Monday will be remembered as the day the Senate Republican health care bill died a very miserable and painful death. But as the clock crept closer to midnight, another significant piece of policy news broke: for the time being, the Trump administration will continue to certify Iran’s compliance of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration.
For those who have been following Tehran’s implementation of the agreement since it was signed on July 14, 2015, the recertification didn’t come as a complete surprise. The agreement, warts and all, has to date worked as it was designed to work, providing such an expansive set of inspection and monitoring schemes that the ayatollahs would almost certainly be caught red-handed if they tried to get their nuclear program going again.
The International Atomic Energy Agency has filed a report on Iran’s conduct every three months, and in each one, the agency has assessed that the Iranian government’s commitment to the deal’s terms is adequate. The U.S. intelligence community has backed up the IAEA’s periodic assessments with its own reporting. In his Worldwide Threat Assessment submitted to Congress, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats wrote that “Iran’s implementation of the JCPOA has extended the amount of time Iran would need to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon from a few months to about a year.”
It would be really difficult for President Trump not to recertify the Iran deal, given all of the evidence, and it would be even more hairsplitting for administration officials to explain why Trump disagrees with his own DNI. Disregarding a multilateral nuclear watchdog is one thing; ignoring the evidence collected by America’s own intelligence services is quite another.
Apparently Trump despises the JCPOA to such an extent that his national security staff had to spent a few extra hours persuading him not to act contrary to the evidence. An administration official told reporters in a background press briefing that Trump “spent 55 minutes […] telling them he did not want to” give Tehran a passing grade. Yet in the end that’s what he did, with the caveat that his staff find other economic pressure points against the Iranian regime. Indeed, officials made a point of telling reporters that while Iran will get another 90-day reprieve, the White House isn’t at all happy about it.
It may have been painful for Trump to grant Tehran its second waiver in six months, but he can go to bed knowing he did the right thing. It would have been emotionally and politically satisfying for Trump to block the certification, a big step towards his campaign promise of tearing up the JCPOA and starting from scratch. Nobody in Washington would have been more excited than Trump advisor Senator Tom Cotton, who is even more hawkish on security issues than John McCain (and that’s a really high standard to clear).
But not recertifying the JCPOA would have run counter to everything the IAEA and the U.S. intelligence community have verified over the past two years: Iran’s nuclear program is a shell of what it once was, and while the Iranians would rather not have inspectors looking over their shoulders, they are continuing to keep many of their centrifuges locked up and their enriched uranium stockpile at a very low level. So, at least for now, Tehran prizes economic betterment more than nuclear physics. As long as that’s the case, the Trump administration should certify their compliance.