U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision last week to decertify the Iran nuclear deal is both more and less than it seems. It does not end the agreement — which is, in fact, beyond the power of the president of the United States since it is a multilateral deal — but it makes clear his administration’s contempt for such negotiations and that undercuts American power and influence in the world.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is a seven-nation deal (signatories include Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, the U.S. and Iran) that caps the Iranian nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions that had done great damage to the country’s economy. Trump vehemently rejects the agreement, calling it “an embarrassment” and “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into.”
His primary complaint is that it is too narrow in scope, focusing only on Tehran’s nuclear program and ignoring its other transgressions, such as support for terrorist groups and other destabilizing forces in the Middle East, and its ballistic missile program. Tehran is, Trump said Friday, a “dictatorship” with a “long campaign of bloodshed,” adding that “the regime remains the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism.” He is also troubled by the deal’s sunset provision: The agreement permits Tehran to resume some nuclear activities in 10 or 15 years, which Trump argues will mean that Iran will have a breakout capacity at that point.
He is right about the limited scope of the agreement, but that ignores a simple fact: The deal is what the signatories could and did agree to. Trump may want more — as did U.S. negotiators — but Iran would not compromise and the other parties were prepared to accept the deal as currently stipulated.
Irritating as that may be, more galling still for Trump and other critics of the JCPOA is that Tehran continues to abide by the agreement. The International Atomic Energy Agency monitors the deal — “the world’s most robust nuclear verification regime,” according to the nuclear watchdog — and it has concluded that Iran is in compliance. U.S. law requires the president to recertify every 90 days that Iran is in compliance with JCPOA and that the deal “is in the national interest,” a much looser and subjective criteria. The U.S. has twice certified that Iran was complying with the deal, a step that reportedly incensed Trump.
That anger obliged his national security team to find other ways for Trump to voice his displeasure. As the third recertification date approached, his administration focused on the “national interest” part of the assessment. The U.S. now charges that Iran is honoring the agreement, but not “its spirit.” With that proviso, Trump called on Congress to pass a law that would identify conditions under which he could reimpose sanctions. Trump’s administration will “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.” If that does not work, “the agreement will be terminated.”
Refusing to recertify allows the U.S. president to vent his irritation with the nuclear deal, while passing responsibility for action on to others. It is also a page from his practice as a real estate developer: Trump was famous for breaking contracts and demanding renegotiating on his terms.
There are two related problems with this approach. First, the U.S. is not the only signatory to the deal and, second, the only way he can pressure Iran to change its behavior is with broad-based multilateral sanctions. The U.S. cannot succeed alone.
Trump is hoping that the prospect of a U.S. breach will push the Europeans and the Iranians to reopen talks on the other issues of concern. But other governments do not share his disdain for the deal. Britain, France and Germany issued a joint statement saying that new sanctions would “undermine” the agreement and that they “stand committed” to implementation of JCPOA. Reportedly, Iran is prepared to comply as long as Europe does, meaning that if the deal falls apart, then it will be a result of U.S. action.
This approach poses a second danger to the U.S. If Trump considers every deal open to renegotiation, then no country will conclude an agreement with him. Pyongyang will never negotiate a nuclear deal with Washington if it believes that the paper has no assured value the moment after it is signed.
Trump is deeply troubled by the Iranian nuclear deal, but international order rests on more than the whims and tastes of the U.S. president. Trump must recognize this essential truth or he risks weakening himself, his country and international order.