's foreign policy now is nothing compared to the catastrophe that would result if Iran had nuclear weapons in addition.

Read more: US influence wanes as King Salman visits Russia

The United States should consider threat perception in the reverse as well.

Right or wrong, Iran views the use of proxy-groups and the development of nuclear weapons as a force against actors in the region who are overwhelmingly hostile towards it. It would be more logical to maintain the deal, demonstrating good-faith efforts by the United States to reach agreements with the regime in Iran, and negotiate other multi-lateral deals to address issues such as Iran's ballistic missile programme.

More appropriately, the United States should try to bring Iran and its regional rivals together to find mutual ways each side can reduce its hostile behaviour and therefore limit the threats each side believes it must respond to.    

By next week, Trump should finally unveil his plan for the United States' role in the JCPOA. But, in all likelihood it will be the responsibility of Congress to make the final decision and members should seriously consider whether cancelling multilateral deals out of spite is really the best way to temper hostilities and address threats in the Middle East.

Marcus Montgomery is a Junior Analyst for Congressional Affairs at Arab Center Washington DC.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.