President Donald Trump has ample reason, according to the provisions of the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA) of 2015, to withhold certification of the Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The legislation set out four criteria, all of which have to be met for the president to certify the agreement: full implementation of the deal; lack of a material breach of the deal; no attempt by Iran to advance its nuclear weapons program; and that the deal remains vital to U.S. national security interests.
On at least one of these criteria, and potentially all four, there are legitimate concerns. Most critically, the JCPOA does not prevent a nuclear Iran, it merely delays it and then helps create conditions conducive to the emergence of an Iranian nuclear weapons-capability. Moreover, Iran has attempted to cheat on the deal, and it has not allowed for full and robust inspections of all facilities. Taken together, all of this means that President Trump is justified in withholding certification.
However, just refusing to certify the JCPOA accomplishes little by itself. It does not mean that the United States is pulling out of JCPOA, it does not mean that previously lifted sanctions will be re-imposed on Iran, and it does not provide an answer to several enduring problems with JCPOA. The president’s decision not to certify the deal is, more than anything, an announcement that the current administration will not be tied to or limited by previous decisions made on Iran policy.
To protect the significant interests that the United States continues to have in the Middle East—in ensuring a reliable supply of oil from the Middle East to global markets, in countering terrorism, in opposing proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and in supporting the security and prosperity of its allies—any successful Iran policy should pursue some basic objectives and embrace certain fundamental principles:
Tamp Down on Low-Level Cheating
In multiple areas, Iran has attempted to exploit or create loopholes in the deal, transgressions that do not rise to the level of a “material breach” or warrant the snap-back of all previous sanctions. It is critical that policymakers devise an alternative to this all-or-nothing approach to punishing Iranian limit-pushing.
Ensure Full Implementation
Shortcomings in implementation and oversight undermine the effectiveness of JCPOA and limit the ability to judge whether or not Iran is in compliance with the deal. The IAEA needs to be encouraged to take on a more aggressive inspections mission.
Address Shortcomings of the Deal
For the JCPOA to fulfill the U.S. objective of preventing a nuclear Iran, it will have to be substantially expanded at some point. At the very least, current restrictions on Iran’s enrichment of uranium will have to be extended before they begin to sunset in 2026.
Counter Iran’s Destabilizing Activities in the Region
Iran is an aggressive state actor. Tehran’s pursuit of influence and territory across the Middle East represents a near-term threat to U.S. interests, allies, and credibility. Addressing concerns about Iran’s nuclear program and the shortcomings of the JCPOA cannot be done to the exclusion of dealing with these broader regional issues.
Put the Onus on Iran
Iran has draped itself in a veil of benevolence and compliance; President Trump needs to pierce that veil. Americans, U.S. allies, and Iranians must all understand that any action taken by the president is the direct result of Iranian wrongdoings.
Just decertifying the deal by itself could unnecessarily alienate U.S. partners. It might convince Europeans that Washington has no intention of honoring the JCPOA. And without a broader regional strategy, Middle Eastern leaders could conclude that the United States is not serious about protecting them. Such a scenario must be avoided at any cost. President Trump must convince U.S. allies and adversaries alike that the United States is a credible actor that stands by its commitments.
Prioritize Regional Stability
One way to convince U.S. partners to get on board with a new Iran policy is to focus that policy on Iran’s destabilizing and dangerous policies at home and abroad. By presenting Iran as the source of Middle Eastern upheaval and as an oppressive and dictatorial regime, Washington can more easily secure European cooperation and reassure Middle Eastern allies. More important, however, is that this approach gives the United States more flexibility for dealing with Iran’s nuclear program as well.
If the president were to withhold certification but then leave it up to Congress to decide whether to reapply sanctions, this would represent a counterproductive and unbalanced approach, one that abdicates too much executive power to the legislature. What is needed instead is a joint and cooperative approach between the president and Congress.