President Donald Trump has finally made his decision on how to manage an international nonproliferation agreement that he has vocally blasted as an embarrassment to the United States. And, if things don’t change over the next week, the president is expected to formally announce that continued implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is not in the national security interest. The issue would then be sent to Congress, where lawmakers, over a sixty day period, would be able to reimpose nuclear-related sanctions on Tehran with a simple majority vote.
By decertifying Iran’s compliance but continuing to waive nuclear sanctions for the time being, Trump has split the baby. He gets an opportunity to express how horrible he thinks the deal is and how amateurish the previous administration’s negotiators were while avoiding the diplomatic calamity that would result if he were to stop the sanctions relief. The decision is one giant public relations ploy for his base supporters because sanctions relief remains in place, and the administration will reportedly lobby Congress to not fiddle with the deal, decertification has no practical effect. It’s a way to satisfy the president’s ego.
Kicking the JCPOA’s future to a GOP Congress is a dangerous gambit. For many supporters of the accord, it’s too close for comfort. Congressional Republicans have such universal hatred of the JCPOA that one could easily picture Tom Cotton and Lindsey Graham foaming at the mouth, pen in hand, spewing from their Senate lecterns about why the U.S. can’t afford to continue an agreement that doesn’t permanently prevent Iran from a domestic enrichment program. We need to remember that not a single Republican voted for the JCPOA – not one – when Congress was debating the deal in September 2015. Arms control agreements are typically supported by bipartisan majorities; the Iran agreement, however, was seen by the GOP as such a travesty and such a political victory for Barack Obama that to support it would mean betraying the party.
Over the JCPOA’s first two years, however, some of the same Republicans who fought with everything they had to block the deal from passing are now questioning whether ripping it up and starting from scratch is worth the trouble. Senators Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), and also GOP Rep. Ed Royce (R-Ca.) have all spoken publicly that unless Tehran has engaged in a major breach, Washington shouldn’t play games with it. Despite what people at the American Enterprise Institute and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies say, there is no evidence to date that Iran has engaged in a major material breach. The Director of National Intelligence, the Defense Secretary, the Secretary of State, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and the Commander of America’s strategic nuclear weapons have all testified or spoken publicly that the JCPOA is effective and that Tehran is in technical compliance.
Trump’s decertification decision has nothing to do with the facts. This is a political judgment, not one based on an objective assessment of the evidence. Deep down in their heart of hearts, the president’s national security team – Jim Mattis, Rex Tillerson, Joe Dunford, H.R. McMaster – might view it the same way.