By: Robbie Rosamelia
President Trump Begins The Long Road To Combatting The Iranian Threat By Decertifying Their Compliance With The JCPOA

President Trump’s announcement on October 13th to decertify Iran’s compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—commonly referred to as the Iran Nuclear Deal—was met with both praise and scorn as Iran has proved it is becoming increasingly bold in how far it pushes the deal to its limits. With rhetoric abound, it is necessary to take into account the events that led up to the president’s decision and deliver a reminder that the Iranian threat did not end with the deal. In fact, refusing to certify Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA is only the beginning of the process to effectively address the threat Iran poses to America’s interests and allies. For the United States to be clear-eyed in its approach to the threat posed by Iran, we must first dispense with the searing rhetoric of those who would insist that such a decision would undermine the trust of other nations in American policy.

Iran has violated the terms of the agreement on multiple occasions and has continued its recalcitrant behavior both domestically and throughout the region. In a speech at the American Enterprise Institute this past September, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley declared that “the IAEA discovered Iran had exceeded its allowable limit of heavy water,” a key resource for making weapons-grade plutonium, on several occasions and in violation of the agreement. Her speech also underscored the fact that “Iranian leaders—the same ones who in the past were caught operating a covert nuclear program at military sites—have stated publicly that they will refuse to allow IAEA inspections of their military sites.”

Even despite President Obama’s pronouncement at American University’s School of International Service that “[i]nspectors will be allowed daily access to Iran’s key nuclear sites,” it is apparent that the deal relies more on goodwill from an unreliable and hostile actor than strict enforcement by the IAEA and JCPOA signatories. Ambassador Haley was quick to point out that Iran has “used the nuclear deal to hold the world hostage to its bad behavior” because they understood the desire of U.S. and other JCPOA negotiators to make the deal successful as opposed to effective. Decertification of their compliance with the agreement, which must be noted does not terminate it, is the only decision that could’ve been made in good conscience.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley speaks about the Iran nuclear deal at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, U.S., September 5, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

But don’t simply take Ambassador Haley’s word for it. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) lambasted the agreement as it was being considered, stating “the very real risk that Iran will not moderate and will, instead, use the agreement to pursue its nefarious goals is too great.” It is admittedly rare that I find points of agreement with Sen. Schumer, but he is right to state that the Iranians had no interest in complying with the deal. The Iranians instead made bets on America’s desire to make the agreement successful as opposed to effective, and this is precisely why they have not ceased their aggressive actions. These actions include Iran’s persistence in conducting ballistic missile tests, funding terror groups, and grossly violating human rights both during negotiations with the P5+1 and after the agreement went into effect. Though the deal only addressed Iran’s nuclear program, this behavior certainly indicated then and proves now that Iran is not willing to give up its radical and destabilizing pursuits.

President Trump’s decision to decertify Iran’s compliance with the agreement was also spurred by determining that the deal does not serve the national security interests of the United States, and Congress now has the opportunity to enforce the deal, flawed as it is, to its fullest extent. In total compliance with the JCPOA, Congress has one of two choices before it in the 90 days before the next examination of Iranian compliance; they can use this period to reintroduce all previous sanctions on the Iranians while making the case to our European allies to do the same and additionally designating the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) a terror organization. Alternatively, they are unable to reach an agreement that leads to decertification, amounting to nothing more than a symbolic gesture. Council on Foreign Relations Senior Fellow Ray Takeyh characterizes the momentous choice best by observing that taking the latter approach would see “the deterrent capability of the United States […] eroded, both congressional credibility and the executive branch credibility.”

The choice is clear, and the hard work of combatting the threat Iran poses to the United States and its allies has only begun with this decertification of their compliance with the JCPOA. The president must now begin the hard diplomatic work of going to both the P5+1 countries and EU to rally international support for combatting the Iranian threat without equivocation. He must make a forceful and convincing case to Congress to pass punitive measures of its own—two practices at which he is not particularly adept. Despite not fully terminating the deal, the Trump administration’s decision not to certify Iran’s compliance evinces a hopeful desire to seriously correct U.S. policy on Iran.

I am optimistic that Congress will be able to produce a substantive sanctions package after voting 419-3 in the House and 98-2 in the Senate this past July to target Iran, in addition to Russia and North Korea, with similar sanctions. The current solution being discussed in Congress proposed by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Corker (R-TN) would operate similarly by establishing a framework of trigger points such as striking any sunset provisions in regard to reintroduction of sanctions, automatically reimposing sanctions if Iran gets within a year of nuclear capability, and giving Iran the choice between allowing inspections of their nuclear facilities or reintroduction of sanctions. While I see this plan or one similar to it having a high likelihood of passing, the larger question that remains is what level of effort President Trump will dedicate to ensuring the United States and our allies are unified in tackling the Iranian threat. The president’s capriciousness and lack of interest in the rudiments of diplomacy and statecraft certainly indicate a more pessimistic outcome in this area.

Despite these potential pitfalls, the almost reflexive reactions from ex-Obama administration officials taking aim at their usual targets show a similar unwillingness to admit the JCPOA’s failure to, as former Secretary of State John Kerry remarked, “[live] up to its expectations” and “[make] the world safer.” The Iranians clearly skipped over that part of the negotiations. If the argument from opponents of President Trump’s decision to decertify Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA rests on wanting to save face among the international community instead of doing what is in America’s strategic and national security interests, then Ben Rhodes is uncharacteristically correct in his assertion that defenders of the JCPOA are “saying things that validated what [the Obama administration] had given them to say.”

Call me a hard-headed skeptic, but I have a comparably hard time believing that Iran is concerned about our international credibility. This is no way to make effective foreign policy. Instead of being concerned with keeping the deal intact and letting the Iranians tie our hands to that effect, the move to decertify Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA and the beginning of a serious conversation about whether the deal is even repairable provide a good first step. It is now up to Congress and President Trump to right a lingering wrong of the Obama administration’s underestimation of the growing threat Iran poses to the Middle East, the United States, and the global order.