Facing an October 15 deadline for certifying the Iran nuclear agreement, President Donald Trump will soon unveil his decision about Iran’s nuclear program as well as his administration’s broader strategy for containing Iran’s aggressive foreign policy.
The Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015 requires that, every ninety days, the administration must certify—or decertify—both that Iran is still fully implementing the nuclear agreement and that it remains in the vital national interests of the United States to continue giving Iran sanctions relief.
The State Department twice certified the agreement in order to meet the ninety-day deadlines earlier this year, but President Trump has indicated he is reluctant to do so again. And it is virtually impossible to see how he could do so. Iran has proclaimed it will not permit inspections of its military bases; these inspections are both permitted and essential under the nuclear deal. Tehran’s stance is a far cry from “transparently, verifiably and fully implementing” the nuclear agreement, as specified under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act.
Moreover, it is increasingly difficult to certify that it is vital to the national security interests of the United States to continue granting billions of dollars of sanctions relief to this rogue regime. After all, it still arrests innocent American citizens to hold as hostages, orchestrates chants of “Death to America,” exports terrorism, threatens U.S. allies, harasses U.S. Navy warships in the Persian Gulf, and defies UN Security Council Resolutions on ballistic missile tests, arms imports and arms exports.
All of these actions violate the spirit, if not the letter, of the nuclear agreement. The crucial issue that President Trump must address in his speech is what comes after a decision to decertify the nuclear agreement. Will the Trump administration abrogate the agreement unilaterally or try to correct its flaws?
Nix it or fix it?
Decertification would not automatically kill the nuclear deal, but it would set the stage for reviewing the terms and results of the agreement. Congress would have sixty days to debate whether to restore nuclear-related sanctions lifted by the nuclear deal. Before that debate begins, the Trump administration must decide whether to walk away from the agreement or seek to correct its flaws through further negotiations.
Walking away from the agreement could allow Iran to have its cake and eat it, too. Tehran has already pocketed many of the benefits it negotiated—more than $100 billion in previously frozen assets, as well as increased oil revenues as a result of front-loaded sanctions relief. Cancelling the agreement would relieve the regime of fulfilling its obligations under the deal. Washington could reimpose U.S. sanctions, but could not count on the UN Security Council to reimpose and enforce UN sanctions unless Iran was found to be in material breach of the agreement.
The administration could also push for an inspection of the Parchin military base, where Iran was suspected of conducting illicit work to advance a nuclear weapons program. If Iran refused, UN sanctions would snap back.
The administration’s other option would be to try to renegotiate the agreement. It could request that Congress hold off on reimposing nuclear-related sanctions for a defined period of time until it becomes clear whether fixing the nuclear deal is possible. This clearly would be a difficult diplomatic goal. Tehran has refused to consider any renegotiation. But, once the administration has decertified the deal and Congress is poised to reapply sanctions, Tehran may reconsider its refusal to renegotiate.
To further enhance its diplomatic bargaining leverage, the administration could ask Congress to authorize the use of military force as a last resort if necessary to prevent an Iranian nuclear breakout. But renegotiating the nuclear agreement would be worthwhile only if it permanently barred Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and removed the sunset provisions in the current agreement that allow key restrictions on Iran’s uranium enrichment program to expire after ten years. At a minimum, this would require:
- Banning Iran from uranium-enrichment and plutonium-production activities;
- Dismantling substantial portions of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, particularly the Fordow and Natanz uranium-enrichment facilities and Arak heavy water reactor;
- Performing robust inspections on an “anytime anywhere” basis and real-time monitoring of Iranian nuclear facilities;
- Ensuring that Iran comes clean on its past weaponization efforts; and
- Determining a clear and rapid process for re-imposing all sanctions if Iran is caught cheating.
Time for a defining speech
Although the initial focus of the speech will be the question of certification of the nuclear deal, President Trump should use the speech as an opportunity to outline his strategy for containing, deterring and rolling back Iran on a broader set of issues beyond the nuclear question. The administration’s Iran policy review is almost complete. The president should anchor his announcement on certification within the framework of a comprehensive strategy for dealing with the wide spectrum of threats mounted by Iran’s Islamist dictatorship.
James Phillips is the senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs in The Heritage Foundation’s Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies.